Posted 6th Nov 2014
This autumn has seen a period of intense parliamentary and campaigning activity for better sex and relationships education (SRE). The Caroline Lucas Bill and Diana Johnson Bill have proposed legislative change to guarantee that SRE is a subject taught in every school – both Bills have a second reading scheduled. A key focus of the Education Select Committee inquiry into personal, social, health and economic (PSHE) education and SRE is whether or not the subject ought to be statutory, and the consensus amongst the witnesses giving oral evidence recently is that it should. Nicky Morgan, the Secretary of State for Education, has shown encouraging interest in PSHE and promised to think about whether or not its status should change.
The possibility of legislative change is indeed exciting. It would guarantee that every state-funded school plans and delivers a programme of SRE; it would trigger investment in training for teachers in the subject, including a specialist route via initial teacher training, and thus improve quality. Good quality SRE will also be motivated by an accountability structure, for example an adapted Ofsted framework.
The Sex Education Forum has been campaigning for this combination of measures (statutory status, teacher training and accountability) through our ‘SRE – It's my right’ campaign', and we have the support of children’s, health, disability, education, family and religious organisations. The voices backing statutory SRE also include the National Union of Students, Everyday Sexism, and a coalition of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) organisations and media.
While keeping our faith in the necessity and possibility of legislative change in the near future, it is also important to keep one foot firmly on the pedal to improve practice at a school and local authority level.
In preparing to give evidence at the Select Committee in October, I consulted six local authorities, all core member organisations of the Sex Education Forum. In each case there were challenges to coordinating action to improve SRE across the locality; particularly the diverse school types and lack of time allocated for SRE provision within the school curriculum. But there were also common themes to the successes. Invariably, where parents had been invited to be part of conversations about changes to improve SRE in a school there was a legacy of sustained change and improvement. In many cases expert advisors from the local authority had supported schools on a one-to-one basis to start those conversations. It was common for an advisor to help a school plan and run a parent workshop, with as many as 60 parents attending a session. One of the vital ingredients for any workshop was giving parents an active task for them to take part in, for example being asked to prioritise the aims of SRE. The task will have helped parents see how the content of SRE is designed to protect and nurture their children. The feedback from another authority was that after implementing changes to increase and improve SRE in one primary school where there had been little or no provision before, the support from parents increased year by year as SRE became a regular and openly discussed aspect of school life. In a third authority all schools are offered a package of teaching materials, teacher training and support for parent and governor meetings. The teaching materials include activities that pupils can take home and look at with parents.
Every child has a right to SRE, and yet it is often ill-founded fears held by adults that prevent us from getting on and teaching it. National surveys show that the majority of parents want schools to provide SRE (88% in a National Association of Head Teachers survey in 2013) and several teaching unions have been outspoken in their support for the subject. Yet schools are often surprised when they discover that their parent community wants to see SRE on offer too. After all, good quality SRE teaches children about bodily boundaries, the difference between inappropriate and appropriate behaviour, how to get help, preparation for puberty and at a later stage about good sexual health.
The local authorities I consulted with may be exceptional in that they have invested in expert advisors, continued to work with both academies and maintained schools and have provided in depth and individualised support to schools in their area over a period of several years. However, the benefits they are reaping repay this relatively modest investment. The evidence is clear that if young people receive good quality and comprehensive SRE they are more likely to use contraception, to have sex for the first time at an older age and to have fewer sexual partners. The government quotes this evidence in the Department of Health Framework for Sexual Health Improvement (2013).
There are lots of ways we can act now to improve SRE. For a start, find out if your local authority or organisation is a member of the Sex Education Forum. We support our members with good practice materials and also a platform for collaborative action. Secondly, find out if there is a strategy to improve SRE in your area and what is known about the quality of provision in local schools. A combination of national collaboration and local conversation may be all that is needed to unblock fears and get on with the business of providing good quality SRE.
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