Seize the initiative with sex education

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The new curriculum has got itself into a muddle about the place and extent of sex and relationships education, which risks leaving young people unprepared. Dr Hilary Emery explains.

At the beginning of September, and with very little fanfare, the Department for Education (DfE) announced the new national curriculum laying out how most subjects will be taught from 2014.

There are still several issues that need ironing out, not least how this new curriculum will be assessed. The DfE’s support for assessment largely through examination alone looks likely to further disadvantage already marginalised pupils, such as those with complex health conditions or SEN.

But it is perhaps in addressing sex education in the science curriculum (the only subject in which sex education is a statutory requirement) where the new curriculum appears to have got itself most worryingly into a muddle – which could leave young people inadequately equipped to make important decisions in their personal lives. Schools should be aware of these short-comings and act to create their own rounded programme of sex and relationships education (SRE).

For example, in March the Department of Health published its strategy for improving sexual health in England, aiming to ensure “everyone is able to make informed and responsible choices about relationships and sex”. Why then has sexual health been dropped from the secondary science curriculum? Minister Elizabeth Truss has said schools should teach about sexual health as part of reproduction, but more guidance on this in the curriculum itself would have been helpful.

After all, reproduction explains the mechanics but sexual health is a much broader subject including contraception, pregnancy and abortion, the prevention and treatment of sexually transmitted diseases, fertility and infertility, which in turn sit within a wider context of relationship-building.

Sexual health is only part of the picture in a balanced SRE programme and Ofsted, in its report Not Yet Good Enough, found that many secondary schools tended to shy away from difficult topics such as domestic violence, homophobia, sexual exploitation and pornography.

While challenging, these needn’t be impossible to teach about. However, if SRE is not seen as a vital part of the curriculum why should schools invest in suitable training and development for their teachers and make enough space in the timetable for teaching it?

Outside the science curriculum, all schools must have due regard to the SRE guidance produced by the government in 2000. However, it is badly out-of-date in relation to the impact of social media and the internet. For example, there is no mention of sexting or pornography, leaving teachers unprepared when these issues are raised by children.

The slimmed down curriculum is intended to be flexible, and in any case does not apply to academies, so schools should devise a curriculum that meets the needs of their pupils. Schools can use the Sex Education Forum’s toolkit Are you getting it right? to consult with pupils on what they want to learn and its Curriculum Design Tool to plan what should be taught and when. There is, at least, clear content on HIV and hormones in the proposed GCSE subject content (we are still awaiting the final version) and there is nothing to stop schools from introducing teaching about HIV and hormones earlier on.

As teachers prepare for the curriculum changes in 2014, they should be encouraged by public support for high-quality SRE: in a poll by Opinium, the subject (alongside biology and ICT) was voted the most beneficial in life beyond school. Schools should see the statutory curriculum as the starting point for their programmes and build on it to provide the rounded education that children and parents are calling for. 

  • Dr Hilary Emery is chief executive of the National Children’s Bureau. For more on all aspects of sex and relationships education, visit www.sexeducationforum.org.uk


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