Sex and Relationships Education (SRE) is in the news again this week. It’s not surprising that this is the case. We’re interested in relationships. Children and young people want to know how to develop and maintain good relationships, and this is before we even start to discuss societal “issues” with the subject of sex. Yet our politicians – those who ridiculously control the content of what is taught in our schools – seem to think that the idea of making SRE mandatory in all schools is more than our children could bear.
This week’s topic of conversation relating to SRE is the age of consent. There’s been a proposal from Professor John Ashton, of the Faculty of Public Heath, that we should consider lowering the age of consent to ensure young people who are having sex can access sexual health advice more readily.
Whilst we appreciate his concerns, for us the important issue is how young people are supported in developing the skills to equip them to make the right choice for them. Young people mature at different times, and not all sixteen year olds are emotionally or physically mature for sex. Not all eighteen year olds are, yet some fifteen year olds might be.
Since 1985, with Victoria Gillick’s attempt to prevent local family planning services giving out contraception advice and medication to under 16s, there are have been clear procedures as to what professionals should do in such a situation. The Fraser Guidelines, outlined in the link below, clearly show that professional judgement is integral and it is up to the medical practitioner to act according to the individual’s needs, maturity and understanding.
“…whether or not a child is capable of giving the necessary consent will depend on the child’s maturity and understanding and the nature of the consent required. The child must be capable of making a reasonable assessment of the advantages and disadvantages of the treatment proposed, so the consent, if given, can be properly and fairly described as true consent.”
“…a doctor could proceed to give advice and treatment provided he is satisfied in the following criteria:
1) that the girl (although under the age of 16 years of age) will understand his advice;
2) that he cannot persuade her to inform her parents or to allow him to inform the parents that she is seeking contraceptive advice;
3) that she is very likely to continue having sexual intercourse with or without contraceptive treatment;
4) that unless she receives contraceptive advice or treatment her physical or mental health or both are likely to suffer;
5) that her best interests require him to give her contraceptive advice, treatment or both without the parental consent.”
So why would we need to change the age of consent? If these guidelines are implemented in the manner that they are set out, what would be the purpose of amending the age of consent?
It might seem pedantic, but the semantics are important. This is about the maturity of the individual not their chronological age. Yet even this masks the real issue – i.e. that young people are turning to advice from such clinics and health practitioners, often before they’ve had an opportunity to discuss such issues with a trusted adult, because they’re getting next to nothing in schools regarding an education in sex and relationships.
An integrated and relevant programme of work for sex and relationships education is vital. Alone, it’s not going to prevent every teenage conception or every sexually transmitted disease. Neither is it going to prevent the heartache of relationship breakdown or the turbulence of teenage “love”, but it might help to equip young people with skills and knowledge that would inform their attitudes and values to sex, relationships and their own bodies in order that they make the right choices – for themselves.
Now we know that Mr Gove is completely preoccupied with “facts”. One suspects that his attitude to SRE is also related to facts. Give them the facts and that should be it. Furthermore, tell them not to have sex as a fact, and that should solve the problem. Job done!
Our emphatic response to this is NO! Our children’s response to this is just as emphatic. They want more and they are entitled to more, and it’s this that needs addressing as a matter of urgency.
As with so many areas of education, Mr Gove has tunnel vision. It’s not just about what is taught but how it’s taught. It’s not just about learning facts but about how those facts are used and interpreted. Facts alone in relation to SRE (and other areas) are meaningless if they are not backed up with opportunities to explore feelings, use skills and develop attitudes that are based around the shared values of, for example, good conduct, empathy, trust and valuing oneself.
It’s also about creating an environment conducive to talking about all manner of sensitive issues. SRE should never be a one-off lesson. Neither should it be about PSHE lessons alone. If we are going to develop the skills and attitudes for good relationships in our younger generations, we need to model good relationships in all aspects of school – in all curriculum areas, in all relationships in school.
It’s these things that we should be concerning ourselves with. We shouldn’t allow ourselves to be distracted by a debate about the age of consent when we still haven’t faced the ever-so-pressing issue of the fact that our children need and want SRE NOW in schools, in a place where they feel safe to talk, to think, to consider and then to act accordingly.
To that end, it was so good to see Luciana Berger MP – shadow Public Health minister, and the journalist Laurie Penny talking real sense on Channel Four News this week.
Both women were excellent advocates of quality SRE.
Both women made a clear call for the need for compulsory SRE. Laurie Penny reiterated our own thoughts that the age of consent was not the issue we should be discussing, and that there was far more significance in getting SRE right for children. Luciana Berger once more restated Labour’s commitment to make PSHE compulsory should they be elected at the next election. Such a pity that they didn’t have such foresight in their 13 years of government!
Young people need to know the facts about sex but most of them already do. They need to know about the law. They need to know the consequences of sexual behaviour – on mind, body and spirit. But they need to know a lot more than facts, and they need to see and experience quality relationships throughout the school. They need to develop communication skills, resilience, empathy, compassion and these areas shouldn’t be restricted to a token PSHE lesson. These are skills that should be modelled and learned in abundance everywhere in school.
And it’s these skills that will be most useful to them when they come to a time when they might consider having a sexual relationship, irrespective of whether they are legally permitted to do so.
Professor John Ashton is absolutely right to raise the issue of young people and sex.
He’s right when he says, “We need a debate here. It’s time the adults started talking about the situation to take these enormous pressures off children and young people from becoming sexually active too early.”
He’s right when he says that “At the moment youngsters are getting the most incredible messages from pornography, from social media. What we are seeing is more physical abuse and mental abuse in relationships” and that “pornography was causing young people to have “strange expectations” of their relationships and this needed to be “corrected” by open discussion in a sensible environment.”
He’s also right when he says that teachers and others working with children and young people need to “feel on a firmer footing” when talking about sex and relationships.
All of his concerns could be met through a whole-school approach to relationships education and by making quality SRE statutory, and not by changing the law on the age of consent.
As we said in a previous post, for this, the fight continues……………….