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
Happy birthday to the Sex Education Forum – congratulations and well done for 25 years of service. I was there at the beginning of the Forum and hope we finally succeed to secure SRE for all of our children and young people before I die.
Mum was a family planner who made sure I knew about sex because she was appalled by young people’s lack of knowledge. I arrived in London in 1967, cut 10 inches off my skirt and almost immediately became an informal and untrained peer sex educator. My long career in sex education had begun!
Looking back, there is much to celebrate. We have been successful in getting sex education guidance produced, getting rid of the hateful Section 28, developing resources for primary schools and the care sector, addressing SRE for boys, considering faith and culture issues of SRE and supporting the teenage pregnancy strategy.
Nonetheless in 2012 we are still letting young people down, many lack the knowledge, skills or confidence needed to negotiate safer, mutually respectful and enjoyable relationships. I am horrified at the number of young women who experience violence in their relationships, at the level of homophobic and transgender bullying in our schools and communities and I am disappointed that teenage pregnancy (although reducing) and sexually transmitted infection (including HIV) rates are still unacceptably high.
It makes me furious that we are still arguing for SRE. The last government failed to make SRE statutory while the current government panders to a highly vocal minority who support inequality, abstinence education, independent counselling for women seeking an abortion, and creationism teaching in school.
We know what works in reducing teenage pregnancy and improving sexual health and wellbeing. We have a strong and irrefutable consensus in support of SRE; young people want it, so do their parents, teachers and health professionals.
We have to get active again, get organised and make a noise. So let’s support the Sex Education Forum’s new campaign ‘Sex Ed Matters’, write our own blogs, get on Twitter, write to and visit our MP and contact every head and chair of governors in all schools in our local area.
We cannot sit by and let yet another generation of young people grow up without good quality SRE. I am just going to nag my MP again and put something on Twitter – what are you going to do?
Gill Frances OBE, Sex Education Forum Director 1996-99
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
Sex Ed Matters…
From this November the Sex Education Forum (SEF) celebrates 25 glorious years, having been formally launched in 1987. Over those last 25 years SEF has been instrumental in a number of key changes that have improved the provision of sex and relationships education. However the loss of statutory PSHE education in the wash-up prior to the last General Election has created a vacuum that some have used as an opportunity to try and chip away at sector confidence.
SEF therefore feels that both the sector and the wider community need a timely reminder of what our members have been saying for years; and to do this we are launching our ‘Sex Ed Matters’ Social Media Campaign to show that Sex Education does matter. We believe that all children and young people are entitled to quality sex and relationships education that equips children and young people with the information, skills and values they need to have safe, fulfilling and enjoyable relationships and to take responsibility for their sexual health and well being.
Why ‘Sex Ed’ matters
Over the years many practitioners have recognised the fact that sex education is more than biology, it’s about relationships too, and so many organisations, including SEF, have started calling it Sex and Relationships Education (SRE), or Relationships and Sex Education (RSE) or indeed Comprehensive Sexuality Education (CSE), or for younger age groups; Growing Up, to name but a few variations. In reality it doesn’t matter what it is called as long as it is happening. The general public, including the media, often call it sex education and it is important that we make sure that everyone understands what we mean when we say ‘Sex Education Matters’.
Recognising that sex education starts in the home, and that children will start learning about the names of body parts, where babies come from and about what a family is, way before school, is the first step to understanding what we actually mean by sex education. Most children will know that there are differences between boys and girls, mummies and daddies, and so on. Some will pick up messages from their family, others will be from cartoons, TV programmes, stories and films, some will be positive, others counterproductive, but they will all be building a picture for that small child about what boys and girls do or are expected to do and behave in our society, towards each other and themselves.
‘Sex Ed Matters’ because it is more than the biology of reproduction; it is about relationships, about emotions, and growing up. Humans are not robots, we do not just function on a biological level, we function on feelings too, feelings that drive us to engage with each other, to develop friendships, bonds with other humans, that, as we got older, may develop intimately into sexual relationships. Young people want to learn about relationships, they want to know how you show people you love them, without having sex, without the consequences of an STI or a unwanted pregnancy, and to know that when they do make that decision that there are services that can help and support them without breaking their confidentiality, that believes in them as young people to be making the right decisions for them and to make sure they are offered support if they’re being pressured, or abused or exploited.
So when we talk about ‘Sex Ed Matters’ we’re not just talking about sexual activity; we’re talking about gender, we’re talking about biological cells, we’re talking about evolution, we’re talking about relationships, negotiation, consent, puberty, families, friends, and much, much more, and there are very few people out there that wouldn’t want children to be taught about sex without it being in the context of relationships to keep children and young people safe.
See our website for why our members say ‘Sex Ed Matters’ or leave a comment below.
In November 2012 the Sex Education Forum (SEF) will turn 25 years old! Over the next 12 months we will be blogging about our campaign ‘Sex Ed Matters’ and host a variety of guest bloggers who will contribute to the campaign of why Sex Ed Matters along with reflections of the progress of the SEF and Sex and Relationships Education (SRE) over the last 25 years.
Alongside this blog we will also be launching our Facebook Page as well as our new look website, along with regular tweets via our twitter account.
So make sure to follow/like/share us and keep up to date on why ‘Sex Ed Matters’!