Philippa Taylor: Sex education does not work

The Government has announced major changes to Sex and Relationships Education (SRE) in all schools, from age four.

Currently SRE is compulsory in council-maintained secondary schools but not academies, free schools or primary schools, although in reality, most academies and free schools do provide SRE lessons.

The pressure on the Government to make changes has been building. Last week a new amendment, Clause 5 (NC5), was tabled to the Children and Social Work Bill which would require ‘Relationships Education’ to be taught in all state-funded schools and would abolish the current parental right of withdrawal. Today, the Government tabled its own amendments to this Bill, announced in a press release here.

Also last week the Local Government Association (LGA) said that sex education should be compulsory in all state secondary schools and that, in the absence of quality SRE lessons, too many pupils are leaving school lacking crucial knowledge about the risks of picking up sexually transmitted infections (STIs).

Hardly surprisingly, the LGA's call is backed by the Family Planning Association (FPA) and the Sex Education Forum.

In November 2016 the Chairs of five Parliamentary select committees wrote to the Education Secretary Justine Greening calling for SRE and personal, social, health and economic education to be compulsory in order to help tackle sexual harassment and abuse of pupils in school.

The drive to make SRE compulsory seems unstoppable, and one that makes apparent sense given that ‘the overall numbers of STI diagnoses in those aged 15 to 24 years has risen considerably in the last five years’, according to Public Health England.

The LGA cites figures of 78,066 new STI cases among 15-19 year olds in 2015 and 141,060 new cases for 20-24 year olds. They say this needs to be recognised as a ‘major health protection issue’ that should be tackled through SRE in schools.

But does making SRE compulsory really make sense?

Well, according to the logic of the LGA STIs are caused by a lack of compulsory SRE!

Clearly, that is not the case but can it still somehow be argued that compulsory SRE will lead to a fall in new cases of STIs or sexual harassment and sexual abuse?

First, contrary to most media messaging, the vast majority of pupils in school do receive sex and relationships education, much of it delivered by specialist teams funded and provided by local government. While already compulsory in state schools, it is only academies and independent Schools where it is not compulsory, and the majority of them take this area of education just as seriously as every other element of the curriculum and every other school.

And yet, despite widespread SRE, and despite over £250 million being poured into cutting teen pregnancy rates over the last 40 or so years, the number of STIs among young people continues to rise faster than any other group.

Why? Because STIs are not caused by a lack of sex education, they are caused by promiscuous sexual behaviour.

So looking logically at the facts and stats, it surely makes more sense to conclude that it is sex education that is not working, so making it compulsory is simply imposing a wider duty to do something that manifestly doesn’t work.

Which is just what a recent, and large, Cochrane study found: sex education programmes do not reduce pregnancy and STIs among the young. In fact, they have no effect on adolescent pregnancy and STI rates. ‘As they are currently designed, sex education programmes alone probably have no effect on the number of young people infected with HIV, other STIs or the number of pregnancies…said lead author of the review, Dr Mason-Jones.

The primary issue is not compulsory vs non-compulsory, but what the basis and thinking behind sex education consists of.

The organisations driving compulsory sex education (the FPA, Sex Education Forum and British Humanist Association etc) champion ‘non-judgemental’ sex education, with no discussion of context such as  marriage, family life, fidelity or exclusivity, or that there is any ‘right or wrong’. It’s all about individual choice - with consent of course.

Add to this the almost farcical recent comment by FPA Chief Executive Natika Halil:

There's still a huge amount of stigma around sex and sexually transmitted infections and, without statutory SRE in all schools, many young people don't get the information they need and aren't consistently taught skills such as how to negotiate the use of condoms with a partner.’

Ignoring her deliberate language of ‘young people’ rather than the more accurate ‘children’ and ignoring the fact that most children do receive (often very explicit) SRE at school, it is obvious that young people live in a highly sexualised society. Sexual imagery plays a very large part in our culture today and sexual images are used in nearly all areas of advertising and the media, in fashion and dress, in order to generate interest and make money. Information about sex is everywhere!

Moreover, I fail to understand why she thinks STIs should not be stigmatised – should the messaging really be that STIs are perfectly acceptable, nothing to be concerned about and ‘normal’?

But perhaps Halil really meant to say that children need to be properly taught how to handle relationships.

In which case, I would fully agree with her. But the problem is that most current SRE gives no help in this! Context-free SRE, based on condom mechanics, does not help children to handle relationships.

Which brings me to the new Government proposals outlined today, which will make teaching sex education compulsory for all schools.

First, there are a couple of welcome proposals. One is that it will no longer be called SRE but RSE – relationships and sex education. This may be word games but it is also messaging about priorities and is something CMF has called for because it puts relationships first and places sex in the context of relationships.

Second, schools will be able to teach RSE in line with their faith.

However, although it is proposed that parental withdrawal will be maintained for secondary schools, it will not be permitted for primary schools, where there will be no opt out at all. Even for secondary schools the opt out provisions will be limited (only for the ‘sex’ part) and probably only up to age 15.

The root of long-term parental concerns about making sex education compulsory has partly been because of the kind of material that teachers would be required to teach and the likelihood that children will be exposed to unsuitable materials that sexualises them (see this booklet for some examples). Added to that, approaches based on encouraging young people to exercise self-control or chastity, and encouraging parents to be involved, have attracted very little support and indeed often outright opposition.

