We owe it to young people to keep sex ed on the curriculum, says Hannah McFaull

Question: What is a clitoris?

Answer: Is it a fish in the Amazon?

Question: What happens if you’re having sexual intercourse and the condom splits?

Answer: Do you wash her (sic) out with white spirit?

Genuine questions from a genuine sex education lesson in an east London school with a group of 15 year olds. Aside from cringing at the second answer, the more worrying indication is that we’re not doing enough or starting early enough when talking to our children about their bodies, relationships and sexuality.

Imagine that even the basic, inadequate wisdom that we currently impart wasn’t compulsory or standardised. Not knowing the basic human anatomy of your own body, let alone the anatomy of anyone else’s. Not understanding how to prevent the spread of disease. Not appreciating that you have a choice in avoiding becoming a parent until you’re ready.

Ideally, there would be compulsory lessons which would address body image and self-respect; lessons which would explore sexuality and identity; lessons which would give our young people an understanding that safe, consensual sex can be lots of fun.

But I’m also a realist and I know that we’re a long way from anything near this. Laurie Penny argues wonderfully that sticking your head in the sand when it comes to sex, sexuality and young people, is pointless, ridiculous and has led to dangerous consequences including the sexual objectification of young girls.

What saddens me is that thanks to the quick work of the Tory-Lib Dem government, we are now even further from the ideal than we were before. The possible effects on the current generation of young people are frightening.

The academies act, which became law on July 27th, essentially allows ‘free schools’ and academies to opt out of the control of the local authority, giving them free reign to decide what objective, factual sex education, if any, goes on the curriculum. Before long, we are bound to see some such schools choosing not to teach even the basic, inadequate level of sex and relationship education, which is currently mandatory.

The key concept in all of this is objectivity. Campaign groups including Abortion Rights UK have already said that this move will allow for the inclusion of “extreme religious and anti-choice views in their curricula”. An amendment to the children, schools and families bill earlier this year showed us that there is support for schools wishing to reflect their religious character in the way that PSHE lessons are taught. Underpinning this, however, was a basic understanding that there the curriculum was taught in an objective way.

Despite a falling teenage pregnancy rate this year, this country still has one of the highest in Europe. Surely we owe it to our children to give them more information about sex and relationships, not less. Similarly, it is highly likely to be the case that the children who would benefit the most from a non-judgemental environment in which to discuss these topics are more likely to need it provided in schools when the lessons are compulsory, rather than relying on these conversations happening at home.

We must not let it fall to our under-resourced and over-worked youth service to pick up the pieces. We owe it to the young people they work with to fight to get compulsory, standardised, objective sex and relationship education on every school curriculum.

Some of the effects of the academies act we will see immediately; others we will have to wait for. I predict that this move by the Tory-Lib Dem government will screw up a generation of children and young people (no pun intended).

As if puberty, adolescence and the transition to adulthood weren’t hard enough, do we really want an educational model which gives more information to some young people than others? The notion is both dangerous and irresponsible. When the teenage pregnancy rates start to rise again, when young parents are vilified by the right-wing media and when the Tory-Lib Dem government starts to look for answers, can someone please remind them that they brought this on themselves?

Hannah McFaull blogs here.

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2 Responses to “We owe it to young people to keep sex ed on the curriculum, says Hannah McFaull”

  1. Tom Miller says:

    A lot of this will depend on how strong the Tory authoritarians are within the coalition. The Lib Dems always point to their huge bank of positives, and to be fair to them, they have got some socially liberal policies. The problem is that we’re in a huge recession.

    I can’t argue with this though. The right wing papers are manifestly irresponsible. They moan about teenage pregnancy while opposing pretty much the only thing that has any record of keeping it down.

  2. Couldn’t agree with Hannah more.

    Furthermore I find it dangerous to give such free reign over the curriculum to organisations and groups who have no specialisms in the education of young minds, and no safeguards against ensuring that what is being taught is not damaging to a. the child and b. wider society.

    More like this please Hannah!

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