Disraeli was the first politician to write of Britain being “Two Nations”, but nearly 200 years on schools across the country are having to contend with a seemingly impossible division of views when it comes to the delivery of Relationships and Sex Education (RSE).
On the one hand are voices such as the Children’s Commissioner, Dame Rachel de Souza, who recently published a detailed report, Evidence on pornography’s influence on harmful sexual behaviour among children, evidencing some very troubling conclusions.
This, along with an earlier report in January, presents a startling alarm call – based on analysis of national and international studies and the opinions of thousands of young people – to the dangers facing our young people.
Among its worrying findings, it states that “a growing body of evidence suggests that pornography plays an active role in the shaping and acting out of sexual attitudes and behaviours” and that “almost half of young people aged 15 to 21 said that girls now expect sex to involve physical aggression.”
The recommendations of this report were a reiteration of the need for “high-quality relationships, sex and health education” and an NVQ to “prepare teachers to deliver sensitive curriculum topics”.
But it also noted that the discussion was largely around the burden of RSE resting entirely with schools, with almost none around the role that parents and families might play.
“Reports have suggested that some RSE provision is taking away the innocence of young people.”
In direct contrast to that are a number of recent reports and briefings by politicians who have focused, instead, on a criticism of our current RSE provision. They have suggested that it is taking away the innocence of our young people and pressuring vast numbers into changing sexuality or gender.
For instance, Miriam Cates has produced a report called What is being taught in Relationships and Sex Education in our schools? In some senses it does echo the Children’s Commissioner’s report in that both are calling for the very highest quality RSE provision in schools.
Yet there is a repeated emphasis in her document on RSE as a potential threat to young people, suggesting, without referring to evidence beyond single case studies, that there is “mounting evidence of widespread indoctrination and age-inappropriate teaching that has been steadily advancing for well over a decade across the national educational landscape.”
“There is the fear that appropriate RSE may be undermined by a climate of fear.”
It is certainly right that there is discussion needed about what and how we teach young people in schools, and it is likely that some RSE teaching (as with all teaching) either in school or with external providers has fallen short of what we would want.
Yet the fear must be that appropriate, and necessarily explicit, RSE teaching for children who have often seen pornography at the age of 11 may be undermined by a climate of fear that all RSE is inherently dangerous.
That possibility that Cates’ report could have had somewhat of a political bias might be seen from her rhetorical questions at the end of the report, such as: “Are unregulated, commercial interests corrupting RSE provision?” and “Should love, procreation and/or the concept of motherhood and fatherhood have a special place in RSE and why are there currently next to no resources about this fundamental aspect of humanity?”
Talk of corruption might suggest that Cates already knows what the answer to that first question is, and it would come as a surprise to most schools that concepts of love and parenthood are neither resourced or taught.
Miriam Cates says that she would not want Britain to be dragged into a “culture war” on this issue in the same way as the USA. However, the worry is that really useful and important objective discussions about how to guide our young people are being obscured by politically motivated rhetoric and reporting.
It is vital that the voices around this topic are measured and objective so that we can find the right guidance for schools. It is to be hoped that this will be the approach of the newly appointed commission to review RSE provision.