It has been almost two decades since guidelines for Relationships and Sex Education (RSE) were implemented. Now, the government has released draft guidelines which aims to revamp RSE – theoretically, at least – creating a more comprehensive and inclusive education for both primary and secondary school pupils.
If you rely on the headlines or even the articles which have just been released regarding the guidelines, you could be forgiven for thinking these new strategies are the revolution RSE, the campaigners and charities who work in the area have been crying out for. But, the glaring omissions and caveats within the guidelines themselves, if implemented, could do more harm than good — in particular to those already vulnerable.
During the development of the guidelines, campaigners sought to ensure that LGBTQ+ specific education would be a key commitment across all schools. And yet, in spite of this, the draft guidelines state that ‘schools are free to determine how they address LGBT specific content, but the Department recommends that it is integral’, suggesting that calls for inclusivity have not been listened to. Although the steps to include LGBTQ+ education within the guidelines are a positive step, the ability to self-interpret could put pupils at risk. Additionally, the absence of any discussion regarding non-binary or intersex people is disappointing and it is feared this will continue to fuel myths and falsehoods as pupils remain uneducated about these topics, in spite of them being incredibly common.
Furthermore, the government advises that ‘In schools with a religious character, the distinctive faith perspective on relationships may be taught, and balanced debate may take place about issues that are seen as contentious’ The ambiguity around what constitutes a ‘contentious’ topic is a huge red flag for those with knowledge of RSE reform.
Milly Evans, founder of I Support Sex Education, a campaign for better sex education and access to sexual and reproductive health rights commented:
‘Without explicitly telling schools what they are to teach in relation to LGBTQ+ issues and how they should teach it, I don’t believe we are vastly better off than the previous guidance. There is also a suggestion that religion should influence the way that relationships and sex education is taught in faith schools, which puts “contentious” issues such as sexuality, gender, casual sex and abortion at risk’.
Whilst the provisions for including LGBTQ+ specific content is not great the complete absence of some topics within the guidelines is even more startling. The guidelines neglect to mention topics such as pleasure, masturbation and in doing so contribute further to the stigma around these subjects and fails to acknowledge that pleasure is a key factor in many people’s motivation for having sex. These guidelines seem much more focused on the issues and problems surrounding the topics of sex and relationships and neglects the positive ones.
The guidelines themselves, especially their ability to enable parents to withdraw their children from RSE lessons, also create issues concerning pupil welfare. Evans notes that they pose a potential risk to safeguarding of young people –
“The opt-out guidance is also pretty shocking and, surprisingly, is being represented as a big win by many in the media.”
Milly elaborates “Essentially, in primary school parents will be able to withdraw their child automatically from all sex education except science lessons; which is a major safeguarding concern as primary sex education covers, among other things, personal boundaries, safety and respect for others. In secondary school, after a chat with the headteacher, parents will be able to withdraw their child from some or all sex education up until three terms before the child’s 16th birthday, at which point they will receive sex education if they choose to.” In particular, campaigners fear this guidance could place young people at risk of abuse, female genital mutilation and child, early and forced marriage.
Overall, despite the positive reaction from charities (which admittedly seems slightly odd given some of their clear campaign messages have been blatantly disregarded), it is clear that there are issues which need to be addressed. There is some hope, in that the guidelines are now subject to public consultation. If you want to raise your concerns regarding the guidance as it currently stands you can raise them with the Department For Education via the online survey.
Evans advice for those passionate about comprehensive RSE is:
‘if you want to get further involved in sex education as the situation progresses, keep an eye out for volunteering opportunities with sexual health organisations such as Brook and the Terrence Higgins Trust, as well as other human rights organisations such as Stonewall, Youth For Change and Plan International which have also been heavily involved in the guidance. You can also email your MP to express your concerns or encourage them to support changes to the guidance.’
Relationships and Sex Education needs a revolution. The current system fails so many young people and does not fully equip them to be their best selves and make informed decisions. Reform is necessary, but these guidelines fail to address key issues and potentially put pupils at risk. Updating outdated guidelines will not solve all of the problems with relationships and sex education – there are still questions regarding training, teaching and funding of the subject – but comprehensive, inclusive guidelines would be a good foundation upon which to build. There is still time to build that base.