15 February 2023

Let’s talk about sex (education)


How did you learn about the birds and the bees?

I grew up in an uber-traditional Catholic family, and was withdrawn from all sex education lessons at school. I instead spent that time in the school library working my way through a series of books that showed how to make increasingly complicated paper planes.

So I missed all the cucumbers and condoms stuff, but I think I turned out OK in the end: I’ve got four lovely kids and an extensive knowledge of A4 aviation.

However, to make sure all children get a basic grounding in health, relationships, and sex education the Government made the first two compulsory for all schools, and sex education for secondaries, to be taught from September 2020.

As you can imagine, there were a whole range of views on what should and shouldn’t be covered. Anything in the realm of moral values is tricky to handle, given the diversity of opinion in society.

The team tasked with pulling things together were told to develop something that commanded broad agreement, and the final curriculum and statutory guidance for schools is a masterclass in consensus building.

Fast-forward to now, and how these subjects are actually being taught in schools has become an increasingly hot topic. Growing numbers of parents are complaining about their children being taught things that they’re unhappy with, or in ways that they consider too explicit for school. Some are from faith groups with particularly conservative beliefs around sex and family, but most are not.

And it’s not hard to see why they’re worried. One textbook being used in schools across the country advises teachers that:

‘It can be a good idea to leave feelings until last. Here you can emphasise that love and affection are often important parts of good sex, but not always. For others good sex is quick, rough and anonymous. You can also explore the fact that some people enjoy feeling pain during sex, which is often referred to as kink or BDSM. As with all sexual practices what matters is that sex is consensual and that partners are able to listen and respect each other’s wishes and desires.’

This is aimed at teenagers.

There also appear to be a number of cases where schools are blocking parents from seeing the material used with pupils on the grounds of copyright or privacy. One case has even been taken to the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), where the regulator found in favour of the school denying families access to resources. This amounts to saying parents don’t have a right to know what their kids are being taught.

Add this to concerns about how schools are handling transgender issues with pupils without informing parents, and the result is growing calls for government intervention. There were even amendments proposed by peers for the (now scrapped) Schools Bill last year, to make the requirement for curriculum transparency even stronger.

It wasn’t meant to be like this, so how did we get here?

Chris Jones, Ofsted’s Director of Corporate Strategy, explained:

‘Leaders were mostly asking for information on what should or should not be taught at each age. Headteachers were left to decide when something should be taught, but some perceived this as a lack of support from DfE. 

‘Guidance identifies a minimum requirement, but does not contemplate any ceiling on what can be taught at what age, so there can be pressure to go further, potentially causing conflict with some parents.’

So to be clear, the Department for Education told schools the minimum they had to cover, but not where they could or should stop. And it introduced these requirements without considering what resources were out there for schools to use. This left teachers and parents unclear about schools’ obligations, and a resources vacuum filled by various activist organisations that saw the chance to use schools to both push and make money from their own agenda.

Fear of Ofsted doesn’t help either. Schools always worry about how they’ll be judged, and while some schools have had poor inspection grades because they didn’t cover enough with their kids, no school has yet been pulled up for going too far. The pressure is in one direction only.

Ofsted will say this is because they can only inspect against the law and guidance, and these don’t state what ‘too far’ is. This is a reasonable point. Where they have previously marked schools down for practices that had not been explicitly ruled out by DfE – like kids starting GCSEs early, or the breadth or depth of specific curricula – there was an uproar by the sector and they had to pull back.

So it falls to the DfE to resolve things.

The good news is that when sex education was made compulsory the department committed to reviewing how things were going every three years, and that review is due in September.

But given the current controversy and the fact that the department is already working on guidance for schools around transgender issues, ministers should not wait until then. Though to avoid opening a Pandora’s box, I’d suggest they keep it simple and do three things.

First of all, commission a review of Relationship and Sex Education (RSE) practice, with very specific terms of reference limited to defining where a ‘ceiling’ should be for each age range, and what schools should do to involve parents in creating, delivering, and evaluating their RSE curriculum.

Secondly they should clarify to schools – and, if need be, the ICO and publishers – that parents have the legal right to see, comment upon and, if need be, share materials used for the curriculum. If there are legal blocks to this, they should explore ways to remove these.

Finally, Ofsted should explain how it will use the new guidance when inspecting, and how parents or others can flag concerns.

Transparency is nearly always the best way to squeeze out bad practice, promote better approaches, and reassure worried people. Kids ultimately ‘belong’ to their family, so RSE should always be approached as a partnership between home and school.

And if the Government can get a review of sex education right then it will mean more kids better equipped to grow up safe and healthy, albeit perhaps with less knowledge of making paper planes – but that’s probably no bad thing.

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Mark Lehain is Head of Education at the Centre for Policy Studies.