Sex education in the UK is changing — but can laws change culture?

LGBTQ relationships and online safety will be included on the RSE curriculum for the first time

A classroom full of empty desks

A fortnight ago, the UK announced the most radical overhaul of its relationships and sex education (RSE) curriculum in two decades, set to come into force in September 2020.

It’s a catalogue of firsts for the UK: it’s the first time LGBTQ relationships will be included in relationships and sex education; the first time sex ed will be compulsory across all schools, whether public or private; and it’s the first to deal with sexting, image sharing and online safety.

But is legislative change enough to protect and empower young people?

Rewriting the rulebook

The new legislation reflects tectonic shifts in social attitudes towards sex and gender since the last legal framework, passed in 2000.

“This is the first time that LGBT issues have been included in relationship and sex education,” said Laura Russell, Head of Policy at LGBTQ charity Stonewall. “It’s been a long, long time coming.”

That’s a radical change: the 2000 legislation was developed while the controversial Section 28 of the UK’s Local Government Act was still in force, a law which banned local authorities from “promoting” homosexuality, which effectively stopped any mention of LGBTQ issues at government-run schools.

“The new guidance is clear that teaching shouldn’t be one drop-down day, but that LGBT issues should be mainstreamed throughout education, so if you’re talking about consent or domestic violence, you also talk about them in the context of same-sex relationships,” said Russell.

LGBT issues aren’t the only new topics on the agenda, however. Online safety, revenge porn, sexting, and a range of women’s reproductive health and rights issues are also included for the first time in British history.

Perhaps most significant is not the content of the new law, but the fact it makes comprehensive sex ed mandatory in all schools, whether public or private.

“We are delighted that, from September 2020, relationships and sex education will become mandatory in all secondary schools, including those in local authorities, academies and faith schools,” said Emily James, Policy and Public Affairs Manager of the Family Planning Association UK. The old system of opt-outs and different obligations for different schools meant that SRE provision was uneven, if it was taught at all.

The new law is the first attempt to standardise knowledge across a generation.

Tempered optimism

For some, the UK’s legislation is a missed opportunity, however.

“It’s still missing a positive approach to sexual health and sexuality,” said Emily James.

Much of the new guidance focuses on preventing new dangers, particularly in terms of online safety and nude image sharing.

That’s partly because it grew out of amendments to the Children’s and Social Care Act in 2017, a legal document primarily concerned with safeguarding and wellbeing.

Equipping young people with the information and tools to make informed decisions and keep themselves safe is vital, said James, but as a consequence, the guidance elides any focus on the fulfilling aspects of sex and relationships.

“It’s really important we talk about sex in a positive way, in terms of pleasure and all of the other things it brings to human life and sexuality,” said James, not simply in terms of preventing sexually transmitted infections or negative online relationships experiences.

But according to Karolina Beaumont, a researcher who authored a Europe-wide comparison of sex ed laws, national legislation doesn’t always translate into real-world improvements without a careful monitoring and oversight, both by teachers within schools and external NGOs.

“The limit of the law is always its application,” said Beaumont.

Countries with comprehensive legislation do not necessarily have the most comprehensive sex education in schools: the beliefs of individual teachers, but most of all their competency, can still mean that SRE varies dramatically between schools, even in the Nordic countries.

In Sweden, the SRE curriculum is among the world’s most progressive, but uneven implementation means that some 96% of students think aspects of their sexual education are inadequate.

And in Denmark, where sex ed is given a whole week of lessons and workshops, in addition to lessons threaded through the usual curriculum, a recent inquiry found that many teachers don’t have the required knowledge to teach the SRE curriculum.

“Teacher training is vital,” she said. “If teachers know what to talk about in a holistic way, that facilitates success.” If teachers aren’t adequately educated about how to talk about the new curriculum, its impact will be limited.

Her review, and others, all point to the same conclusion: that progressive legislation only goes so far. Without extensive training of teachers, the robust oversight and support of civil society organisations, and the support of parents, legislation can only accomplish so much.

The road ahead

In some parts of the UK, the reforms are already running into opposition. In Birmingham, the UK’s second largest city, the parents at one primary school have pulled their children from lessons and staged street protests in objection to LGBTQ-inclusive lessons.

For now, the school has suspended teaching. It remains to be seen if the school is an exception or merely the first of more to come. Despite years of consultation, resistance still exists to comprehensive sexual education.

The legislation may have passed, but the individual culture of each UK school will still determine its implementation. — Edward Siddons

(Picture credit: Pixabay)

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