Statutory Sex Education is not the Solution

There is certainly a problem in our schools, but statutory sex education is not the solution

In the light of the recent announcement we publish an article by Family Education Trust director, Norman Wells, as he responds to calls to put sex and relationships education on the curriculum in all schools

Not so long ago, it was being claimed that statutory sex and relationships education (SRE) in schools holds the key to reducing teenage pregnancy rates and the incidence of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) among young people. But it is rare to hear that claim being advanced today. The argument that has come to the fore over recent months is that providing compulsory SRE in all schools from the age of four is the only sure way to keep children safe from sexual harassment and sexual violence.

According to the chief executive of Barnardo’s, Javed Khan: ‘Compulsory SRE lessons for all children must be introduced as soon as possible – it will help prevent children being groomed and sexually exploited.’

In its much-publicised report on sexual harassment and sexual violence in schools, the House of Commons Women and Equalities Committee asserted that: ‘Good quality SRE is shown to have a positive impact in helping to reduce sexual harassment and sexual violence.’

Columnist and human rights activist, Joan Smith, who co-chairs the Mayor of London’s Violence Against Women and Girls Panel, suggests that the demand for a change in the law is well-nigh universal. She writes that Theresa May and her Cabinet:

“have…been told by just about everyone that the best way to keep children safe is to insist that every school in the country teaches high-quality…SRE and the broader subject of personal, social, health and economic (PSHE) education – no ifs, no buts, and no exemptions for faith schools.”

Fever pitch
Over recent weeks calls for compulsory sex education in all schools have reached fever pitch. Barely a week goes by without campaigners identifying or creating an additional hook on which to hang yet another headline to put further pressure on the government. And in Parliament itself, every effort is being made to keep the issue on the boil.

  • On 10 January, Stella Creasy MP moved an amendment to the Children and Social Work Bill at committee stage;
  • Ten days later Caroline Lucas MP spoke in support of her Personal, Social, Health and Economic Education (Statutory Requirement) Bill;
  • The following week saw Maria Miller MP, chair of the House of Commons Women & Equalities committee, initiate an adjournment debate on sex and relationship education; and
  • Just over a week later, Diana Johnson MP secured a Westminster Hall debate on statutory sex and relationships education.

The sex education lobby anticipates that further opportunities to make the case for compulsory SRE in Parliament may be limited in the foreseeable future. As Stella Creasy has written, ‘With the maelstrom of Brexit, it is difficult to see this being considered a priority for additional Parliamentary time. Thus legislative opportunities to actually make SRE happen are few and far between.’


Major problem
No one doubts that sexual harassment and violence is a major problem in many schools. And no one denies the challenges presented by the ready availability of online pornography and the relatively new phenomenon of ‘sexting’. But is there any evidence that teaching SRE to every pupil in every school will put everything right?

The type of sex education favoured by advocates of making the subject a compulsory part of the curriculum in all schools (see article below) is already being taught in many of our schools, but still the problem of sexual harassment persists. In fact, the evidence from recent serious case reviews suggests that the relativistic approach advocated by the leading campaigners for statutory sex education is not the solution, but is rather part of the problem.

With its emphasis on sexual pleasure divorced from the context of a lifelong loving union, the comprehensive sex education favoured by the Sex Education Forum and its associated groups creates in young people the expectation that they will have a series of casual sexual relationships. As the social commentator, Cassandra Hough has remarked: ‘It is no wonder that the hookup/friends-with-benefits/anything-goes sexual culture has become normalised among today’s emerging adults.’5


Moral confusion
It is within that culture that child sexual exploitation has been allowed to go undetected, and vulnerable young people have found themselves without the protection they desperately need.

A serious case review published by the Bristol Safeguarding Children Board last year notes ‘an underlying confusion for practitioners in distinguishing between underage but consensual sexual activity between peers and child sexual abuse and sexual exploitation’.6 But that confusion does not exist in a vacuum. It is rather ‘rooted in the complex and contradictory cultural, legal and moral norms around sexuality, and in particular teenage sexual experimentation’.7 Put simply, a major part of the problem lies in the moral confusion that has resulted from an abandonment of moral absolutes.

The same theme features in the 2015 serious case review into child sexual exploitation in Oxfordshire. Having made the observation that there were times when ‘confidentiality was put before protection’,8 the report suggests that for at least some professionals this related to ‘a reluctance to take a moral stance on right and wrong, and seeing being non-judgmental as the overriding principle’. The Oxfordshire report further states that: ‘[T]here was…an acceptance of a degree of underage sexual activity that reflects a wider societal reluctance to consider something “wrong”,’ and argues that ‘action to prevent harm’ should always take precedence over ‘action to be non-judgmental’.


In a most telling comment, the report notes that ‘the reluctance in many places, both political and professional, to have any firm statements about something being “wrong”’ is among the factors that create ‘an environment where it is easier for vulnerable young people/children to be exploited. It also makes it harder for professionals to have the confidence and bravery to be more proactive on prevention and intervention.’9

In the light of these observations from the serious case reviews, we should be wary of any approach to sex and relationships education that is reluctant to declare anything ‘wrong’. Children, young people and professionals alike all need a clear moral compass in order to safely negotiate the confused and confusing landscape that lies before them.

This article was supplied by the Family Education Trust and is used by kind permission


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