The title of BBC Radio Four’s Moral Maze this week was “Sex Education”. Its opening statement that “teaching children about sex is a moral, ethical and emotional minefield” is absolutely right.
This programme was aired partly as a response to the publication of the Guidelines for consent, commissioned by the government and written by the PSHE Association.
The PSHE Association has made it abundantly clear that it recommends these lessons should to be taught within a planned programme of PSHE, and that parents and school governors should be consulted on the materials to be used. Furthermore, a thorough assessment should be carried out prior to work on relationships and sex education to identify the maturity and needs of each individual group of young people.
Sex and Relationships is a holistic field of understanding, not just a discrete ‘subject’ like any other in the curriculum. As such it’s erroneous to fragment it into micro-subjects such as “consent”, “pornography” or “condom use”.
It’s complicated. Sex is complicated. Relationships are even more complicated. So to reduce SRE to a series of single ‘subject’ entities consisting of nothing more than bodies of factual information is an approach that’s deeply flawed.
We’d argue that talking about sex without the essential component of relationships is also contentious and inconsistent.
And here lies a problem.
Whilst we’re pleased that the government has realised that work on consent is necessary for our young people, it doesn’t go far enough. As the PSHE Association says, it must be contextualised so that every pupil has consistent opportunities for learning about relationships and sex – as a whole, not in a piecemeal manner or in half-measures.
Once more political prudence is placed before the needs of our young people.
Evidently there are people within Nicky Morgan’s political party who cannot and will not agree with her very clear message that PSHE is an essential part of learning. This is why, as a ‘subject’, it remains in the bizarre state of being non-statutory, not mandatory, whilst simultaneously being expected to be an integral part of a good and effective school.
By only talking about consent or pornography as stand-alone lessons we invite the kind of unbelievable and astounding comments that came from both the panel and the guests in this edition of The Moral Maze. It’s like suggesting that you learn about mathematics by only teaching geometry and algebra, or learn about history merely through the study of World War One and the Roman Empire.
And here’s another issue. In a programme about sex education, only once in 45 minutes was the word “learning” used. It was all about “teaching” – imparting knowledge – rather than engaging young people in an important learning process.
For those who are interested, we’ll follow up this post with quotes from the programme plus some additional comments from 3Di on the discussion.
For now, we’ll offer a few brief letters of response to the participants and hope they will convey the nature of the programme and some of its contentious content.
The panel on the Moral Maze included;
- Sunder Katwala – Director of British Futures
- Giles Fraser – Priest and Journalist
- Anne McElvoy – Public Policy and Education Editor for the Economist
- Claire Fox – Director of the Institute of Ideas
Its invited guests were,
- Sarah Carter – Foster parent, educator and trustee of Family Education Trust.
- Joe Hayman – CEO of the PSHE Association
- Dr Ellie Lee – University of Kent, Social Policy. Centre for Parenting Studies.
- Professor Kaye Wellings – Professor of Sexual and Reproductive Health Research, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine
A quick question. Do any of the above have a qualification in teaching? How many, apart from Kaye Wellings, have ever taught Sex and Relationships Education?
Dear Sarah Carter,
What a pity you didn’t begin your comments where you ended – with the statement that the ideal approach to teaching and learning about sex and relationships is a partnership between the school and the parents/carers. Good schools do this as a matter of course. It’s obvious that there needs to be agreement and consultation. Where we take issue with you is your assumption that SRE should solely be the responsibility of the parent. What if parents feel uncomfortable or ill-equipped for such discussions? What if the parent is an abuser? Then they’re not going to talk to their child about their rights. Whilst we understand your concerns about neglected and abused children “unravelling” when proper consultation hasn’t taken place prior to an SRE lesson, this is a management issue. It’s also a safeguarding one. No child should have to suffer in silence if they are being sexually abused on account of not knowing that what has been done to them is wrong.
(PS – you may well be able to police what the children in your care view on the internet within the comfort of your own home, but what about when they step outside, when their friends show them images, when they look up and see the sexualised society all around them?)
