Make sex education compulsory in primary schools, say MPs

Adi Bloom

Sex education must be mandatory in primary and secondary schools, with teachers trained to deliver the subject properly, MPs have said.

Primary children should be taught the proper names for genitalia as well as receiving information to keep them healthy and safe, the MPs recommend in a new report.

Life Lessons: PSHE and SRE in schools, published today, criticises a lack of action by the government to improve PSHE after Ofsted’s verdict in 2013 that the subject required improvement in 40 per cent of schools.

Since the Ofsted report was published, the education select committee has heard evidence from sex-education and PSHE specialists, as well as from teachers, parents and pupils.

“Young people consistently report that the sex and relationships education (SRE) they receive is inadequate,” the Life Lessons report states. “Yet the government’s strategy for improving PSHE is weak. There is a mismatch between the priority that the government claims it gives to PSHE, and the steps it has taken to improve the quality of teaching in the subject.”

The most recent official government guidance on delivering sex and relationships education is 14 years old. The committee heard that the rise of social media, increasing access to pornography and new trends such as “sexting” have changed the way that pupils learn and think about sex.

The MPs have therefore called for the subject to be made statutory, with SRE education a core part of it.

At the moment, primary schools do not have to provide SRE, beyond the biological basics covered by the science curriculum. Secondary schools have to cover issues such as sexually transmitted diseases, but academies are under no obligation to offer SRE.

Statutory status for PSHE would help to secure funding for teacher training, ensuring that the subject is taught by teachers prepared to tackle topics such as sexuality and domestic violence in the classroom, MPs believe.

Joe Hayman, chief executive of the PSHE Association, told the committee: “As a non-statutory, non-examined subject, it is perhaps unsurprising that there is lower demand for PSHE-trained teachers than there is for teachers of statutory, examined subjects.”

MPs have also called for SRE to be renamed “relationships and sex education”. This would reinforce the importance of relationships over the biological mechanics of sex, they say.

In addition, they argue that the government should officially endorse new guidance for sex and relationships education, produced last year by various sex education and sexual health organisations.

In particular, MPs recommend that primary-school children should be taught the proper names for genitalia. Ofsted has argued that young children’s inability to name body parts presents a risk to their safety, as “younger pupils had not always learned…what kind of physical contact is acceptable and what is unacceptable.”

Lucy Emmerson, coordinator of the Sex Education Forum, said: “It is clear that many children and young people go through school without getting vital, age-appropriate information about their bodies, what is right and wrong in relationships, consent and sexual health.

“The fact remains that SRE is neglected in too many schools, and teachers want more training to teach this vital subject properly.”

Parents would retain their right to withdraw children from elements of sex education lessons under the new proposals. Schools would also be required to organise regular consultations with parents, with this community engagement being inspected by Ofsted.

Although most teachers’ unions have welcomed the report, Brian Lightman, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, questioned the decision to increase Ofsted inspection of the subject.

“We agree that the views of parents should be considered,” he said. “However, we would not want to see this become yet another bureaucratic burden. School leaders are best placed to judge how consultation with parents should happen.”

Read the Life Lessons report here.

Related stories:

Sex education: if you can't defeat porn, take the harm out of it - 28 February 2014

Porn fills the gaps left by sex education, say young people - 29 January 2015

"What do we want? Sex!" - 31 January 2014

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Adi Bloom

Adi Bloom is Tes comment editor

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