Education

Relationships and sex education: too little too late?

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By 2020, Relationships and Sex Education in schools will become mandatory. This new legislation has been on the cards since 2000, and only now is it being properly debated.

The consultation, which contains proposals for how these lessons will be conducted, closed on 7th of November. Currently, the proposals have been partly driven by public feedback. And while they suggest many good things, they are also slightly lacking in their willingness to address more complex issues. 

For example, although there will be curriculum provisions for primary schools choosing to teach sex education, the new proposals suggest that primary school pupils do not need to be taught about unhealthy relationships and their risk factors, despite emphasis on this exact topic by campaigners. Instead, the proposals explicitly deem this kind of teaching unnecessary, and state: ‘this focus on healthy relationships will help those children who are experiencing or witnessing unhealthy relationships know where to seek help and support.’

The admittance is there: children do face unhealthy relationships in their daily lives. But apparently, this is not something that needs to be addressed head-on. It is as though learning about the ideal – a healthy relationship – will somehow prevent children from ever experiencing its opposite. 

But this then means that the children who are most vulnerable – the ones who are already experiencing unsafe and unhealthy relationships in their lives – are passed over in favour of the children who are not experiencing those kinds of relationships.   The reasoning behind this seems to be that refusing to explain what an unhealthy relationship looks like will prevent young children who are fortunate enough to experience positive relationships from ever having to confront the harsh realities that can exist. 

This reasoning is both discriminatory and ludicrous. Although some children may seem to have no problematic relationships in their lives, our formative years are often hotbeds of the very unhealthy relationships this new legislation intends to prevent. 

Think about how vulnerable and often naive children are at primary school age. And then think about how schools often function along the lines of a clearly defined hierarchy, where every pupil must respect the staff without demanding that same respect in return. We often talk about the lack of respect pupils have for their teachers, and it is certainly vital that pupils understand the value of showing respect to their teachers. But, sadly, this respect is often derived because of the power that exists in the teacher-pupil relationship. And if you want to children to understand healthy relationships, they need to understand that respect should never be given to someone simply because they weird power. 

Instead, power should be given to every individual, their rights and their autonomy.

Yet because the teacher-pupil relationship does have an unavoidable power dynamic to it, and because schools often have a pecking order of older children dominating over younger children, children who gain mysterious popularity, thriving at the expensive of the less blessed, relationships that have the potential to become unhealthy are actually a fact of school life. So there is a failure to point out the warning signs of an unhealthy relationship to a child. This also means failing to protect them not just from the wider world, but from issues that can arise in their immediate environment.

And this is why teaching unsafe relationships at primary level is crucial. They are not simply a future worry that can be dealt with as they arise. For many children, unsafe relationships are the here and now, and they cannot simply be wished or ignored away. 

Indeed, the general embarrassment in the proposals is tangible. Not only do the provisions still allow parents to withdraw their children from the sex education element of the proposed curriculum, they refuse to address worrying facets of modern life head on. For example, when trying to broach the issue of underage sexting, and the consequences this can have, the proposals merely give an oblique hint that they are talking about it at all, with the words ‘young people operate very freely in the online world’.

And this is just not good enough. If the very legislation that lays out the content of the proposed Relationships and Sex Education curriculum cannot be truly open about the realities of sex, or about the murkier side of relationships, then how can we have hope for the lessons that are supposed to be based on it? 

We do not withdraw children from maths. And we do not avoid explaining difficult equations to children through some mistaken belief that that will make the difficulty evaporate. And these provisions for Relationships and Sex Education are no different from doing that. 

Relationships are fundamental parts of human life, and they are often the most important and treasured things we have in this world. But all too often, they are damaging and harmful. 

We need to try and reduce this high number of unhealthy relationships, and to do that we must start with an honesty: an honesty towards all, and especially towards, our children. 

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