Overcoming the ignorance of basic sex education

Are schools doing enough to prepare children for adulthood? Lucy Emmerson, co-ordinator of the Sex Education Forum, throws down a challenge.     

Are schools doing enough to prepare children for adulthood? Lucy Emmerson, co-ordinator of the Sex Education Forum, throws down a challenge. 

sex education forum
Sex and relationships education. Picture: iStock

Another academic year is underway, and schools in England can again choose whether or not to teach sex and relationships education (SRE).

The evidence in favour of making SRE a requirement in all schools is stacked higher than ever.

One girl in four starts her period before she has learnt about them, and 38% of boys do not learn anything about wet dreams before they experience them (Sex Education Forum 2016a), shows that even biological aspects of SRE are falling short.

Acting before it’s too late

Some schools have chosen not to teach SRE, or they have decided to teach a one-off lesson -that may be too late. Half of young people leave primary school without having learnt how to get help about sexual abuse (Sex Education Forum 2016b).

Yet research shows that when children are taught to identify what constitutes abusive rather than healthy behaviour, it results in earlier reporting of sexual abuse.

So why is evidence being ignored? A barrier is adult misconceptions, particularly with SRE for younger children.

New tools

The Sex Education Forum has produced a curriculum design tool which sets out questions that SRE can explore at each age and stage for: lifecycles, relationships, feelings, my body, people who can help me, and keeping safe and looking after myself.

Some key questions to explore with children age 3-6 are:

  • What do we call the different parts of girls’ and boys’ bodies?
  • Which parts of my body are private?
  • When is it OK to let someone touch me?
  • Who should I tell if someone wants to touch my private parts?

Presented with information about what SRE actually covers, few adults dispute the importance of this teaching.

Children and young people want information from reliable sources. The 2013 National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles in Britain (Natsal-3) found young people rated school, parents and health professionals as their preferred sources of information.

Friends, first sexual partners and pornography scored much lower, yet are often how young people learn about sex.

Advocating action

School nurses alone cannot fill the gap in SRE, but can act as advocates; explaining the need for SRE to head teachers, supporting teachers with training and up-to-date health information and providing one-to-one advice for pupils. 

The Sex Education Forum, a coalition of organisations working for good quality SRE, does not accept the status quo.

The campaign SRE – It’s My Right – focuses on securing legislative change to make SRE statutory.

Many MPs are calling for better SRE and the Women and Equalities select committee inquiry into sexual violence and harassment in schools recently added its voice to those calling for the subject to be made statutory in all schools.

There is a groundswell of support for high-quality SRE across the country, and we must make government sit up and listen, so that every child is guaranteed this vital part of their education.  


Sex Education Forum 2016a

Sex Education Forum 2016b

SRE Curriculum design 

Lucy Emmerson is co-ordinator of the Sex Education Forum at the National Children’s Bureau, London

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