A cosy consensus has developed between all the main political parties in Britain about the benefits of statutory sex and relationships education (SRE) in schools. And so from September 2018, all schools will be forced to deliver SRE to children from the age 5.
Many parents feel torn about SRE in schools. Their natural instincts are that primary school is just too young to deal with many of these issues and they recoil against the notion that schools can give contraception to teens below the age of consent and without parents knowing. On the other hand, it is hard to say no when all the political parties are saying that these lessons are needed to tackle sexual abuse and prevent teenage pregnancies.
In fact the actual evidence is increasingly diverging from the conventional wisdom put forward by our politicians.
Last month, the Family Education Trust set out evidence of how current approaches to sex education have facilitated the sexual abuse of minors in places such as Rochdale, as shown recently in the BBC reality-based drama Three Girls.
The report made devastating reading. To take just one example, the abuse of a vulnerable 15-year old girl with special needs was facilitated by the school nurse giving her contraception. Her parents were not informed on the grounds that it was “consensual” sexual activity and as a result, the child continued to suffer for years.
Our politicians should hang their head in shame but, astonishingly, the Government continues to endorse resources like the Brook Traffic Light aimed at helping schools to identify sexual abuse. Brook instructs schools to view sexual activity between minors aged 13 and over as reflecting “safe and healthy” development as long as it is consensual and that such behaviour should be given “positive feedback”. It is as if the abuse scandals in Rotherham, Rochdale and Oxfordshire abuse scandals had never happened.
And now this week, research by myself and Liam Wright of Sheffield University has found that areas which have implemented the biggest cuts to teenage pregnancy projects such as new SRE programmes or birth control clinics for teens have actually seen bigger reductions in early pregnancy than areas which have kept these projects going. Perhaps the natural instincts of parents might be correct after all.
Although some people have treated our findings with surprise, there is in fact a wealth of academic evidence that conventional approaches to SRE often have unintended side effects. For example, we know that access to the morning after pill not only does not reduce unwanted pregnancies but, by encouraging teens to take more risks, can increase rates of sexually transmitted infections. In 2009, the BMJ found that teenage participants in one of the most prominent programmes covering sex education and access to contraception were more likely than a control group to get pregnant.
This does not mean that schools should not provide SRE. Done well and at the right age, schools can be very helpful in supporting parents to deliver sex education. The devil is in the detail of what information is delivered, by whom and at what age. Given that statutory SRE is coming whether we like it or not, the emphasis must now shift to ensuring that schools get these details right. Catholic schools, the Catholic Education Service and our Bishops all have vital roles to play over the next few years.
Catholic schools need to bear in mind some important principles when deciding how to deliver SRE. For example:
Be completely open and transparent with parents about what you are doing and when: make it easy for parents to look at material and support those parents who prefer to opt their children out and take on the role themselves.
Have a clear and explicit policy that ensures no-one working at the school, including school nurses, will provide or help children access artificial contraception or abortion.
Make sure that children are provided with a positive view of Catholic teaching on sexuality, in all its fullness and without apology. Teaching that sex should be open to life and exclusively reserved to marriage between a man and woman may be counter-cultural but, presented in the right way, young people can find it a refreshing and attractive option.
The CES needs to ensure that schools have access to solid programmes of work that are faithful to Church teaching and grounded in Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. The obvious way to go is to adopt existing high-quality schemes from other countries such as the excellent Curriculum for Life in the US.
Finally, the bishops need to remember that it is not enough to make sure Catholic Schools are doing the right thing. Many Catholic children attend non-Catholic schools and they rely on the Bishops to stand up in the public square to argue constantly in favour of parents’ inviolable right to be the first educator of their children most especially in the sensitive area of sexuality.