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Changes to school sex ed must go further

By Kate Hilpern

Lesbian, gay or bisexualSex ed is back in the news again. The latest criticism is that not enough children in primary schools are being taught what it means to be lesbian, gay and bisexual. In response to the DfE’s consultation on relationships and sex education, which closed earlier this month, the Royal College of Paediatricians and Child Health has called on the government to make a ‘clear statement’ that teaching about healthy relationships must include discussions around LGBT+ people and relationships.

As it stands, schools in England are allowed to determine how they address LGBT+ content, although Scotland is ahead of the game, having recently announced that it will become the first country in the world to ensure school sex ed is inclusive of LGBT+ issues.

With recent research showing that nearly half of school pupils have heard friends use discriminatory or negative language towards LGBT+ students – and that more than one in three young people have been called gay or lesbian as an insult - the college rightfully claims that making sex ed more inclusive is the only way to make it fit for the 21st century.

The DfE’s move to consult on sex education is long overdue. Sex ed in this country has been left untouched for a whopping 17 years – particularly shocking in view of how much the internet has changed the landscape for young people and their understanding of sex and relationships. No wonder the government has engaged with a wide range of expert organisations, with the aim of at last modernising sex ed, in which the emphasis at primary level is on building healthy relationships and staying safe while in secondary school the focus on relationships (and later, sex) becomes heavier.

There is much to celebrate about this. Consent will be taught from the age of four – essential given the growing number of reported sexual assaults carried out by children and the rise of the #MeToo campaign. In Kenya, consent classes have reduced instances of sexual harassment – evidence that it works better than using vague and easily manipulated words like respect. Moreover, online safety - currently absent from many school sex education agendas – will become central to what young people are taught, with the inclusion of issues like sexting. Lessons on the laws surrounding sexual exploitation, harassment and domestic abuse will also be included in the updated guidelines.

But, as the Royal College of Paediatricians and Child Health has revealed, there is still some way to go in getting it right for the next generation.

There are other issues to address too. Faith schools, for instance, still get to devise sex ed to reflect their faith's beliefs. More than three-quarters of state-funded secondary faith schools in England are failing to teach Sex and Relationships Education (SRE) impartially, according to a National Secular Society report of 600 such schools earlier this year. The report found that 77 per cent are instead teaching the subject in accordance with religious scripture. This can mean anything from criticising sex outside marriage to contraception and even instilling taboos around menstruation.

If the Church of England had their way, all schools would teach that abstinence and celibacy are ‘positive life choices’ – a move they proposed earlier this year. In theory, all fine and good, but there are valid concerns that what they really want to do is hold them up as superior life choices, ultimately ensuring sex ed is finger wagging and remains out-of-touch. As the feminist group Level Up has pointed out, ‘it’s a valid life choice, but we don’t think it should be taught to young people as the sole option.’

We also know that anti-abortion messages are seeping through in schools. Ten years ago, I wrote in The Guardian www.theguardian.com/education/2008/nov/25/anti-abortion-schools about growing numbers of schools inviting groups in who give messages that are not only anti-abortion, but full of downright lies that are used as scare tactics - and some digging this month revealed there is reason to believe may still going on, now with added anti-LGBT+ messages often thrown in the mix.

Sex education in schools is better than it was and it is set to get better. But let’s make sure we are going far enough. It is essential that we cover all relevant issues, not just most of them, and that we are consistent in making sure all young people get fair, objective and accurate information around issues like sex, sexual health, staying safe and relationships.

For the moment, talk to your kids when you know sex ed is coming up in school. Ask them what they learned and if they have any questions. Try to fill in the gaps. There will be no shortage of them.

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