SexEd In England: A Lack Of Ownership

Rupert Walder

A new report plays the blame game with teachers, parents and the media. Who is really responsible for sex education?

With the highest teenage birth rate in Western Europe, sex education is a hot topic here in England. However, the actual content of the discussion about sex education seem rather less urgent and engaging than the desire to be seen as "addressing" the issue.

A nice new report published at the end of last week by the Government's Office For Standards in Education (OFSTED) variously blames a lack of specialist training for teachers, parents, and some elements of the media for not helping young people with those difficult questions about sex and sex education, relationships and contraception. Reading this report (which read rather like a "could do better" end of term report written by a hurried teacher who couldn't remember, or just didn't like, the pupil he was writing about) I was struck by the seeming desire to look for culprits that cannot be controlled—the wicked sex peddling media, the inept embarrassed parents, the uncontrollable "system." This culpability exercise does little other than devolve any sense of responsibility or ownership of the issue.

The report was designed to provide recommendations and a guide to good practice. What it did—in practice—was remind us that no political or quasi-political organisations want to take up the responsibility or the challenge for providing decent, empowering sex education for young people. In this absence of political responsibility and ownership, few are left powerful enough to engage. One parent I spoke with said that that a sex education specialist giving a talk to parents at his son's school admitted that the subject was "difficult" and that they felt ill equipped to teach it. Why promote people to positions of authority if they have no real authority?

I guess OFSTED can tick another box on their sex education in schools check list. But with no clear recommendations, I don't see how this report has contributed to very much at all. The UK Family Planning Association (UK FPA) says it will find it hard to use the report as a lobbying tool since the report does not recommend compulsory sex education. Stuart Waiton, a director at independent research charity Generation Youth Issues, takes it one step further: "On the one hand, the Government wants us parents to learn how to be good parents. On the other hand they don't feel we are up to the job." (As for that sex education expert defending their expertise as a lack of expertise? Thank goodness they were only talking to the parents.)

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A spokesperson for the UK FPA says that the report does not go far enough, and "does not join up any of the dots"—the dots being all those influences on young people in their understanding of sex and sexuality and reproductive health. If it remains conveniently unclear to some about who should be joining those dots, it is Government and local government to me every time. Only they have the authority to create such a dynamic.

Some may defend the publication of this report (tick box here…). Others, including myself, find it rather depressing that the politics around sex education in schools is mimicking the wider political culture of lack of responsibility, blaming anyone and anything but Government, and addressing important agendas with anodyne second-hand "expert" advice.

The report did have two important "findings." Firstly that abstinence education without contraception information may not work, and secondly that education in schools about HIV and AIDS is not as good as it should be. The first may be an important political message to those who do choose to support abstinence programmes. The second is a reminder of how short our (political and other) memories and sense of responsibility can be about health education priorities.

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