In 1986 a copy of Jenny lives with Eric and Martin, probably the first English-language children’s book to discuss homosexuality, was discovered in a school library in London. Hysterical outbursts in the press against school sex education and teaching about homosexuality followed and led to legislation to restrict school sex education and the infamous Section 28.
I’d just begun work at the National Children’s Bureau as Company Secretary and Director of Finance and Administration. Horrified by these events, I was deeply concerned that FPA and Brook were the only voices of reason, often dismissed with ‘well they would say that wouldn’t they’. So I set out to build an alliance to support children’s right to sex education in schools.
In November 1987 the Sex Education Forum was born with eight members including three religious organisations. Not the usual suspects at all. Journalists were sceptical that we could agree about much, and certainly not about teaching about topics such as homosexuality and abortion. How wrong they were.
Teachers though responded enthusiastically. At the launch conference they talked movingly about their feelings of isolation and frustration at the lack of support for their work. It was clear that influencing public policy and providing practical advice were both essential. And early work included how to develop a school policy and different religions’ attitudes to sex and relationships.
The arrival of the Labour government in 1997 kindled great hopes of major progress, which were partially realized. The Teenage Pregnancy Strategy drove improvement by bringing investment and greater recognition and training for PSHE teachers. But it was focused on health outcomes, reducing conception rates and the incidence of STIs among young people, and not educational aims.
And despite overwhelming evidence from young people about the patchy provision of sex education and PSHE in schools, shillyshallying by Ministers squandered the opportunity to make PSHE compulsory.
Back in 1987, who could have imagined the SEF as the large and influential body it is today. It has achieved so much. Sex education is in embedded in many more schools, PSHE is recognised as a discipline and teachers can draw on high quality training and materials.
But children and young people are caught between the widespread availability of pornographic websites and the forces of reaction that make primary school sex education and any discussion of sexual pleasure controversial issues.
They need the Sex Education Forum as much today as in 1987 and we must keep fighting for their rights.
Anne Weyman, Sex Education Forum Founder and President