Earlier this month the prime minister personally intervened to block a bid to make sex education compulsory across all schools. According to current law, it’s compulsory in state-run secondary schools, but not primary schools, academies or free schools. He did so against the will of the women around the Cabinet table, including education secretary Nicky Morgan, home secretary Theresa May, international development secretary Justine Greening and business minister Anna Soubry.
It was also against the vast body of evidence showing sex education makes kids safer. They have sex later, they are more likely to use protection, they are less likely to get pregnant or get someone else pregnant.
The data on the effectiveness of sex-ed is comprehensive and international. It comes with a health warning, which is the standard one about variables in large-scale data sets. Plenty of things could result in decreased teen pregnancy. And it’s likely that a country introducing sex-ed classes will also be undertaking other progressive reforms, like making free contraceptives easily available, so it’s hard to disentangle what exactly is causing it. But wherever you look, the introduction of sex-ed classes seems to have this beneficial effect (it also results in adults who have fewer sexual partners, so it’s not all good. But one shouldn’t let the best be the enemy of the good.)
Take Finland. Finland had compulsory sex-ed class from the 70s, but downgraded it to an optional subject in 1994. The late 1990s consequently saw a 50% increase in teen pregnancies, a rise in the number of 14-and-15-year-old girls having sex and a fall in contraceptive use. In 2006, the process was reversed and sex-ed was incorporated into a ‘Health’ subject which was compulsory in primary and secondary school. The teenage pregnancy trend reversed, girls started having sex at an older age and contraceptive use increased (Apter 2009).
It’s the same in the US. Three separate evidence reviews (Kirby 2007, Unesco 2009 and Nice 2010) of sex-ed programmes found they led to kids delaying their first time and increased the use of contraception.
The British National Surveys of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles found kids who said school lessons were their main form of information about sex were less likely to lose their virginity before 16, more likely to use contraception, more likely to report that the timing ‘felt right’ and more likely to say their decision to do so was autonomous and willing.
In England, provision is a mess. School inspectors found a third of primary schools and half of secondary schools need improvement in how they teach sex ed. Seven in ten teachers say they need more training to teach the subject properly.
Our failure in this area is internationally recognised. The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child found lack of education about reproduction and preparation for adult life needed urgent attention in the UK.
That’s why four Commons committees have recommended the classes become a statutory requirement, as have 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.
So why isn’t it happening? Because there are many people who hate it. The Daily Mail hates it and so does its readers. It’s an example of politically correct pervert metropolitans coming in and brain-washing their children. Faith schools hate it because they don’t want discussions about willies and fannies to get in the way of the very important things they need to tell children about an imaginary man in the sky. Academies and free schools hate it because it contravenes the promises they were made about a lack of interference from Whitehall. Michael Gove, the former education secretary, hates it because it goes against his devolved system of school governance. Libertarians hate it because they believe it contravenes the right of a parent to decide how to bring up their child.
And the prime minister hates it because they all hate it. He doesn’t lose political support on an increase in teen pregnancies a couple years from now. But he can by implementing compulsory sex-ed classes and pissing off his core supporters.
It’s a bruising abdication of responsibility. Sex-ed is the solution to so many of the problems we talk about on a day-to-day basis: Sexually-transmitted diseases, teen access to pornography, sexting, teen pregnancy, domestic abuse, emotional abuse, rape, child abuse. The list is endless. It is an opportunity to teach children the supreme role of consent in human relations: how they should expect to be treated by others, how they must treat others, what the fantasy world of pornography means and why it is different to the real world, the healthy and joyous expression of sexual life, as well as its consequences.
We can’t watch children every time they go down the street and talk to a stranger. We can’t stop them viewing porn, no matter what technologically illiterate proposal the government next comes up with. We can’t be there in the bedroom when they first have sex and conduct a survey on whether they’re really ready and what protection they’ll be using. All we can do is equip them with information before they are in those situations. And that is a responsibility we are singularly failing to live up to.
The enemies of sex-ed think they’re taking on pornographers and paedophiles and abusive partners. Quite the opposite. They are leaving children at their mercy.
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