Last month, MPs from across the political spectrum added their voices to the groundswell of support for “life lessons” to be a statutory part of the curriculum. The Education Select Committee, having heard evidence from teachers, policy experts, charities, faith groups and local authorities, finally pronounced that they “accept the argument that statutory status is needed for PSHE, with sex and relationships education (SRE) as a core part of it”. The committee has now called for all primary and secondary schools to teach the subjects.
Of course, its report provides only recommendations and with the election looming ministers have unsurprisingly kicked the issue into the long grass with a promise to “consider the findings carefully”. However, the next government will have a duty to respond to the committee and outline its position.
The PSHE Association estimates that statutory PSHE is supported by nearly 90 per cent of teachers and parents, this was echoed by a Sex Education Forum survey that found more than three-quarters of parents want their children to learn about the difference between safe and unwanted touch at primary school.
In January, the National Union of Students added its endorsement when it published results of a survey of 2,500 students asking their opinion of SRE – nine in 10 think it should be statutory. For these young people the gaps in teaching about relationships are fresh in their memory. Two-thirds said consent was never touched upon in their SRE class, with relationships covered for less than half, and not even a fifth discussed lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues in SRE. More than a third felt their SRE did not rate positively on equality and diversity.
Such oversights are hardly surprising considering the confusing status of SRE in the curriculum. Primary schools are not required to provide SRE beyond the most basic biology, and there is no requirement to teach anatomically correct names for genitalia or to explain the difference between abusive and acceptable behaviour. In secondary schools, pupils must learn about HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases but important issues such as consent and what constitutes sexual coercion are at the discretion of schools, with academies and free schools allowed even greater leeway.
Schools do have to pay “due regard” to government guidance on sex and relationships dating back to 2000. But its contents can seem woefully outdated to schools that are dealing with emerging issues such as sexting and addressing issues to do with pornography and internet safety.
Future support for schools must give high priority to better training for teachers. The committee heard that a key aspect in providing high-quality PSHE and SRE is supporting the workforce with specialist training. While giving evidence, Ofsted suggested that the non-statutory nature of PSHE may contribute to poor teaching as there is less funding or incentive for the subject to be covered in initial teacher training.
Similarly, improvements can be made in the number of teachers holding qualifications earned through CPD: a survey for the Department for Education (DfE) in 2011 found that only 28 per cent of primary and 45 per cent of secondary schools had one or more staff holding nationally accredited PSHE qualifications. The committee has called on the DfE to restore funding for a national CPD programme, with the aim that all primary and secondary schools have at least one teacher who has received specialist training in PSHE.
Children themselves tell us time and time again that they want better teaching on a range of topics covered by PSHE, whether this is discussing sex and relationships, how to deal with bullying, staying physically and mentally healthy, or how to manage their finances – we urgently need to legislate so that these needs are met.
Further informationThe Sex Education Forum is campaigning for legislation to make SRE a compulsory part of PSHE. Visit www.sexeducationforum.org.uk
Anna Feuchtwang is chief executive of the National Children’s Bureau. Visit www.ncb.org.uk