Dear Joe Hayman,
Thank you for making the very clear point that training is essential for teachers of SRE and PSHE. We don’t expect an untrained person to teach maths so why are we still in a situation where teachers are expected to teach about SRE without proper training? It defies logic. Thank you also for pointing out that consent can be learned early in preparation for discussions on sexual consent. Thank you also for being the only person to mention the word “learning”.
Dear Ellie Lee,
You’re right to say that the primary purpose of schooling is to educate but true education goes beyond the acquisition of “basic bodies of knowledge”. What people do with that knowledge is equally important. We can talk about relationships and sex education through other subjects but therein lies the danger that some will not receive the education to which they’re entitled. It needs to be planned just as we plan to learn French verbs and then use them in conversation. The appalling cases of child abuse in Rotherham and elsewhere may not have been prevented entirely by SRE but if the perpetrators had been given the opportunity to learn about and discuss their attitudes to sex, and to have them challenged, and if the victims had learned about relationships and had an opportunity to discuss what constitutes manipulative and abusive behaviour, then there could have been a different outcome.
(PS No proper teacher of PSHE wants to ‘invade’ a child’s personal life. A well-planned PSHE lesson makes it explicit that personal disclosures from teacher or pupil within the whole class setting is inappropriate. No teacher is going to sit in front of a group of teenagers and say “talk about your sex life”.)
Dear Kaye Wellings,
Thank you. Just thank you – for being a voice of reason. Thank you for outlining the importance of the positive delay message, which clearly says that sex is too important to rush into, and that if taught properly such a message will delay sexual activity. Thank you for pointing out that our young people aren’t “hermetically sealed off” from a sexualised world, and that we need to address this fact.
Dear Sunder Katwala,
Thank you for pressing the points about consultation with parents, about the difficulties that our teenagers face, and for making it clear that not all parents are in a position to or feel capable of talking to their own children about sex. Thank you also for making the clear point that education should include an understanding of the society that you are going to be part of…… and indeed are part of now.
Dear Giles Fraser,
We understand your concerns about childhood and protecting our children, but teaching and learning about sex and relationships shouldn’t rob children of their childhood if approached properly. Careful work on relationships should enhance childhood not detract from it. Not every parent has the foresight to plan for talking to their children about sex as you so carefully did. Some parents don’t get that opportunity until it’s too late. You talked about the ethics of teaching consent, and again, it’s right to consider this but what of the ethics of not learning about consent? More failed relationships, more young people ill-equipped to deal with negative behaviour? More young people not understanding and enjoying the positive nature of sex and relationships when they are ready and mature enough to make decisions and choices about their sexuality?
Dear Anne McElvoy,
Thank you for raising some important points and for being honest enough to say that when it comes to sex, parenting is hard and ambiguous and we sometimes get it wrong. You were spot on when you said that “ignorance is not the same as innocence”. We can have innocence without ignorance. That’s what good quality SRE from an expert should do – exactly that. We do have a moral duty to respond to the times, however challenging that might be.
Dear Claire Fox,
Can we please reiterate the point we made earlier? No decent SRE lesson would ask a child to talk about their sex lives. That is wholly inappropriate. You’re right that we should consider the purpose and the point of sex education, including your pertinent question about what constitutes a healthy relationship. Young people deserve the opportunity to consider this too – in a safe environment where misinformation can be challenged without imposing a certain view or standpoint. Sensible, well-planned PSHE enables young people. It allows them to make their own decisions and not be dictated to or exploited by anyone else. Knowledge is important but so too are the skills that enable young people to apply knowledge and behave wisely. Please be assured that a properly trained teacher of PSHE would never “intervene in their minds and in their hearts and their emotions”. That’s not the role of a good educator.
We conclude with words from Nicky Morgan to emphasise the point that talking about consent or pornography in a decontextualized and piecemeal manner is inappropriate and harmful, as the Moral Maze programme demonstrated.
“We need to address the whole child. ….. I want more schools to put high-quality PSHE at the heart of their curriculum. It is an essential part of their responsibility to prepare young people for life in modern Britain.
“A good PSHE education should cover all of the skills and knowledge young people need to manage their lives, stay safe, make the right decisions, and thrive as individuals and members of modern society.”