As the end of the summer term draws closer, I’d like to return to a favourite topic – sex and relationships education (SRE). After years of neglect and confusion, the teaching of SRE is finally getting the scrutiny it deserves.
With Cameron, Clegg and Miliband all recently stating that SRE is of vital importance, and with the Education Select Committee currently considering if the subject should be incorporated into statutory PSHE, we may be closer than ever to guaranteeing every pupil has a chance to get a broad understanding of how to build healthy and equal relationships and learn medically correct information about their bodies. SRE’s hour is tantalisingly close.
The problem with the way SRE is currently provided is that the range and quality of teaching is a lottery. Ofsted’s aptly titled report Not Yet Good Enough found that teaching of SRE is inadequate in a third of schools. This is hardly surprising when the majority of teachers tasked with leading SRE classes have not had appropriate, subject-specific training, and the Department for Education (DfE) only requires a handful of the more biological topics to be addressed. Sadly this means that some schools do the bare minimum, and academies can opt-out altogether.
When SRE is neglected it leaves gaping holes. If pupils approaching puberty don’t learn the proper names of sexual parts of the body, and those in secondary school are taught little or nothing about consensual relationships or sexual health, we are failing in our duty to both safeguard pupils and prepare them for adult life.
The select committee has the opportunity to transform the experience of pupils by recommending that the subject becomes a statutory part of PSHE. This would allow SRE to have an equal footing with other subjects, for learning to be assessed, and the quality of teaching to be subject to inspection. It would allow the subject to be taught by properly trained teachers and given sufficient time to address issues including domestic violence, exploitation and pornography. And all schools, including primaries and academies, could be required to provide a balanced programme of SRE.
The committee’s report will be vital in prompting the DfE into action. While there has been some recent progress on the existing curriculum, recent changes have removed the duty to teach about sexual health in key stage 3 science. No wonder Lucy Emmerson, a campaigner at the Sex Education Forum (SEF), says the overall picture is muddling.
Teachers need to feel confident and supported by their school leadership when addressing the complex and often controversial issues that students need to address to help them understand how to develop healthy, respectful and safe relationships.
To clarify matters, the SEF, sexual health charity Brook, and the PSHE Association developed their own advice. Sex and Relationships Education for the 21st Century tackles some of the most challenging issues that can be raised in SRE classes: such as how to explain the dangers of sexting, how to make classes LGBT inclusive, and how to deal with issues like sexual consent and violence in relationships. The subjects it covers are those which Ofsted say are neglected.
However, the guidance received a lukewarm welcome from ministers, so this month, the SEF, with the support of a range of organisations, including Girl Guiding UK and Relate, is launching the It’s My Right campaign, calling on all political parties to make manifesto commitments guaranteeing SRE is given the statutory status it deserves. With next year’s election on the horizon and the Education Select Committee ideally placed to reform SRE, now is the moment for us all to be voicing our support for SRE.