For many schools around the UK, sex education is very much the academic elephant in the room. Whether this is due to a sense of prudishness born of famous British repression, or a desperate paranoia that discussions about sex will lead our youth down a path of perversion and debauchery, one thing is for certain - if we want to truly prepare young people for the biological certainty of sex, we need an overhaul in how we teach sex education.
Currently, how SRE (Sex and Relationships Education) is dealt with is defined in the Education Act 1996 and the Learning and Skills Act 2000, both of which stress the importance of emphasizing the 'moral considerations and importance of family life' whilst simultaneously stating that pupils must be 'protected from teaching and materials which are inappropriate having regard to the age and the religious and cultural background of the pupils concerned'.
Secondary schools must provide some basic teachings about STIs and HIV/AIDS and cover reproduction and puberty as specified in the science curriculum, and it is recommended - although not obligated - that some information about relationships and contraception is given. Faith schools and academies are subject to slightly different and frankly far hazier laws, but the basic principle is the same: teach kids what sex is, and the rest is optional.
Parents are at perfect liberty to remove their child from any SRE that is not specified as compulsory, meaning that even if a school chooses to go beyond the bare minimum, whether the pupils receive that information is ultimately up to their guardians. Whilst this opt-out system doesn't seem to be enforced frequently (the few studies done on the matter suggest the number is most likely less than 3%) the question of whether parents should be able to pull their child out of the learning process at all remains open.
As a result of all this subjectivity, sex education can range from being unsatisfying to downright useless. As a means of collecting research, I created a small-scale survey of my own and to enquire as to how people felt about their SRE and encouraged them to submit stories about how it was through my blog. Although my sample size was small, I found that my results largely reflected those done by the sexual health charity FPA and well-represented the views of young people about the education they received.
The frequency of sex education lessons should logically increase as the pupils get further and further into puberty, but over 70% of those who responded to my survey stated that their SRE took place either once a year or less - a statistic that includes my own experience. While most people seem to have had SRE that included information about condoms and menstruation, less than 5% had been taught anything about consent in sex or rape and sexual assault.
Despite an estimated one or two young people in every twenty being LGBT, a paltry 2% of those polled reported having been given any information about non-heterosexual relationships. This is detrimental to straight and LGBT people alike; students who are confused about their sexuality are denied access to helpful resources in a crucial part of their development and those who aren't are deprived of important lessons about respect and sexual variation. If done right, sex education could be an excellent platform to fight homophobia, sexism and slut-shaming before it turns into an unmovable adult mind-set.
Unfortunately, it's almost always done wrong. The people who sent me tales of their school's sex ed programs described feeling as if sex was being treated like 'a big danger they were preparing you for' and more 'embarrassing' and closed-minded than truly useful. Masturbation for boys was covered, for example, but not for girls.
Several people likened their SRE to this infamous scene from Mean Girls -humorous in the context of a film, but somewhat worrying when applied to real people in real schools. Although some reported positive experiences, mostly as a result of peer-based learning, the general consensus was that sex education fails to prepare students for the reality of sex at the time in their lives when it's becoming a progressively more relevant and important issue.
Sex education is desperately lacking in both regulation and deployment across the country. One in four pupils receive none at all, and those that do report a high level of dissatisfaction with what they receive. Teenage pregnancies and STI rates in young people are high, particularly in areas of poverty where students may have less access to decent resources and information outside of what is covered in school, and yet still Michael Gove refuses to attribute the failings of the government in implementing an effective system to anything less arbitrary than a lack of intelligence on the students' part.
In 2013, we simply cannot teach sex education like this; it is both an insult and a great disservice to Britain's young people to do so. Comprehensive coverage and frank, open discussions about sex and its role in life should not merely be encouraged, but made as necessary a part of the curriculum as science or maths. Ignoring the needs of teenagers just as they enter the beginnings of sexual maturity is downright illogical, and shouldn't be tolerated. For a safer, more knowledgeable Britain, be loud about what you want from sex education, and help provide future generations with the information we all had to find out alone - if we ever did at all.
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