In 2013, Ofsted reported the provision of PSHE, including sex and relationship education (SRE), was “Not yet good enough…”, and yet proposals increasing access to quality SRE and PSHE in all schools and ages are still under debate. In a dynamic, fast-paced world where young people face a multitude of pressures, the issue of appropriate SRE has been repeatedly ignored by politicians, with young people being denied access to vital information which could dramatically affect their futures. With child grooming and abuse scandals rocking the nation, are the government’s policies on SRE and PSHE safeguarding or endangering our young people?
In some schools, PSHE is integrated into the curriculum to the benefit of the students; however, these tend to be exceptions to the rule. The quality of sex and relationship education varies greatly due to government policy: currently, SRE is only compulsory from the age of 11 onwards in state schools, is not mandatory for academies or faith schools, and parents are allowed to withdraw their children from the classes until they reach 15. This approach creates problems across the spectrum. Firstly, a lack of SRE in primary schools means children are unprepared to understand and cope with physical and emotional challenges such as the onset of puberty or sexual harassment – a phenomenon troublingly frequent in the school environment. Indeed, the growing sophistication of younger children creates challenges that existing guidance on teaching SRE does not cater for. Outdated by at least 14 years, the guidelines can leave young people vulnerable to the dangers of sexting, pornography and grooming as these issues are either ‘forgotten’ or tackled by staff ill-equipped to deal with them. In a climate where young people are increasingly vulnerable in situations both on- and off-line and one in three girls report “unwanted touching”, the current system is inadequate at informing and protecting children from a young age and requires urgent reform.
Not only does the policy discourage SRE in primary schools, but the government’s focus on academic attainment leads some secondary schools to classify SRE as a non-academic subject, and consequentially forces students to rely almost exclusively on information taught in science. This approach can generate a disproportionate focus on physical changes, with insufficient attention given to emotions, values and different relationship forms, which is concerning given that the toughest challenges are increasingly psychological. How can a science class adequately prepare a young person for understanding consent? For fostering respect? Challenging homophobia? Sex and relationship education is far more than a biology lesson; it should create a safe space for young people to ask about sexuality, explore society’s attitudes and know about safe sex. The most powerful weapon against evils such as sexual exploitation is education, empowering young people to recognise danger say ‘no’. Yet when key information about healthy relationships is regularly denied them, how can the government argue they are keeping our young people safe?
Ofsted found PSHE to be inadequate or in need of improvement in 40% of schools.
As PSHE is not statutory there are few accredited specialist teachers in SRE or citizenship, causing schools to frequently rely on disinterested, ill-informed tutors and occasional external talks. Young people can therefore be exposed to a toxic cocktail of poor quality information, providing inadequate preparation for today’s world and discouraging them from discussing important issues openly. Making PSHE a statutory requirement in all schools would increase the quality of tuition by creating a standardised framework to support teachers receiving regular reviews and updates. This would ensure that the needs of young people are met in a world complicated by technology and changing social attitudes. Rather than placing a burden upon schools, a flexible framework taught by qualified specialist teachers and backed by a government-led support network could easily provide relevant and high quality material to engage and inform young people. This move would reward both schools and society by creating well rounded, informed and independent citizens empowered to take control of their lives, and potentially alleviate a range of issues including sexual violence against women, rapid transmission of STDs, domestic abuse, teenage pregnancies, and the high divorce rate.
Despite not being an academic subject, PSHE provides students with life skills which affect their lives as much as their grades. If the education system is designed, in the words of Ed Balls, “to prepare young people for adult life”, then how can basic lessons on positive relationships, sexual health and puberty be omitted? SRE in schools urgently needs reforming to provide an age-appropriate, balanced curriculum for all, reform which must come from a government-led initiative in consultation with young people to provide the quality, long term support they need. No longer should the future of Britain’s young people wait on the political sidelines, but instead be leading the political headlines.