In the UK, school-level sex education has been in dire need of an upgrade, with revisions to the guidelines last taking place in the year 2000.
It was recently announced that Relationships and Sex Education (RSE) lessons in the country are finally getting new guidelines from the Department of Education (DfE), and that three new subjects will be added to the new curriculum, starting September next year.
The new additions include relationships education from primary school; relationships and sex education at secondary school; and health education for all ages.
In these lessons, students will learn about the importance of sleep, how to spot anxiety and other mental health problems in their peers, as well as menstrual health, the dangers of sexting and meeting strangers online, how to address cyber-bullying and trolling, and more.
From the early age of four years old, they will be taught how to be safe online, the link between physical and mental health, and the intricacies of human relationships.
Damian Hinds, UK Education Secretary, acknowledged that growing up and adolescence is hard enough, but the internet and social media add new pressures for current and future generations.
He revealed at the House of Commons on Monday that £6m would be channelled in 2019/20 to cover training and resources.
Hinds said, “Almost twenty years on from the last time guidance on sex education was updated, there is a lot to catch up on. Although sex education is only mandatory to teach at secondary, it must be grounded in a firm understanding and valuing of positive relationships, and respect for others, from primary age.
“In turn positive relationships are connected with good mental health, which itself is linked with physical well-being. So it is appropriate to make health education universal alongside relationships and sex education.”
The lessons will also include awareness of female genital mutilation (FGM) for secondary school students, highlighting the illegality of the violent practice and the availability of support networks, as well as how to be tolerant towards the LGBT community.
According to the BBC, the updated guidance said that “some people are LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender], that this should be respected in British society, and that the law affords them and their relationships recognition and protections.
“Schools should make decisions about what it is appropriate to teach on this subject and when, based on the age, development and religious backgrounds of their pupils, and should involve their parents in these decisions.”
Parents who aren’t on board with these new guidelines have the right to withdraw their child from public schools from up to age 15, but head teachers are expected to talk to parents who wish to exclude their child from these lessons, which will become mandatory in 2020.
While several charities and NGOs have welcomed the UK’s new and improved framework for sex education, there has been some backlash over the new guidelines from Christian, Jewish and Muslim conservative groups.
A petition calling for parents to have the right to opt their child out of sex education lessons has attracted over a hundred thousand signatures.
It says, “We believe it is the parent’s fundamental right to teach their child RSE topics or to at least decide who teaches them and when and how they are taught. We want the right to opt our children out of RSE when it becomes mandatory in Sept 2020.
“We have grave concerns about the physical, psychological and spiritual implications of teaching children about certain sexual and relational concepts proposed in RSE and believe that they have no place within a mandatory school curriculum.”
Other campaign and charity groups have welcomed the compulsory sex education and its new guidelines, although there are some concerns that the reforms won’t go through as planned in order to appease conservative groups.
I’m glad the UK govt has resisted attempts by fundamentalist religious groups/ individuals to censor vitally important topics. In a modern society, we must make clear that there are certain non-negotiables, whether that be the horrors of FGM, consent, respect for LGBT etc. #RSE
— Adam Long (@adamlong80) February 25, 2019
Rachel Krys, Co-Director of the End Violence Against Women coalition, urged the government to make it clear that the new guidance would include mandatory teaching on sex and sexuality, stereotypes about men and women, the law on consent and LGBT equality.
She said, “Reports of sexual violence and harassment in schools are increasing, but the DfE’s previous plans included worrying references to ‘virtues’, and suggested children be taught about resisting or managing peer pressure.”
She said this may send out the wrong message that it is the sole responsibility of girls to keep themselves safe, ignoring the realities of harrassment and abuse.
“Teaching young people about the different forms of abuse of women and girls, and how they are connected to women’s inequality and stereotypical roles, is essential if children are really to learn how to have safe, healthy and respectful relationships.”
Chris Keates, General Secretary of the NASUWT, said: “Schools should be safe environments where staff and students of all sexual and gender identities feel included and respected. Where LGBTI equality is not mainstreamed into the work of a school this is unlikely be to the case.”
Almudena Lara, Head of Policy at the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC), said: “The NSPCC firmly believes that every child should be taught from an early age about consent, different relationships, and what abuse and harassment is, so that they learn they have the right to be treated with dignity and respect.
“Teachers must receive high-quality training and support to deliver the new curriculum, so that every school across the country meets the same high standards.”
The Catholic Education Service also supported the government’s announcement.
Director Paul Barber said: “Catholic education is centred on the formation of the whole child and age-appropriate RSE is an essential part of this. It is essential for creating well-rounded young people, for equipping students to make good life choices and for keeping our children safe.”