The number of sexual offences by under 18s against other under 18s in England and Wales rose by 71 per cent between 2013 and 2017. Such indicators highlight, among other things, the importance of appropriate, inclusive and up-to-date guidance on sex and relationships.
Issues regarding the current SRE guidance were brought to light earlier this year. The guidance was revised for the last time 17 years ago and contains, for instance, no mention of LGBT people and does not reflect the dangers faced by young people today. Additionally, it is compulsory only in council-run schools. Academies and free schools are not under local authority control therefore they do not have to follow the national curriculum. This situation is storing up problems for later on in life, creating a ticking sexual health time bomb.
Similarly, SRE is part of the curriculum in Wales, but it is not currently compulsory. The subject is not compulsory in Scotland either and schools and local authorities are responsible for deciding how to put the guidelines into practice. In Northern Ireland, the Department of Education requires each school to have its own written policy on how it will address the delivery of RSE.
In March, Education Secretary Justine Greening announced that sex and relationships education will be made compulsory in all schools in England from 2019. Thus children will be taught, at an appropriate age, about sex; but parents will still have the right to withdraw them from these classes. As for faith schools, they will continue to be able to teach in accordance with the tenets of their faith. Making SRE compulsory in all secondary schools, not just council-maintained ones, could make a real difference by preparing pupils for adulthood and enabling them to better take care of themselves and future partners.
Lessons would have particular emphasis on what constitutes healthy relationships, as well as the dangers of sexting, online pornography and sexual harassment. According to the Department for Education, in primary schools, the focus would be on building healthy relationships and staying safe, while in secondary schools it would focus on sex as well as relationships.
Last week, it was announced that children will be taught about transgender issues as part of compulsory sex and relationship education classes. The Department for Education is asking parents and young people for their opinions in an eight-week call for views on what should be covered.
Despite criticism that focuses mostly on how the measure would weaken the influence of parents, guarding the innocence of children and safeguarding their belief systems; SRE is undeniably essential to provide young people with the skills and confidence to explore healthy relationships and sexuality.