Is statutory sex education destined to fail?

9th February 2018 at 00:00
Campaigners and teachers are concerned that the new provision will let down a generation of pupils who face challenges such as sexting and online grooming. Adi Bloom reports

It has, by any measure, been a drawn-out process. For at least two decades, sexeducation campaigners have been demanding that the subject should be made statutory. Governments of different persuasions have toyed with the idea for almost 10 years.

As the world changed, however, consensus grew as everyone – from sexual-health charity Brook to the Catholic Education Service – agreed that good sex education was vital to keeping pupils safe.

And so, finally, it was announced that, from September 2019, all primary and secondary pupils would study a version of relationships and sex education.

But now there are growing fears that the new statutory subject is being set up for failure before it even begins. There have even been suggestions that education secretary Damian Hinds, reported to be a “devout Catholic”, could renege on the plan altogether.

On Sunday, his predecessor, Justine Greening, felt compelled to intervene, calling for her party to listen to pupils on the need for sex education (see

“You can no longer ignore the voices of many young people in our country who were saying that they felt they needed this to be updated and made more relevant for them,” she said.

Campaigners for the subject worry that statutory sex education could still fail to cover crucial issues faced by today’s teenagers, such as online pornography and sexting.

They are also concerned that no funding has been allocated for the implementation of statutory sex education, and that there is a shortage of staff trained to teach it.


The result, they fear, will be that the delivery of sex education remains inconsistent, with some schools confining it to tutor time, while others cram it into a single off-timetable day.

A complete U-turn seems unlikely. Legislation needed to make sex education statutory was passed last April. So, in order to revoke the plans, ministers – who were due to be out promoting them this week – would have to go back to Parliament with another bill.

“I think it will be more hassle for them to derail it than to let it go on,” says Sarah Champion, former shadow secretary of state for women and equalities, and a strong advocate for statutory sex education. “Politically, the last thing they need is more hassle.”

But sex education campaigners fear the real threat is much more insidious. Statutory sex education will go ahead in name, but will be watered down, under-resourced and squeezed beyond the point of usefulness.

“It doesn’t take much to make me anxious about it,” says Champion. “I’d rather be prepared for the worst than whacked by a curveball.”

A key concern is that although there is a general consensus that the best way to deliver sex education is through timetabled personal, social, health and economic education (PSHE) lessons, the government is not consulting on plans to make PSHE compulsory. There are fears that this could lead to an artificial split between the two subjects.


Meanwhile, new data from the NEU teaching union reveals that just 29 per cent of primary and secondary teaching staff are confident that their school will be ready to deliver relationships and sex education in 2019. The remainder were either unconfident or unsure.

The possibility of introducing statutory sex education was first discussed seriously in 2008, when the Labour government said that it would commit to making PSHE – and therefore sex education – compulsory.

Then Labour lost the 2010 election, and it was not until March last year that the Conservative government announced that it would introduce statutory relationships and sex education into all primary and secondary schools. The decision was motivated by widespread recognition that the existing sex-education guidance – drawn up in 2000 – did not cover many of the issues vital to keeping pupils safe in 2018, including sexting, pornography and online grooming.


The DfE said that it was working with teachers to determine what support schools would need. A consultation on what the sex-education curriculum should cover closes on Monday (see

But many campaigners are concerned about how much has been left out of this consultation. They also fear that the design of the questions in the consultation – asking respondents to narrow sex education down to its “three most important subject areas” and to consider potential demands of local faith communities – means that the subject content will be severely watered down.

Where sex education already takes place, the standard has been patchy. Of the 590 teachers and heads surveyed by the NEU, only 10 per cent said that relationships and sex education was of good quality at their schools.

Making the subject compulsory is, on its own, unlikely to address these problems. There has also been a history of inadequate training: asked whether PSHE was delivered by teachers who had been appropriately trained, 71 per cent of NEU respondents said that this was true only sometimes, rarely or not at all.

Similarly, asked whether their schools had a member of staff responsible for sex education, 54 per cent said that they did not, or were unsure whether or not they did.


The PSHE Association runs courses training teachers to deliver its subject – including sex education – but its trained teachers are in only 12-14 per cent of schools. “The numbers that we train each year are in the hundreds, not the thousands,” says the association’s chief executive, Jonathan Baggaley. “There’s not that much provision of PSHE training out there.”

The cost of three days’ full training with the association is £735. Campaigners fear that the funding squeeze means that this cost would need to be met by individual schools.

Leading questions

But precedent shows that this is a price schools are not prepared to pay, meaning that sex education will continue to be delivered by untrained teachers. A report by MPs in 2015 showed that the number of teachers trained in delivering PSHE by the University of Roehampton, in Surrey, fell by 90 per cent, after the coalition government stopped funding access to the £700 course. While 1,937 teachers signed up in 2010, only 141 teachers completed the course in 2015, once government funding had been withdrawn.

But demand is there, if it’s paid for. Last year, for the first time, the University of Brighton offered its second-year primary-teaching undergraduates the option to specialise in PSHE and citizenship. Applicants outnumbered places by three to one.

The PSHE Association estimates that, in order to deliver statutory sex education through PSHE, every school would require an appropriately trained PSHE lead. All teachers involved in delivering PSHE would also need training.


In addition to training costs, a PSHE subject lead would accrue teaching and learning responsibility points amounting to a salary increase of between £2,500 and £6,000.

“Where’s the money going to come from?” says Lucy Emmerson, national coordinator of the sex-education campaign group, the Sex Education Forum. “At the moment, there’s no money seen in any of this. It appears to be on schools to resource this. I think schools are going to struggle.”

Sarah Champion agrees. “Where’s the funding?” the Labour MP says. “That has to be a commitment by the government. It’s a big responsibility for teachers to take on, and it would be fundamentally unfair for the government not to provide resources to back it up.”

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