This Sex Education Forum campaign to raise awareness of and secure children and young people’s rights to relationships and sex education is needed now more than ever. I proudly confess to being optimistic by nature – a pint half full type of person. Despite this I am troubled at the lack of national political leadership on relationships and sex education. We know how much that leadership is required to make things happen.
The commitment from Labour in 2008 to make PSHE a statutory subject within the National Curriculum, had it come to fruition, would have been massive progress. But it was kicked out during the political horse trading that took place in the ‘pre election wash up of parliamentary business in 2010’. This ‘wash up’ marked the beginning of a time during which
- relationships and sex education has become re-politicised within national education policy and the media
- quality and quantity of RSE will be determined by leaders at local level.
A similar policy tension described by Rachel Thomson the first director of the Forum as ‘moral rhetoric versus public health pragmatism’ exists as it did in 1988 when the Forum was founded. Now, as then, across government RSE is held up on the one hand as vital to reducing teenage pregnancy, sexual exploitation and HIV, and on the other as a ‘sensitive issue’ and a time sponge which acts as a critical barrier to improving academic attainment.
Rachel established a consensus across the Forum membership about the why, what and how of school based sex education. The diversity of its membership enabled the SEF to do ground breaking work to address perennial challenges such as the relationship between religion, ethnicity and sex education. As director, Gill Frances took that consensus established on school based sex education to further build influence amongst stakeholders including policy makers and decision makers such as school governors. Gill also extended the Forum knowledge base beyond school settings into the youth work sector, as well as public care.
I had the privilege of leading the Sex Education Forum from 1999 – 2002. The SEF was an authoritative and trusted body operating in a positive policy environment that sought to deliver improvements in relationships and sex education.
The first parliamentary session after New Labour took office saw frenetic policy development and implementation. Major national initiatives created space for relationships and sex education to take the stage. Gay rights progressed particularly as related to young people made significant progress with the repeal of Section 28, the pernicious, badly formed legislation and the equalising the age of consent.
Fantastic progress, but not a substitute for making PSHE a statutory curriculum subject. Despite repeated recommendation from otherwise influential groups, Labour refused to make PSHE statutory when they had the chance to do so without political backlash from the electorate.
The Sex Education Forum started involving young people systematically to provide a platform for children and young people’s voice to be heard in policy making and produced The Charter for Sex and Relationships Education. The UK Youth Parliament published research showing the majority of young people thought their SRE was inadequate.
This led to a national PSHE review after which Jim Knight, Minister for Schools announced government would make PSHE a statutory subject. Two further unnecessary PSHE reviews later PSHE as a statutory curriculum subject is extremely unlikely anytime soon.
Right now the Department of Health probably offers our best hope of securing children’s entitlement to RSE in schools. The independent Children and Young People Health Outcomes Forum recommended that the National Curriculum Review ensures the improvement of health becomes a statutory aim of the National Curriculum. Watch this space.
With each year that PSHE continues to be patchy – excellent in some schools and ok or poor in too many – we fail to provide thousands of young people with the core skills, knowledge and values to manage their lives now and in the future. Now as always it is the collective voice of the Forum’s diverse membership that will be most convincing to the sceptics or opposers of RSE.
Brook was a founding member of the Forum and is increasingly concerned that the progress made since the Forum started is being eroded. Put the ear plugs in, its time to turn up the volume!
Simon Blake OBE
Chief Executive, Brook
Director, Sex Education Forum 1999 – 2002