Though recent news that sex and relationships education (SRE) is to be made compulsory is a promising step forward for young people, it is by no means enough. There is still a long way to go, as this legislation applies only to children in England, meaning SRE is still not yet compulsory in Scotland.
Simply making SRE compulsory is not sufficient to give children the education that they deserve. All children should have access to a non-judgemental, comprehensive, LGBTI+ inclusive education, and currently the curriculum does not provide that. Thoughtful discussions that actually address the ‘relationships’ side of SRE do not take place at the moment, with most children leaving school without having been taught about consent, healthy relationships, gender or porn.
Think back to your own experience of sex and relationships education; it seems like lots of people have similar stories about horrifying pictures of infected genitalia, classes of giggling teenagers trying to put condoms onto cucumbers, and awkward teachers stammering through the biology of the whole thing. The extent of most people’s SRE was essentially how to not get pregnant or get an STI. While this is useful information, not teaching beyond this fails young people.
It is easy to see where this comes from: in the 1990s and 2000s increasing teenage pregnancy rates were a concern to the government, who introduced new regulation on educating young people about pregnancy and contraception. Admittedly, this has worked, with teenage pregnancy rates halving between 2007 and 2014.
However, there are now different challenges facing young people. In recent years, the rise of social media in particular has created a whole host of new issues, for teenagers, from sending naked pictures to the unrealistic beauty standards on sites like Instagram.
As someone who volunteers with a student-run charity, Sexpression, teaching SRE in local schools, the lessons we are most often asked to teach are on the topics of porn, consent, and body image and the media. Having interesting discussions on these topics with young people allows them to gain a better understanding, and equips them with tools to deal with these issues in their own lives.
Most teenagers know the most basic principle of consent – no means no and yes means yes. However, an alarming number do not understand the nuances of it, for example that consent can be withdrawn at any time, or that being in a relationship still entitles you to the right to say no.
The recent news that sexual assault is ‘epidemic’ on university campuses demonstrates the impact of not learning about this in school. While universities could absolutely do a significant amount more to improve this situation, having conversations about consent with children in school would be a huge step forward.
LGBTI+ issues are another area where the education system is not doing enough. 85% of Scottish LGBT young people feel that SRE in schools does not include them, according to the charity Zero Tolerance. The Scottish Parliament has recently pledged to make the curriculum more inclusive of LGBT issues, which is an important step in tackling homophobic bullying in schools and improving the mental health of LGBTI+ youth in Scotland.
Compulsory sex and relationships education will not mean anything if it continues to ignore the ‘R’ in SRE. Hopefully this legislation will signal a shift towards a more open, inclusive and relevant curriculum that covers consent, gender, porn, healthy relationships and more. All young people have the right to learn about these topics before they leave school.
If you want to help tackle these issues, get involved with the University of Edinburgh’s Sexpression society. Find You can find out more on facebook: Sexpression Edinburgh.