Sex and relationships education (SRE) is a subject I have discussed before, but one I feel compelled to return to. With existing Department for Education (DfE) guidance out of step with the internet age, a statutory requirement only to address a few biological aspects of sex education in science, and a lack of consistency in how the subject is taught, children are being denied a source of reliable information about growing up. But the desire for change is palpable, and schools should reflect the zeitgeist by taking stock of their own SRE policy.
The Liberal Democrats have made a manifesto pledge to make SRE compulsory from age seven and Labour say they want the subject to start from key stage 1. Meanwhile, the Education Select Committee is considering whether or not PSHE ought to be statutory, and will investigate the quality of SRE teaching. The committee will hopefully think long and hard about the shadow cast by child sexual abuse uncovered in Rotherham and by Operation Yewtree.
High-quality SRE can be part of the solution, empowering children and young people to understand consent and inappropriate behaviour and giving them the vocabulary to speak up about abuse. Schools can make this link clear when they set out their aims and values for SRE in their policy.
Relationships are at the heart of school life, and SRE can be fundamental in nurturing an understanding of equal, safe and enjoyable relationships. It is also vital that school SRE provides young people with information to support good sexual health.
A school’s SRE policy should cover both the content and organisation of SRE taught outside of national curriculum science. Guidance published by the DfE in 2000 requires all maintained schools to have an SRE policy available for inspection, that the policy should be created in consultation with parents to reflect the concerns of the wider community, and that it is reviewed regularly. But are all schools following these requirements?
A survey of SRE teachers earlier this year by the Sex Education Forum (SEF) suggests schools may be falling short: six per cent said their school had no SRE policy at all and only half had updated their policy in the last two years. This is unacceptable considering how the needs of pupils may shift rapidly, for example if a cohort of pupils starts exhibiting risky behaviour in their use of social media.
Pupils’ level of understanding and their own learning priorities can be pinpointed through needs identification exercises, as outlined in new guidance for schools published by the SEF with support from Leicestershire County Council. An accompanying activity pack includes participatory activities that can be used with pupils. Evidence from these activities can be shared with parents and staff to help review a school’s SRE programme and update the policy.
At the same time parents must be consulted. This may feel daunting if there has been very little dialogue between the school and parents about SRE before, but a simple survey can help gauge parents’ views and opinions. A HPV vaccination programme or an e-safety campaign may also provide a useful hook to open up a wider dialogue about SRE.
The review process should also involve staff. By seeking the views of those who support, teach or lead on PSHE, citizenship, science, SEN and religious education you will find out what is needed – including staff support needs – and identify how to link your SRE policy with other school policies on, for example, bullying, safeguarding and confidentiality.
If schools are able to audit their current SRE practice and follow a structured review process that involves parents, pupils, staff and governors, the results will amply repay the effort involved.
Further informationFor activities for consulting about your school SRE policy, see www.sexeducationforum.org.uk
Annamarie Hassall is interim chief executive and director of programmes at National Children’s Bureau.