UK
16/02/2015 23:58 GMT | Updated 17/02/2015 13:00 GMT

Sex Education 'Should Be Compulsory For Primary Schools', Says Key Commons Committeee

The government has been been sharply criticised for a steep decline in standards of sex education by an influential Commons committee, which has recommended children in primary schools deserve to receive compulsory sex and relationships lessons.

Youngsters have a right to information that will help to keep them healthy and safe and should be taught the subject throughout their schooling, the Commons education select committee said in a new report that will be encouraging for supporters of the Labour party's election pledge on the issue.

The latest official government guidance on sex education is 14 years old, and many people told the committee that the world is now very different - seeing changes such as the rise of social media, and new laws on same-sex marriages. Some noted that increasingly easy access to pornography through the internet is shaping young people's behaviours, along with the rise of "sexting" and revenge porn.

sex education books

Primary school children reading Let's Talk About Sex in the London Borough of Greenwich

In a new report, it called for personal, social, health and economic education to be given statutory status in all of England's state primary and secondary schools to ensure that enough lesson time is devoted to the subject and teachers are properly trained.

Sex and relationships education should be a "core part" of these classes. But the committee also said that parents should retain their right to withdraw their children from lessons.

Under the current system, primary schools do not have to provide sex and relationships lessons beyond what is covered in the science curriculum, while local council-run secondaries have to provide sex education covering issues such as sexually transmitted diseases, the report noted. Academies do not have to offer sex and relationship education.

Campaigners have called for the subject to be mandatory, and a damning Ofsted report published in 2013 found that PSHE education was not up to scratch in two fifths of schools.

Dr Rosemary Gillespie, Chief Executive at Terrence Higgins Trust, said: “It is heartening to see MPs join the chorus of voices calling for statutory sex and relationships education in all schools, alongside teachers, parents, and young people themselves. There is a growing consensus that the current, outdated approach to SRE fails to acknowledge the reality of young people’s lives in the 21st Century, and can’t keep them safe. We hope that Ministers will not just hear the recommendations of this report, but make implementing them a priority.”

In its report, the committee said that PSHE in schools appears to have worsened over time. This situation would not be tolerated in other subjects, MPs warned, but the Government's plans for improving it are not good enough.

"There is a mismatch between the priority that the Government claims it gives to PSHE and the steps it has taken to improve the quality of teaching in the subject," the report said.

The Government should formally endorse and issue supplementary advice on sex education drawn up by charities and advisory groups last year.

Under the current system, primary schools do not have to provide sex and relationships lessons beyond what is covered in the science curriculum, while local council-run secondaries have to provide sex education covering issues such as sexually transmitted diseases, the report noted. Academies do not have to offer sex and relationship education.

The committee said that there is a "lack of clarity" over the status of the subject. "We accept the argument that statutory status is needed for PSHE, with relationships and sex education as a core part of it. In particular this will contribute to ensuring that appropriate curriculum time is devoted to the subject, to stimulating the demand for trained teachers, and to meeting safeguarding requirements."

Committee chair Graham Stuart said: "There is an overwhelming demand for statutory sex and relationships education - from teachers, parents and young people themselves.

"It's important that school leaders and governors take PSHE seriously and improve their provision by investing in training for teachers and putting PSHE lessons on the school timetable. Statutory status will help ensure all of this happens.

"Young people have a right to information that will keep them healthy and safe. SRE forms an important part of any school's efforts to safeguard young people from abuse, and is particularly needed to protect the most vulnerable children. PSHE builds character and resilience, and will help young people to live happy and healthy lives."

A DfE spokeswoman said: "We want to see all young people leave school prepared for life in modern Britain. This means not only ensuring that young people receive a rigorous academic education, but also helping them to develop personal and emotional wellbeing.

"High quality PSHE teaching has a vital role to play in this - giving young people a better understanding of the society around them and supporting them to make informed choices and stay safe."

Lucy Emmerson, co-ordinator of the Sex Education Forum, said: "It is clear that many children and young people go through school without getting vital age-appropriate information about their bodies, what is right and wrong in relationships, consent and sexual health."