Early Sex Education Is Essential If We Want A More Tolerant, Inclusive Society

Parents who try to shield children from modern relationship and sex education are actually putting their children at greater risk by ignoring the realities of the world around us.
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Last month, the government announced its new draft guidance for Relationships and Sex Education (RSE), fuelling the debate about whether sex education is the responsibility of the school or the parent.

The news sparked an outcry from many parents and religious groups across the UK because, under the new guidance, primary school age children will be taught about relationships and different types of family units, for example, LGBT families, as a mandatory part of the curriculum. The changes also outline that LGBT teaching becomes mandatory in secondary schools.

The new guidance is a welcome update – and greatly overdue – but I don’t believe it goes far enough to meet the needs of today’s children. And I’d argue that parents who try to shield children from these subjects by requesting they are withdrawn from RSE are actually putting their children at greater risk and ignoring the realities of the world around us.

As a psychotherapist, psychosexual and relationship therapist, I’ve seen first-hand the long-term damage that occurs when young children are exposed to issues they don’t understand. While parents may think they’re protecting their children, it’s essential to look at the bigger picture. These days, technology provides easy access to all kinds of sexual content and it’s not always possible to put safeguards in place when children have access to the internet or social media outside of the home.

Research shows that technology is now impacting children’s sexual development, so it’s important for primary education to provide room for children to explore, learn and contextualise subjects such as gender identity, consent, pornography and FGM – subjects that are notably absent from the mandatory teaching requirements for primary education within the new guidance – as well as subjects such as LGBT, grooming and healthy relationships, which are being introduced. Isn’t it better for children to be educated about all these subjects in a safe, protected and nurturing environment rather than grasping at potentially distorted information from the internet that’s shared in the playground, or putting children at risk because of a lack of information?

And it’s only going to get worse as kids become more tech-savvy, and as technology continues to advance. The new guidance covers internet and online safety, which in secondary schools, includes pornography – a subject that the average parent is not necessarily comfortable or equipped to teach their child about. Evolving technology means that future RSE amendments will need to take into consideration concerns such as cybersex arenas and the darker side of virtually reality.

It’s clear that RSE needs to keep up with the world around us and develop to meet the needs of the next generation. Puberty is occurring earlier – it’s not uncommon for girls to be starting menstruation as young as eight years olds – so it’s essential that they’re prepared for this. In primary schools, teaching guidance for sex education falls within the remit of the National Curriculum for science, which means that children’s first, officially taught messages on the subject will be limited to a heterosexual / procreation perspective. This runs the risk of establishing heterosexuality and procreation as the accepted form of sexuality.

While the new guidance states that ‘teaching about LGBT is expected during pupils’ school years’, it allows schools to decide at what age this is appropriate, despite the fact that research shows that LBGT issues increasingly impact younger children. When you look at the statistics, there is a significant rise in the number of children and adolescents who are questioning ‘conventional gender expectations’ and the number of children that are socially transitioning is also increasing, whilst the ages of those children are decreasing. Children encounter ‘Gender’ as a concept from birth – usually from a cis-gender bias – so it’s essential to teach tolerance at an early age and ensure children know it’s ok if they feel different to the ‘norm’ they have encountered.

Of course, this requires teachers to be comfortable with LGBT issues, with sex, and their own sexuality to deliver effective learning, and it should require time with specialists to help them in their teaching. There’s a risk that already overworked teachers who are unconfident in delivering this material will default to solely the mandatory teaching requirements, which falls short of what is required.

And it goes beyond Sex Ed or PSE lessons – an atmosphere of tolerance and understanding should be harmoniously integrated into the day-to-day life of pupils and the ethos of the school to ensure congruence. If we want our children to live in a society where they feel comfortable being themselves, we need to give them adequate preparation. By educating them whilst they are beginning to develop their values and beliefs about themselves and others, we can empower the next generation to be happier, more tolerant and better prepared to face the world in which they live.