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Why We Must End the Silence on Sex and Relationships Education

12/07/2016 08:38 | Updated 12 July 2016
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Ask anyone my age about their memories of Sex Education and you might hear tales of a one-off lesson involving labelling body parts, or a brief and awkward explanation of how babies are made. And they were the lucky ones - lots of us (me included) received no Sex Education at all.

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In the late 1970s, topics such as consent, abuse, gender identity, and STIs weren't even up for discussion with young people. There was no mention of relationships, let alone LGBT relationships. My only input regarding Sex Education in school was in a Human Biology class, when studying for O levels. Needless to say it was all very 'functional'.

You would be forgiven for thinking, in these enlightened times, it must be a completely different story for young people in the 21st century. After all, this is a generation that has grown up with civil partnerships and equal marriage, with smartphones and social media, with increased acceptance and understanding of trans issues.

But sadly you would be wrong. Currently, SRE is only mandatory in state-maintained secondary schools, meaning private schools, primary schools, academies and free schools are under no obligation to provide it. Only 40% of secondary schools are state-maintained, so the vast majority of children and young people could be missing out.

What limited government guidance there is for schools on SRE is older than nearly all of the students themselves, dating back to 2000. It is wholly unfit to prepare them for the realities of sex and relationships in 2016.

Today, Terrence Higgins Trust has launched a new report on Sex and Relationships Education, entitled Shh... No Talking, and the results confirm that yet another generation of young people have been fobbed off with SRE that is infrequent, low quality and almost never LGBT inclusive.

We gathered responses from over 900 young people aged 16-24 as part of our survey, and found that 75% had not been taught about consent, 95% had not learned about LGBT sex and relationships, 89% were not taught about sex and pleasure and 97% missed out on any discussion around gender identity.

Three out of five respondents either didn't remember receiving information on HIV in school or didn't receive information on HIV in school.

One in seven respondents had not received any SRE at all. The majority received SRE just once a year or less.

We know that good quality, age-appropriate SRE can help young people make well-informed life choices and better understand the world around them, leading to improved sexual and mental health. Yet, the findings in our report make it clear that young people are not reaping these benefits.

It is heartbreaking to consider how many instances of bullying, homophobia, low self-esteem, HIV diagnoses or abusive relationships could have been prevented if all young people had access to good quality, inclusive and age-appropriate SRE during these formative years.

As one young woman Lauren so eloquently describes in the report, 'Inclusive SRE teaches young people not only to be safe but that they are valid. Many young people struggle with their feelings of sexuality and gender and if no one is talking to them about it, or allowing them to discuss it openly, they will internalise their worry and it will grow into something ugly and harmful for the individual.'

It is telling that even the name 'SRE' is still usually greeted with blank expressions. Abbreviations for lessons such as RE and PE are part of everyday school vocabulary and have become widely understood in society, but 'SRE' as a term has not benefited from the same level of awareness.

The very fact that most people know it as 'Sex Ed', if at all, shows that the importance of preparing young people for healthy relationships has been neglected for generations. Discussions around sex have been limited to biological descriptions of puberty and heterosexual sex.

And here we are again in 2016, apparently no closer to a world where all children receive quality, trusted information from schools about sex, growing up, sexuality and relationships.

The government's quiet blocking of compulsory SRE, back in February, will condemn another generation of young people to leave school armed with little to no information on issues that can have an enormous effect on their future health and happiness.

This refusal is a catastrophic failure from the government, which has shown itself to be out of touch with young people, teachers and parents, and even disregarding the advice of Parliament's Education Select Committee.

It is clear that if SRE were made compulsory in all schools, it would be treated as any other subject, with teachers getting the training they need, and enough time being allocated in timetables for quality lessons. Standards would be driven up and we could finally reflect real life in our classrooms.

But without trusted information from schools, young people will turn to less reliable sources such as the internet or their peers as they navigate life outside the classroom. We must end this silence and make age-appropriate SRE mandatory in all schools if we are to tackle this safeguarding crisis.

Young people have now told us loud and clear what kind of SRE they want. In our report, 99% of young people wanted SRE to be taught in all schools. 97% wanted it to be LGBT inclusive.

The government must listen and act, and give our young people the tools to make positive and informed decisions, and to have healthy relationships, which they are ready for and want - wherever they go to school, and whatever their sexuality.

Terrence Higgins Trust has today launched its 'SRE: End the Silence' campaign. Find out more and read the report here.

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