Let’s grow up about sex education

Tom Bailey 29 April 2013

Sex education is in danger of being watered down by Michael Gove's changes to the National Curriculum. In a letter to The Times more than 100 organisations and individuals including the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, the Sex Education Forum and the National Children's Bureau criticised Gove's plan. The only part of sex education that is compulsory in primary schools under the current curriculum is an explanation of human reproduction and puberty in science lessons. This compulsory science element is to be scraped under the new plans. Critics claim that "the science proposals omit any reference to genitalia, puberty or sexual health", though the government denies this. I'm not here to go through the details of Gove's curriculum reforms. I want to argue that sex education must be compulsory even if parents object to it, and if the critics are right and sex education is being watered down, then this could be a big problem.

The UK has certainly come a long way since the extremely conservative sexual attitudes seen in the 1950's, but there is still an unwelcome childishness in the way we deal with sex. We Brits are still characteristically uptight, and sex and much to do with sex is still taboo, particularly within education. This has had damaging consequences: rates of teenage pregnancy are at disturbingly high rates of 50 per 1000 teenagers, and more than 70% of new Chlamydia diagnoses were in people under the age of 25. The stats are far too high, and possibly indicative of an overly sexual culture, particularly among the young.

Sex education is the best way to ensure that, in the future, the UK has a far more healthy culture around sex. By discussing sex with primary school students, even just in science lessons, and even just by reporting the facts of human reproduction and puberty, a more open and mature sexual culture can be fostered. It will also prepare these students for sex education in secondary school, which tackles more directly the issues of relationships, STIs and pregnancy.

It should be noted that the concerns over the curriculum changes are focused on sex education in primary schools. Predictably, some have argued that we should only start sex education in secondary schools. The problem with this is that children have access to sexually explicit materials from an earlier age, and whilst, for most, sex is a wonderful and enjoyable experience, it also has a dark side, and there are dangers if children are exposed to sex in such detail so immediately. Much better to give children age appropriate material in the controlled environment of the class room. Technology is developing, and, as usual, the young adapt fastest; sex education must keep up.

There are concerns that an early sex education would exacerbate the apparent trend toward the sexualisation of youth. Besides the points made above, it should be made clear that the sort of sex education which is being proposed here takes place in science lessons. The biological facts of human sexual reproduction and puberty are all that is being taught. Condoms, abortion and gonorrhoea won't be discussed, just the biology of homo-sapiens. The only effect is to give children information they need and encourage them to be comfortable in conversations about sex. This really doesn't amount to a sexualisation of youth.

However some parents welcome Gove's changes, feeling that sex education should not be compulsory and that they should be able to remove their children from the class (this is not universal, for example Mumsnet was a signatory of the letter to the Times). The intention, presumably, is that the parents themselves conduct a home sex education. The problem is that many parents do not have the knowledge, resources and desire to give their child a good education. I have already stressed the need for children's sex ed to be comprehensive. It is only the children who will suffer if they don't receive this. Going through puberty without understanding the changes that happen to your body would make the process much more difficult. Puberty occurs during the formative years when children are becoming young adults. Bad experiences at this time in your life can have wider effects, far beyond your sex life itself.

Society needs a more mature sexual culture and Gove's proposals are a step in the wrong direction. The harm is not just in the form of STI statistics; the harm comes in the experiences of children and young people who are unlucky enough to go through puberty and have their first sexual experiences without an appropriate education to help them through this period of their lives. Society has a duty to educate its children, and this duty extends to sex education.

Tom Bailey is a second-year Philosopher from Trinity Hall.