The following is a short article I wrote that was published in Youth Work Now Magazine (A supplement of Children & Young People Now) last week. In addition to the print copy, it can be found on the CYPNow website here.
Safe sex – or healthy relationships?
There seems to be some consternation about the dropping of compulsory sex and relationships education (SRE) from the new Children, Schools and Families Bill before it was pushed through Parliament.
Critics claimed that forcing every child to attend classes was a breach of parents’ rights and would create more bureaucracy in schools. Yet many high-profile organisations, including sexual health charity Brook, are vowing to fight to give young people the right to high-quality SRE.
Good SRE is vital for young people and I would support the call to make it compulsory. However, the problem I’ve observed is that in schools, despite some exceptions, SRE is rarely of a high quality and often ignores important aspects of sex and sexuality.
I know one young man who is not yet in a sexual relationship. His class at school has talked about condoms and sexually transmitted infections during personal, social, health and economic education lessons, plus he has attended a sexual health drop-in at a local youth club. He knows how to have sex and what to do, so in many ways the education has been successful. Yet, while he may know how to take appropriate steps to avoid getting an infection, when he does start a sexual relationship, he has little idea about what constitutes a healthy and respectful relationship, or how to maintain one.
My concern is that while the biology and mechanics of sex are well covered, the emotional and relational aspects of intimate and sexual acts are rarely discussed. In SRE, the word “relationships” is largely ignored.
A survey of more than 20,000 young people by the UK Youth Parliament found that 61 per cent of boys and 70 per cent of girls aged over 17 stated they had received no information at school about personal relationships. Recent NSPCC statistics, and subsequent TV ads on abusive relationships among young people, show that this is an increasing problem that must be tackled.
Of course, as with any subject in school, the quality of SRE is only as good as the person delivering it. Often for teachers, this can be an add-on role in addition to their main subject, leaving little time for planning. Indeed, with the Children, Schools and Families Bill, it was the intention to create guidance for the school curriculum to help improve what is being taught, and assist teachers in improving their understanding and confidence in delivering it. This guidance is still going ahead, but will no longer be compulsory.
But this is more than just an issue for schools. As workers in non-formal settings, many of us are involved in SRE. From talking through personal circumstances with a club member, to running a sexual health drop-in and advice centre, we are all in a position to inspire and challenge young people around their personal relationships. For a long time, the message has been “safe sex”. It’s about time we change that message to “healthy relationships”.
You can view all my Youth Work Now articles here.