Nelson Mandela said 'education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world'. So it seems in most areas of education we would all agree. Yet in the field of sex and relationships education we continue to debate the evidence and invest heavily in research to try to make links between sex and relationships education and improved health outcomes, particularly teenage pregnancy.
Since I started working in sex and relationships education 20 years ago I have firmly believed in children and young people's rights and entitlements to a good quality education that is honest, factually accurate, developmentally appropriate and positive about sexuality. The following Articles of the UN Convention have particular relevance - Article 12 (respect for the views of the Child), 24 (health and health services), 28 (right to education) and 34, 36 (to be protected from sexual exploitation and other forms of exploitation).
I believe that knowing how to add up is a precursor to being able to budget well. But knowing how to add up will not mean one budgets well. I believe learning to read is important for all sorts of reasons but learning to read will not mean one reads books or obeys the highway code. Still I don't need a randomised control trial to prove the value of Maths and English to me.
Neither do I need evidence from randomised control trials to prove the intrinsic value of SRE. I believe that children must know the names of body parts including their genitals if they are to stay safe; I believe that young people must know how to identify an adult they trust and understand their legal rights to confidential advice if they are to seek help when they need it; I believe that we must teach young people about the importance of respecting different views that people hold about sex, sexuality and relationships and I believe that we must teach boys and girls about consent and more. All of this will be taught through a partnership between parents, carers, schools and the wider community.
Children and young people will learn, and develop their confidence and self belief most effectively if we have a positive culture that has high expectations which are clearly communicated to them. I believe we need to work towards a culture in which
1. Parents and carers feel confident talking to their children about relationships and sexuality
2. School leaders are required to deliver good quality sex and relationships education within the context of Personal, Social, Health and Economic education (PSHE) and have the confidence and skills to do that well - understanding their school communities and working with parents and carers to develop a programme based on the principles and evidence of best practice
3. Teachers (and all those who teach) are trusted and supported to teach SRE with the sensitivity and respect to difference and diversity, ability and understanding that we trust them with all other subjects
4. Health and care professionals are fully trusted to always be acting in the best interests of young people
5. There is positive and visible coverage of diverse people with all different identities in the media and wider society.
Last week Mr Paton, Chair of Industrial Economics, Nottingham University Business School at University of Nottingham published an article on www.theconversation.com on October 24: Compulsory sex education won't reduce rates of teenage pregnancy. In his article he argues that the evidence of effectiveness is limited, that compulsory sex education won't reduce rates of teenage pregnancy and that Brook is pushing a one size fits all approach. (He does include a disclaimer statement on the article that he is a member of the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child).
The article includes a number of arguments about evidence and effectiveness including making comparisons between SRE in different countries - compulsory or otherwise. This is a distraction unless we really understand the education system, what other subjects are compulsory and what aren't and the wider culture and beliefs about young people and sexuality they are operating in.
So to recap my view is that all children and young people have a right to SRE as part of a broad PSHE curriculum. That right would be enshrined in a statutory requirement for all schools to deliver. That curriculum would be developed with the school community including pupils and parents. It would include teaching about the body, relationships, sex and sexuality, be medically and factually accurate and include the law, health information and religious and secular perspectives.
The most important and clear evidence in my view is this - children and young people tell us time and again their SRE and PSHE is not good enough. This is reflected in Ofsted's report in which 4 out of 10 schools' PSHE is 'not good enough yet'. There is an overwhelming and growing consensus in support of relevant, appropriate, sensible SRE and PSHE that is responsive to local community need.
PSHE does make an important contribution to reducing teenage pregnancy, and it is about so much more than that too - just this week we have seen three reports on drugs, suicide and sexual exploitation calling for compulsory PSHE. The only tenable option if we are to empower and support children and young people is to require all schools to deliver SRE within PSHE with clear expectations that all schools will respond to the needs of their school community.
The willingness of decision makers nationally and locally to listen to children and young people, professional opinion (including the teaching unions and expert PSHE bodies) and to create the system change required to improve SRE and PSHE is a litmus test of whether we trust children and young people, whether we are serious about tackling violence and exploitation, and whether we want to make sure they learn the facts about sex and relationships from reliable sources, not from internet porn.
We have been talking about whether to for too long, the loud, proud and compelling consensus is the time has come to stop talking about whether to and focus relentlessly on the how.