Test 13 January, 2017

Tackling disadvantage (III): why statutory sex education should not be delayed

On Tuesday, a clause proposing to make sex and relationships education (SRE) statutory was defeated in a public bill committee. While the ideas underpinning the proposal appeared to be receiving cross-party support, objections were focused on the homogeneity of the group behind the proposal (all Labour women), concerns over school autonomy, and on insistence that initiatives are under way in a “timely and considered manner.”

Reforming the provision of SRE could not, however, be called rushed. Within the last two years, not just one, but twocommittee reports have concluded in favour of a statutory requirement – in fact, this was already recommended by an independent review in 2009.

Opponents to statutory SRE often put forward reasonable arguments: they want to allow school leaders the autonomy to decide what is best for their pupils, and avoid implementing any unhelpful box-ticking exercises. However, it is repeatedly pointed out that not only would a statutory requirement add SRE to teacher training and ensure that all schools have a person responsible for its provision, it would also send a strong signal to schools that SRE is a legitimate priority of teaching hours (given its more rigorous Ofsted inspection). It is important to note that Tuesday’s proposal did not suggest that specific methods of providing SRE should be prescribed, nor that students should lose the right to withdraw from classes.

Widening and improving the provision of SRE would sit well with a number of the Government’s aims. For one, the Prime Minister has, on several occasions, declared her intentions to reduce the impact of socioeconomic factors on life chances. Teenage pregnancy, for example, is more likely to happen to girls who live in deprived areas, have lower educational attainment and are on free school meals. Generally, evidence tends to show that women of lower socioeconomic status have higher rates of abortions, and a disproportionate percentage of women needing abortions in the UK are Black or Black British. Like many health conditions, socioeconomic status is also tied to higher rates of sexually transmitted infections (STIs).

Furthermore, there is an increased focus, especially in health services, on prevention over cure. A DfE report from 2010 acknowledged the significant cost of abortions to the NHS, a point occasionally picked up by national media. The official commissioning guidance for sexual health services also points out the value of a wide variety of preventative measures to “support people to develop the knowledge and skills to prevent poor sexual health and therefore reduce demand for services such as STI testing and treatment.” In addition, drastic increases in the reporting and recording of sexual offences makes it an urgent priority for police forces. With young women at the highest risk of assault, and a recent Women and Equalities Committee report finding that much of this takes place in schools, schools are a natural place to direct resources.

The question is therefore: can SRE make a difference? Although the conclusions of studies vary, there are clear indications that receiving comprehensive sex education increases the likelihood of condom use and generally decreases sexual risk-taking. Moreover, sex and relationship education has been shown to reduce the likelihood for both men and women of their first partner being age-discrepant, and perhaps more startlingly, also seems to reduce by more than half the likelihood for women to state that their first sexual experience was unwanted. The evidence is significantly stronger that sex and relationship training encourages positive rather than negative sexual behaviour in young people, and it therefore appears to be a myth that providing information may advance engagement in sexual behaviour.

Taken together, the evidence leaves few excuses for the Government to delay action further. The reasons presented for inaction are woeful − if the Government has better reasons for stalling, they should put them forward now.