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UK introduces compulsory sex education in schools. Kind of.

Having had a Catholic education, my experience of sex education was mixed. Sometimes it was sensible, sometimes it was scientific, and sometimes the repulsion they tried to teach us about things like contraception or LGB issues (T wasn’t ever even mentioned) took over. While most of us resisted the most impractical teachings, it left us with a lack of information in certain key areas.

That, of course, was before the internet was easily available. Now, young people have access to vast amounts of information at the tips of their fingers, but there is as much misinformation as good information online, so schools still play a crucial role in offering good formal education on issues around sex and relationships. It is more important than ever.

So, when I heard that sex and relationships education (SRE) had been made compulsory in British schools last week, it seemed like an ideal solution. Children from the age of four upwards will be taught about healthy relationships, while older children will learn about sex, including safer sex and pregnancy prevention.

Previous guidance for SRE in schools had been issued in 2000, while children nowadays are navigating a completely different landscape including sexting, online grooming and online pornography. According to the new law, all secondary schools (including private and faith schools) will have to teach age-appropriate sex and relationship education.

Pandering to the populists

Unfortunately, the law is not quite as straight forward as it might seem. For a start, parents will be allowed to withdraw their children from the sex education classes for 11 to 16 year olds. And it is, sadly, those whose parents might choose to do this who might be most in need of objective, honest education. Similarly, the SRE classes can be delivered in a way that is sensitive to religious beliefs and the needs of the local community. I know exactly what that means for the Catholic schools, at least.

These kinds of get-out clauses are typical for laws that may seem somehow controversial, so have passages within them to ease the anger of religious believers and right-wingers who fear that universal sex education means teaching small children about the pros and cons of anal sex and offering lesbian seduction tips.

As an example of the faux outrage these laws can induce, the inability of parents of primary school children (those aged between 4 – 11) to withdraw their kids from relationships education has been criticised by the reactionary Christian Institute, who say, “Children as young as four could be exposed to explicit teaching on same-sex relationships under Government plans announced today.

[…]

“The vague subject could open the door for children to be taught about a “bewildering array” of alternative lifestyles, causing confusion and undermining Christian values.”

Success for campaigners

Despite the inevitable objections to children being taught open and honestly about sex, those who have been campaigning for compulsory sex and relationships education have been celebrating since the law was passed.

The Girlguiding Advocates have been campaigning for a law like this, and said, ““For three years Girlguiding’s young members from across the country have asked for a school curriculum that includes sexual consent, LGBTQ, tackling violence against women and girls, online safety, and healthy relationships. We have shared our personal and difficult experiences of sexual harassment at school, and time and time again we have pointed to the hard evidence of the urgent need for compulsory SRE.

“In 2015, only half of girls age 11 to 21 told Girlguiding that they were taught about their choices should they become pregnant, about violence against women and girls, or that girls and boys their age understand that sexual consent is about getting AND giving permission.

“It’s amazing that Parliament has shown that it has listened to girls and made a decision that will improve the lives of all young people, enabling them to make safe and informed decisions.”

The Women’s Equality Party has also had high-quality SRE on its list of campaign goals.

Charlotte Mead, branch leader of the Sheffield branch of the Women’s Equality Party, told me, “This update of SRE is long overdue.  It’s been 17 years since sex education guidance was last updated and things have changed greatly for our young people in that time meaning that it is vital that their education covers issues such as sexualised bullying via mobile phones and the internet, respect and consent.

“I believe that all children have a right to be taught the skills which allows them to navigate their relationships and sexuality.  There is still further work to be done to ensure that all children get the right to this and that LGBT+ issues are included.  We will continue to press the government but this is a welcome step forward.”

As an LGBT adult who had a Catholic education, I am incredibly keen for young people to learn facts and important information that will help them to negotiate all the complicated aspects of coming of age. If there is no national curriculum that ensures that particular subjects (such as lessons about being LGBT and non-biased classes on contraception and abortion) are taught, and if there is no way that schools can override parents who want their children to remain ignorant, then a lot of young people will remain in the dark and let down by the UK government.

This is a step in the right direction, but the exceptions that have been built into the law make it flawed. Let’s hope it’s not another 17 years until children have easy access to adequate, appropriate and easy-to-understand information about sex and relationships.

Photo: Chrisjtse/Creative Commons

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Philippa Willitts

Philippa Willitts is a British freelance writer who specialises in writing about disability, women's issues, social media and tech. She also enjoys covering politics and LGBT-related topics. She has written for the Guardian, the Independent, New Statesman, Channel 4 News, Access Magazine, xoJane and many more publications. She can be found on Twitter @PhilippaWrites.