Many of us wince when we think back to our school sex education lessons – the gaudy diagrams, red-faced male teachers attempting to explain periods and, of course, the condom-on-banana rite of passage – but they did teach us a lot. However, many children will never have experienced these pivotal moments, as sex and relationship education (SRE) has only been compulsory in council-run schools. That is, until now.
The government today announced that SRE will now be compulsory in all schools in England, including academies and free schools, reported the BBC. These schools aren’t under local authority control and haven’t previously been required to teach SRE, as they don’t have to follow the national curriculum. In practice, most schools do teach the subject.
MPs, local authorities, charities and campaign groups have long been pushing for better SRE in schools. A notable campaign was the joint effort between the Everyday Sexism Project, which conducts sex and relationship workshops in schools across the country, and the End Violence Against Women Coalition.
The government’s announcement means that children in all types of school will now receive age-appropriate lessons about safe and healthy relationships from the age of 4.
They’ll learn about the risks and reality of conducting sexual relationships in the 21st century, covering topics including the dangers of sexting, online pornography and sexual harassment, the BBC reported.
However, it still doesn’t mean that every child will learn about sex and relationships as parents will still have the right to remove their children from the lessons, for instance, for religious reasons.
Greening said the previous statutory guidance for SRE, which was introduced in 2000, was “becoming increasingly outdated”. "It fails to address risks to children that have grown in prevalence over the last 17 years, including cyberbullying, 'sexting' and staying safe online,” she added.
Schools will be able to decide how they deliver the compulsory lessons, so they can ensure they’re relevant to the needs of their own students and local communities. “Faith schools will continue to be able to teach in accordance with the tenets of their faith," Greening added.
Laura Bates, founder of the Everyday Sexism Project, said: “After many years of campaigning, alongside tireless work from so many other organisations, we are delighted that young people will now receive the information they need to understand abuse, respect others, and navigate healthy relationships. We will be watching closely as more details emerge and welcome the government's commitment to engage with expert organisations to determine subject content.”
But not everyone is pleased by the announcement. The Safe at School Campaign, which aims to help parents protect their children from “inappropriate sexual content” at school, called the news a "tragedy". Antonia Tully, its national co-ordinator, said it will render parents "powerless to protect their children from presentations of sexual activity”.
"The state simply cannot safeguard children in the same way that parents can," she added. "This proposal is sending a huge message to parents that they are unfit to teach their own children about sex." But who's to say parents and schools can't both help to ensure the next generation receives the best possible sex and relationship education?