The Government Wasted an Opportunity to Make Same-Sex Sexual Education Compulsory in English Schools

A Parliamentary Committee made a sensible suggestion about making sex education mandatory in schools, so the government decided to ignore it.

by Cliff Joannou
20 July 2015, 1:35pm

(Photo via Geograph)

Last week, the government had an opportunity to make some positive changes to the lives of young people across the country, but they decided not to. A Parliamentary committee said they should make decent sex education compulsory in all schools. The government said, "nah".

Here's a brief recap: Last year VICE helped kick-off the #SameSexSRE campaign to bring age-appropriate sex and relationship education (SRE) to every school in the country. State schools currently have to deliver basic sex education which is mostly about biology and making babies – it doesn't go into relationships, body image or anything else. Faith schools and academies don't even need to do this. That's not good enough unless you think people can sort of fumble their way through life, believing old wive's tales like you don't get pregnant if you drink a pint of cola both before and after sex, 1950s style.

Crucially, the campaign focused on teaching about LGBT relationships, so that any young gay kids growing up ashamed of who they are, or in families where being gay is not OK, receive vital acknowledgment from the education system that it's perfectly fine to have the feelings they might have.

I devised the campaign and it was supported by the National AIDS Trust (NAT). Our open letter to key party leaders was signed by over 30 LGBT organisations, and added a united LGBT voice to the campaigning work of organisations like Brook, which has been calling for young people's educational rights in this area for over 50 years.

In February this year, the House of Commons Education Committee published a report, saying statutory, age-appropriate SRE is absolutely needed as part of PSHE (personal, social health and education) lessons.

The majority of parents, the media and teachers agreed. A lot of politicians agreed, with the obvious exception being the diehard Tory old guard and UKIP, who still believe that young people never think about their sexual identities until the age of 16, at which point they start sizing up a partner to marry and procreate with. And if you're LGBT, well, then obviously that's not to be discussed in schools because you will lead a miserable lonely life and, after you've popped your shameful queer clogs, eventually burn in hell for the rest of eternity.

David Cameron clearly didn't want to rock the boat before an election by saying that the proposals of the Committee made perfect sense in modern day Britain. Young people have a different perception of their physical selves than the image that exists in some MPs imaginations. There's a fascination with body image, and with it, pressures to conform. In a constantly connected, digitised society, people are using hook-up apps to meet casual sexual partners, and personal sex videos are sent without a second thought. Revenge porn is, unfortunately, a thing.

While there's an overload of sexual information, crucial knowledge is still lacking. Sexually transmitted infections are on the rise. One in five people in the UK don't know you can get HIV from sex without a condom. Three quarters of gay and bisexual young men don't receive any information about same-sex relationships at school, and at the same time new HIV diagnoses amongst this group has doubled over the past ten years. And the Government's plan to deal with all this is to bury its head in the ground. Again.

Last week, five months after the Select Committee published its findings, Education and Equalities Minister Nicky Morgan finally responded on behalf of the Government. She failed to address the main concern that the Select Committee raised – that good PSHE and SRE is still not a compulsory part of young people's education.

In her response Morgan acknowledges that the education system should prepare "all pupils for life in modern Britain" and how "schools have a critical role to play in helping to shape rounded, resilient young people that can face the challenges of the modern world with confidence."

Morgan even agrees that high quality PSHE and age-appropriate SRE teaching is "essential to keeping pupils safe and healthy, inside and outside the school gates. Young people today face unprecedented pressures posed by modern technology."

Education Secretary Nicky Morgan (Photo via Policy Exchange)

But despite accepting that these are fundamental points, the government is adamant that individual schools should decide how or – in the case of faith schools and academies – if they want to teach SRE, rather than making it a statutory requirement. So a conservative Catholic school can continue to gloss over LGBT issues, or even opt out of this "essential" lesson.

Morgan even agrees that there is "more that [the government] can do to emphasise its importance and improve the quality and provision of PSHE education which is not yet good enough in too many schools." Still, they've decided not to make these vital life lessons compulsory, in order to keep a small group of conservative traditionalists happy.

Funnily enough, it's a Conservative – Neil Carmichael, MP for Stroud – who has the most damning words for Morgan over this. As Chair of the House of Commons Education Committee, he said, "The response made by the Government is disappointing. Ministers entirely sidestep the call made by MPs in the closing months of the last Parliament to give statutory status to PSHE. They also reject or brush over nearly every other recommendation made by the previous Education Committee in their key report published five months ago," he says.

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He continues, "It is unclear why it should have taken the government so long to publish such a feeble response. The inquiry found the government's strategy for improving PSHE and SRE in schools to be weak. Yet there is nothing in this response to reassure Parliament – or young people – that the situation will now improve."

It's a deeply depressing situation. With the government still settling in, it could be at least five years now – likely longer – before young people's basic right to be taught about life in the modern world is recognised.

Deborah Gold, Chief Executive at NAT, was equally unhappy with Morgan's limp response. "The Government's refusal to give all young people in this country an equal access to information is creating a two-tier education system. Depending which school you happen to go to, you may or may not have access to good sex and relationships education and you may or may not learn how to protect yourself from getting HIV in real-life situations – this is a violation of the human rights of many young people," she says.

Neil Carmichael struck a critical yet hopeful note, suggesting that the battle could still be won. "Ministers know that PSHE requires improvement in 40 percent of schools, yet they appear to see no urgency in tackling this," he said. "I am confident that the new Committee will want to pursue this matter with ministers, making use of any new evidence and questioning the Secretary of State further in due course." With a big enough public outcry, as well as support from community groups and charities like NAT, perhaps the government will be forced to reconsider.

For now, the fight for the right of young people to learn about sexuality continues, and the government has spurned a perfectly good opportunity to improve the situation.

Cliff Joannou is the Deputy Editor of Attitude magazine.


More like this on VICE:

LGBT Mental Health: Are We Doing Enough?

A Brief History of British Sex Education

Real Sex Education Means Teaching Kids the Power of 'No'

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