It’s all a bit sneaky. One of the big announcements in yesterday’s Budget was that all secondary schools would become academies by 2022. It’s a very significant – and very sneaky – move. This was a total overhaul of the education system, taking it from democratic local control and enforcing central funding from Whitehall. The act it wasn’t even in the Tory manifesto speaks volumes about their commitment to transparency and democratic accountability. One of the consequences of the move is that the national curriculum becomes irrelevant. It will still exist – there just won’t actually be any schools it applies to. The national curriculum is only mandatory for state-maintained schools, not academies. And they’re about to go extinct.
The Department of Education (DfE) will soon be putting out information outlining how some of that will work and what guarantees there’ll be about what subjects are studied. You can guess from Osborne’s idea of making maths compulsory until 18 that the core subjects will be largely unaffected by the change. But for subjects like sex ed, which many leading Tories detest, things are not so clear. Unless there is a further announcement from the government, it appears they have just scrapped compulsory sex education in England and Wales. The law around sex ed is suitably messy. In the science curriculum there’s a little bit of mandatory sex ed to do with biology. That’s the standard reproduction stuff – nothing to do with relationships and consent and spotting abuse and all that.
Then there’s a separate bit of the curriculum on sex and relationships. It’s not exactly comprehensive. The only bit they really have to teach is on sexually transmitted diseases. The other stuff is voluntary. Some schools provide a really thorough class, some skip it as much as possible. And parents can request that their children do not attend the class.
Academies do not even have to abide by this miniscule level of requirement. There is guidance but no statutory underpinning to it. They can avoid sex and relationships education altogether. There has been considerable pressure for them to change course on this. Four parliamentary select committees, five teaching unions, the children’s commissioner, the chief medical officer, the Association of Police and Crime Commissioners, two royal societies and six medical royal colleges have called for sex ed to be compulsory in all academies too. But David Cameron blocked the plans last month. Now it appears that far from becoming compulsory across the board, it is about to go extinct. With all schools becoming academies, none will have a statutory requirement to teach it.
There are some health warnings on this. All we have at the moment are logical deductions based on existing law. We still haven’t got information from the DfE on how things will change ahead of full academisation in 2022. A white paper being published later today might be revealing. Or, more likely, it might not.
But as things stand, the government has made its position on sex education quite clear. It refuses to take the expert advice and make it compulsory in academies. It constantly pretends that the tiny smidgen of sex ed which does have a statutory requirement is much more comprehensive than it actually is. There is nothing about its behaviour which suggests it is about to take a progressive, evidence-based approach to this issue. And everything to suggest that it is about to kill off what little compulsory sex education does exist.
Doing so puts children at much greater risk of sexual abuse and teenage pregnancy. It means they are unable to understand what pornography is – and what it is not – when they first come across it. It means they are more likely to engage in sexting and other teenage activities without properly understanding the repercussions. It prevents them being given a decent education in the pivotal role of consent and self-respect in emotional and romantic relationships. It deprives them of the sort of education which can help one lead a decent life. But if the government cared about that, it would have made sex ed universally compulsory years ago.
Follow Ian Dunt on twitter @IanDunt