Draft science curriculum is not fit for the 21st century

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A science curriculum which doesn't teach puberty to primary pupils and ignores sexual disease, adolescence and hormones at key stage 3 is not fit for the 21st century, argues Dr Hilary Emery.

The government has set out its commendable ambition for an “open and honest culture about sex and relationships” in the new Framework for Sexual Health Improvement.

Many years ago, as an NQT, it fell to me to lead sex and relationships education (SRE) in a small rural primary school. What always struck me was how important it was for children to be able to talk about the things they were anxious or unsure about.

I always made sure after these lessons that I was on playground or lunch duty and invariably children would come to have conversations about things they wanted more information about.

As a society we need to be more willing to talk about these things. Even more so when explicit sexual images are easy to access and young people can end up with skewed perceptions and expectations. The new framework says boldly that “all” children and young people should have high-quality SRE at home and school.

It puts the onus on schools to design a curriculum that meets the needs of pupils. The status of SRE in the curriculum remains unchanged, however, and this has been reinforced by the outcome of the PSHE review, namely that PSHE will remain non-statutory.

Unfortunately, the bright ambition in the framework for a culture change may be undermined by proposed changes to the science national curriculum. In it, puberty is omitted from primary science so there is no guarantee that year 7 pupils will arrive with even a basic understanding of the changes they are going through.

At key stage 3, the removal of adolescence, sexual health and disease will leave biology teachers with almost no “sex education” to cover, except the challenge of teaching the function and structure of the reproductive systems “without details of hormones”.

There is a sense that the government lacks conviction that teaching facts about our bodies, growing up and sexual health are necessary at all. The Sex Education Forum (SEF) has called for a rethink.

Schools need to embrace the culture change individually too. Governors and senior leadership need to offer CPD so that specialist SRE or PSHE teachers can be supported and nurtured. Teachers can then set the tone for more open, honest and mature conversations with young people.

We also need to be prepared to take account of the issues that are worrying pupils. The SEF’s Are You Getting it Right? is a toolkit that can be used to consult pupils. The activities will help pinpoint topics that children see as high priority – this can strengthen the rationale to explore contemporary issues such as “sexting” within SRE.

Secondaries should check that they are following government SRE guidance (2000) which states that they should: “Teach about relationships, love and care and the responsibilities of parenthood as well as sex; provide young people with information about different types of contraception, safe sex and how they can access local sources of further advice and treatment; and ensure young people understand how the law applies to sexual relationships.”

There is plenty of evidence that young people need better SRE. Approximately a third say their SRE is bad or very bad; a quarter didn’t learn about HIV and AIDS at school. We need a joined up approach, with science and SRE sharing the same ambitions for young people to be informed, educated and supported to be safe and healthy. In this way they can become informed responsible individuals who are able to make sensible decisions.

  • Dr Hilary Emery is chief executive of the National Children’s Bureau. Visit www.ncb.org.uk

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