Sex and relationship education: It’s time to speak out

Sex and relationships – an undoubtedly crucial topic in young people’s education, but how does it fare within the context of school and the curriculum? Personally, I find myself evoking images of dinosaur TVs being rolled out on trolleys; standing by are the long-suffering deliverers of these ‘vital life lessons’, ignoring the snickers of a class of teenagers watching outdated cartoons of heterosexual intercourse and tampon tips. Or, worse still, trying to austerely oversee the age-old and baffling exercise of putting condoms on bananas.

Of course, that’s only one side of it. Sex and relationship education (SRE) is more than just the fusty ‘birds and bees’ chat. Many teachers and organisations are committed to going above and beyond discussing the conventional – because let’s face it, how much of sex and relationships is conventional? They recognise how an understanding of sexuality and healthy relationships is intrinsically linked to wellbeing, self-esteem, mental and even physical health. SRE is also crucial in giving a broader awareness of the world around us, the differences in people’s sexual and emotional states and the attitudes we should take to those differences.

But it’s clear there’s more work to be done. According to statistics from the Sex Education Forum, 63% of young people rated their schools’ SRE as “OK”, “bad” or “very bad”, and nearly half (46%) said they hadn’t learnt how to tell how a relationship is healthy . This very element, the “relationship” part of SRE, is what is lacking the most from the curriculum, as well as politicians’ agendas, and yet it can have a hugely destructive impact on young people’s lives. The ever-present yet scarcely discussed issues of transgender bullying, revenge porn and non-physical violence are on the rise, with Refuge recently reporting that 56% of young people are in controlling relationships. And sadly, the longer term impact of ignoring these discussions can be tragic and irreversible; a survey reported in the Guardian found that almost half of all LGBT young people in the UK have attempted suicide . It’s clear that there has been a failure to give young people the voice and the education to escape from these desperate situations; but what is the source, and what’s being done to tackle it?

There’s no doubt that at policy level, we’ve seen positive steps. Over the recent years, there have been increasing pledges in the party manifestos to get SRE further up the curricular agenda, invest in mental health training and services in schools and fund initiatives to tackle homophobia. This year, the big milestone was the DfE announcement to make SRE a compulsory part of the curriculum. To thank are the flurry of bills and campaigns spearheaded by the likes of Caroline Lucas, Jess Phillips and Stella Creasy, who have battled to get us to this point.

But a battle is exactly what it has been, and recent statistics show a continued struggle against the persistent lack of interest right at the heart of educational standards. A report from the British Humanity Association published earlier this year showed that SRE was being “fatally neglected” by Ofsted inspectors . With the panoply of pressures already facing schools, it’s easy to see why there is a lack of impetus to provide young people with quality SRE and address those most current and concerning topics. And then there is the old adage: “It’s the kind of thing they should be learning from their parents”. And what about the huge number of students who don’t have healthy examples of relationships at home?

It isn’t that schools don’t acknowledge these facts, but rather that they don’t have the resources to address them. And we must remember, behavioural change is inherently learnt by example. How do we expect our young people to fare if they not only lack the emotional support at home, but lack it in the classroom too, where event the teachers are in a constant state of turmoil, stress and conflict?

You are probably wondering what silver lining, if any, resides in this outlook on the state of our young people’s emotional futures. One thing I can offer is a snapshot of the fantastic work of people striving to plug the gap. There are a lot out there, but below is just one group I’ve had the pleasure of working with recently.

Fumble is a team of talented, inspiring young people with a mature worldview beyond their years. They are passionate missionaries (excuse the pun) of debunking sex myths, tackling taboos, and giving the hard facts in artfully-written and often humorous online content, covering everything from non-physical violence and consent, to transgender truths and the intricacies of Tinder dating. They’re endorsed by sexual health charity Brook and are currently crowdfunding under the campaign #WhyIFumble to take their activity to the next level. Feeling charitable? You can find out more about supporting their work by visiting their crowdfunder page here.

So perhaps there is, after all, an optimistic note on which to end this blog. By continuing to support the work of dedicated charities, politicians, teachers, parents, carers and individuals, we can work towards ending the stigmas, myths and struggles that riddle the lives of so many young people. 

About the author

Hannah Furrer

Hannah has risen up the ranks from intern, and hasn’t looked back! She heads up Shell’s STEM competition, The Bright Ideas Challenge, supports the running of LifeSkills created with Barclays, and is leading the launch of a flagship educator wellbeing programme for Bupa. She loves getting creative with her projects and seeing the impact her work can have on individuals and their communities.

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