A political focus on SRE

Written by: Suzanne O'Connell | Published:
Photo: iStock

Sex and relationships education has always sparked debate and it featured in the run-up to the General Election. Suzanne O'Connell asks where schools stand on this sometimes-contentious, yet increasingly essential subject – and also looks at what constitutes good SRE

Sex and relationships education (SRE) is learning about the emotional, social and physical aspects of growing up, relationships, sex, human sexuality and sexual health. Important themes that are at the core of childhood development and have an enormous impact on adult life.

And yet, it is not compulsory for schools to teach it. Speaking to Headteacher Update, Lucy Emmerson from the Sex Education Forum explained the situation at present: "Currently sex and relationships education is not statutory, it is only basic biology that is required and this applies to maintained schools only – leaving out free schools and academies.

"This is unacceptable, and means that many children and young people are growing up without vital age-appropriate information, for example about appropriateness versus abusive behaviour and about sexual health and relationships."

Any school that provides SRE has a statutory duty to have "due regard" to the secretary of state's Sex and Relationship Education Guidance, but, published in 2000, it cannot be expected to cover the changing environment in which young people are growing up.

The Sex Education Forum is campaigning constantly for SRE to have statutory status. The It's My Right campaign was used in the run-up to the General Election as a platform for its message.

The Sex Education Forum is campaigning for SRE to be compulsory in all schools, and for teachers to have training in the subject. Ms Emmerson continued: "We want parents to be involved in SRE too with better communication between schools and home. The Education Select Committee recently recommended that SRE become statutory in primary and secondary schools, and we urge the next government to act on this."

The views of the Select Committee

The Education Select Committee report, published in February 2015, recommends that PSHE and SRE are made statutory. It states: "We accept the argument that statutory status is needed for PSHE, with sex and relationships education as a core part of it. We recommend that the Department for Education develop a workplan for introducing age-appropriate PSHE and SRE as statutory subjects in primary and secondary schools, setting out its strategy for improving the supply of teachers able to deliver this subject and a timetable for achieving this."

The committee made a number of additional recommendations including that schools should regularly consult with parents about SRE and that this should be monitored by Ofsted.

The MPs would also like to see the government monitoring schools' compliance with the requirement to publish information about PSHE and SRE on their websites.

They recommend that the Department for Education (DfE) restores funding for the National PSHE CPD programme, with the aim of ensuring that all primary and secondary schools have at least one teacher who has received specialist training in PSHE.

They would like to see the DfE taking a stronger lead in requiring that primary schools teach the proper names for genitalia as part of the national curriculum. However, they hold back from removing the right of parents to withdraw their children from elements of SRE.

However, the Select Committee can advise, but it doesn't make legislation. So how did the political parties take up this strong steer from the MPs?

The manifestos

Most politicians did recognise that the status of PSHE and SRE was a campaigning matter. In their manifestos we were given a taste of what the main contending parties had in mind (or didn't):

  • Conservatives – no mention in their manifesto of either PSHE or SRE.
  • Labour – promised compulsory SRE.
  • Liberal Democrats – committed to compulsory PSHE.
  • Green Party – committed to compulsory PSHE.
  • UKIP – would abolish SRE for primary-aged pupils.

The PSHE Association has raised concerns not only at the complete absence of either SRE or PSHE from the Conservative manifesto but also at the segregation of SRE from PSHE as a whole by the Labour Party.

In its response to the manifesto, it stated: "The message to schools would be that there are two tiers within PSHE education, with the sex and relationships element to be prioritised over the other components of the subject, such as mental health and character education."

What is good SRE?

In spite of commitment to SRE in legislation, schools have filled in many of the gaps themselves and continue to teach the subject while politicians debate it. However, it is still not an easy area to tackle, with parents still able to withdraw their children, and governors and other members of the school community often having a clear view about what it should and should not contain.

The guidance document Sex and Relationships Education (SRE) for the 21st Century was produced by Brook, the PSHE Association and the Sex Education Forum. It provides a good basis on which a school might put together both its SRE policy and scheme of work. The document advises that SRE should not only be covered in science and PSHE but should be linked to the ICT/ computing curriculum too.

Younger pupils should be taught that their body belongs to them and that they can say who has access to it. They should learn to respect the boundaries of their own and other people's bodies and be aware that everyone has the right to offer or withhold consent.

Children need to learn the correct biological/medical names for genitalia and reproductive organs. It is an important part of safeguarding that children can use the correct language to describe the private parts of their body. Being able to name these can help girls at risk of female genital mutilation and enable children to discuss the things that have happened to them.

Developing respect for one another is key. This is usually part of a school's ethos, but should also be reinforced through the curriculum. Children should be helped to listen to one another's views and learn how to challenge ideas in a non-confrontational way.

Perhaps most important is the training of those with a key role in the delivery of SRE. The uncomfortable feelings that some teachers may have need to be voiced and explored. The importance of SRE needs to be recognised through commitment to a training programme, as would be expected in other subjects. Outside visitors should be used with caution. Any input they have should be carefully planned with the teacher and form part of a programme. What shouldn't happen is that the school nurse comes in "delivers" and goes again without any real opportunity for reflection. Pupils should be discouraged from discussing their personal experiences openly in class. It is good to establish ground rules during SRE and PSHE sessions.

The future

The debate about SRE has often been clouded by media scare stories of children being introduced to inappropriate material and pornography. This type of publicity has made the campaign to give SRE a proper foothold in our schools even more difficult. In the meantime individual schools are the gatekeepers and must work with their parents and children to develop this vital part of the curriculum, whatever the political parties decide. 

  • Suzanne O'Connell is a freelance education writer and a former primary school headteacher.

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