Sex education will be mandatory from four years old. Despite my pro-sex education stance, even I felt a lump in my throat as I heard this bullet point information bite on the radio as I drove home that Tuesday 28th February 2017 blustery evening.
How do you deliver sex education to a four year old? The next morning as Justine Greening, Education Secretary, announced this news officially, the context added reassured me. From the age of four children will be taught about safe and healthy relationships. I for one, welcome this change.
Children from a very young age are inquisitive and exposed to all facets of life, inclusive of the relationships they see around them. My four year old has enquired with the same gusto:
"Where does rain come from?"
"What happens to your poo when you flush it?"
"Did my baby sister come out of your tummy?"
To therefore turn a blind eye to the fact that children absorb all that is around them, perhaps even the things that push us out of our comfort zone, will in the long run create gaps in their knowledge potentially making them vulnerable to unsafe situations.
I grew up before children and teenagers had access to the internet, social media and smartphones. Ability to use the internet is now necessary and has a place in furthering education when used in the right setting. Submitting homework and school assignments online is quite commonplace these days. A friend's 10 year old daughter does this with such ease, but herein also lies the problem. Her interest in social media is also taking hold and her parents now face the task of how to control and protect her from the negatives we hear of such as cyber bullying and the like. Cyber bullying can feature a myriad of targets including body image. Providing phones to children past a certain age for safety reasons then opens up other issues of parental concern such as harassment via sexting.
I often feel my own children, should they choose to become parents when they are older, will be far better equipped in how to navigate the protection issues of cyber bullying, harassment and sexting, growing up as products of the digital age. I must admit to feeling anxious about how best to safeguard them online when they start to use internet accessible devices independently. Of course, there is an abundance of information available on this to sift through. However, a structured programme of education at school with effective communication between parents and the school seems a sensible way to deliver this information.
Plan International UK, a children's charity, in their campaign for mandatory sex and relationship education (SRE) places emphasis on the breadth of topics needing coverage:
"SRE covers much more than just the physical side of sex and reproduction. It looks at the emotional and social side of sex, relationships, consent, gender equality and sexuality". This holistic approach of providing age appropriate education from four seems logical to facilitate the development of emotionally healthy young people capable of having safe and fruitful relationships.
All this talk gave me flashbacks of my rather lacking sex education in school; a VHS that must have been recorded in the seventies of a woman sporting large shiny red plastic earrings howling in a ritualistic fashion whilst giving birth. I mention the earrings as it was something for me to fixate on whilst wincing at the images with one eye open. Her husband nervously paced at the head end of the bed offering her his hand or orange squash intermittently. It was terrifying and absurdly out of date (even for 1997) in equal measure. The message to us as a group of 15 year old girls was clear; don't have sex, or this is what you'll endure.
That was about it. All done once we all had a go at putting a condom on a plastic model and a quick chat about the pill. Even at 15 I knew that wasn't enough; the total absence of any addressing of issues around the social and emotional aspects was obvious to me then, as a parent now I'm alarmed there was no mention of essentials such as consent. I feel unsurprised at Plan International UK's poll findings of UK public opinion that:
"More than 7 out of 10 want children to learn about the risks of sexting"
"Three-quarters back education about the impact of pornography"
"Nearly 9 in 10 support the need for education about consent"
As a health professional child safeguarding is a constant educational topic we are trained and updated on. So it should be. Now, the missing piece of the jigsaw in providing mandatory and empowering SRE in a sensitive and appropriate way to those we are trying to protect will be addressed. About time too.