Sexual intimacy is something valuable and worthy of respect. The most important thing is not for children to learn the proper names for parts of their anatomy at primary school but to develop the character of children so that they learn self-restraint and the importance of marriage for family life, stable and loving relationships, respect, love and care, as DFEE guidance from 2011 states.

If this can be taught under the new Government proposals then it will be a positive development. However, there will be a lengthy political process before that becomes clear and pressure for ever more explicit sex education will remain. Meanwhile oppostion to making RSE compulsory, especially from age four, remains.

The education of our children is a crucial issue. Sex education is an ideological battlefield on which a war is being waged for the hearts and minds of children, from an ever younger age. The continued danger is that, with plausible sounding arguments, a Government-funded strategy of undermining parents and pulling down traditional moral standards may well still win this war.

Philippa Taylor

  • Dustybookwyrm

    Strange, isn’t it, how the more sex education we have the more society is inundated with porn whilst promiscuity is now so normalised that prostitues are called “sex workers” and there’s an app for “hooking up” (casual sex).

    Its an agenda.

    We know its an agenda.

    Pushed by degenerates who want to make their depravity the norm.

    We need to send it back to the shadows of society where it belongs rather than having the healthy constantly facing its assault. And it will not be sent back by sitting down and discussing it with these perverts. It will only be sent back by force of law and shame.

    • 300 Spartans

      Absolutely. Couldn’t agree more. Well said. You should have thousands upon thousands of upticks for this and have just added mine.

      • Dustybookwyrm

        That’s kind of you, thank you.

  • J M

    I grew up as part of a generation for whom sex education consisted of the study of reproduction during biology lessons to the obvious discomfiture of the teacher. We had little sexual intercourse, but plenty of fumbling. Girls were quite capable of indicating refusal and there we halted.

    My university age daughters have had sex education from an early age. Innocence is now regarded as something to be lost as early as possible. They inhabit a world where young men appear not to know the meaning of, “No!” and where frequent sex with multiple partners is commonplace. Listening to them talking about their own and their friends’ experiences, all I see is a trail of female misery. The boys are simply predatory with an entitlement to sex. Oh, and they all seem to shave their bits. Where did that come from?

    Apparently it’s called progress. If you preach that long term, stable marriage is oppressive and out-dated and discriminatory, and simply concentrate instead on how to have “safe” sex, this is where you end up. So much for female emancipation. Well done the Wimmin’s Movement!

    • Bob

      Absolutely. When I was growing up, those engaged in early sexual promiscuity were often children from broken homes and with low self-esteem. This nonsense is attempting (badly) to offer a solution to a symptom and not the cause.

    • Alexis

      When I was growing up the slightly more romantic expression “making love” was used for sexual relationships rather than the crude “having sex” which we hear so much about. Cheap sex always leads to heart break and tears of regret. The exclusivity of faithful marriage in a sexual relationship has the potential of joy and fulfilment. The SRE or RSE programs sound like a race to the bottom (pun allowed) more appropriate to inoculating a herd of animals against disease.

  • fenellastrange

    The problem with SRE as it is currently delivered is that it emphasises the need for kids to make informed decisions, the belief being that the more information they have, the more sensible the decision will be. Unfortunately this approach is especially irrelevant to girls as it overlooks the role of hormones such as oxytocin which will be pumping out the message “trust, relax and prepare for conception” regardless of the decision she thinks she is making. Recent research made possible by MRI scanners shows that the average teen brain is far from fully developed and that the pre-frontal cortex, crucial to risk-assessment and decision making, develops last, often not until the mid-twenties.

    • James Chilton

      So what’s your answer? Oxytocin-blockers from the GP, or therapy for the under-developed teen brain?

      Does self control have any place in this predicament? It used to.

  • Under-the-weather

    Nice article, the only question I have is what economics is doing attached to sex education. The cost of not using a rubber?.
    Isn’t it important for every child walking to know where money comes from?, why is that being overlooked and so blocked?

  • la catholic state

    Unless you want some schmuck talking to your young child about porn, organise a boycott of SRE. Parents right to withdraw their primary school kids is being overturned.

  • At Grammar School the boys were taught to try to find some way to use the information learnt in lessons in their daily lives. The only disaster that I recall were some attempts to make gunpowder following a chemistry lesson.
    What happens if adopt this attitude to use some of the information that they gain in sex lessons? Looks like an impending disaster to me.

    • EDF

      The issue is, as many stats have shown, countries that do sex education earlier have less teenage pregnancy and less spread of STIs.

      Teaching children how life is created and what parents do with a mature and responsible adult isn’t going to damage them. It will ensure the silly mystery of sex is taken away and there is less chance they learn half truths from friends and porn sites. It tends to be adult stuff kids learn in their teenage years that make s it silly and exciting that is the problem. Kids have always learned about it in Year 7 in Science.

      Comprehensive sex education lowers sex risks. Kids whose families who bring them up well won’t dive into rabid teenage sex still. Kids whose families don’t bring them up will will be better educated on the issue. This is a conservative government who are making lots of cuts to the size of the state doing this. I think it’s fair they have reviewed the information and seen what is best if they feel the need to make it mandatory.

      • I’m afraid that anything like this in Britain would be used by pressure groups for what I regard as the wrong reasons. By the time that the LGBTI groups have got involved I believe it would be a total disaster.