Survey finds ‘inconsistent’ sex education in schools

Gaps in sex and relationships education leave too many children at risk, says Sex Education Forum

Campaigners at the Sex Education Forum are calling for mandatory status for sex and relationships education (SRE) in all schools, after a survey of young people found variations in what is currently being taught.

The survey of over 2,000 11-25 year-olds, showed that across a range of topics that could protect children and young adults from harm, such as knowing where to turn to for help if they experience sexual abuse, or information about female genital mutilation (FGM) or sexual consent, many young people are left in the dark by gaps in their SRE.

Half (50%) of those surveyed had not learnt from their primary school about how to get help if you experience unwanted touching or sexual abuse, 16% had not learnt the correct names for genitalia and even more (17%) had not leant that the genitals are private to you, all key to recognising and reporting abuse. Young people were more likely to have learnt about the difference between safe and unwanted touch from discussions at home than at school, but even so, less than half of young people (45%) said they had learnt about this with a parent or carer. 

When asked about their school SRE as a whole:

  • Over half of young people (53%) had not been taught to spot the signs of when someone is being groomed for sexual exploitation.
  • More than four in ten had not learnt about how to tell when a relationship is healthy (46%) or abusive (44%).
  • Worryingly, given that sexual assault is something that a significant minority of young people experience, lessons about sexual consent are not routinely covered in schools.
  • Half (50%) of young people had not discussed real-life scenarios about sexual consent.
  • A third (34%) had been taught nothing at all about sexual consent.
  • Only a quarter (24%) of young people said they learnt about FGM, but the figure increased to four in ten (40%) amongst 11-13 year olds, suggesting things are starting to change. 

Overall, despite signs that SRE is slowly improving, just 10% of those surveyed said the SRE they received was ‘very good’, and nearly a third (22%) said it was ‘bad’ or ‘very bad’, indicating that young people themselves are dissatisfied.

Lucy Emmerson, Coordinator of the Sex Education Forum, said: “The odds of a young person learning vital information about equal, safe and enjoyable relationships are no different than the toss of a coin. The ultimate consequence of this is that many children don’t know how to recognise abusive behaviour or how to seek help.  

“With evidence about the benefits for children and young people of teaching SRE stacked up high and a growing list of politicians calling for the subject to be mandatory, there is no excuse for Government to continue leaving SRE to chance.” 

Dr Mary Bousted, General Secretary, Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL), said: “As members of the Sex Education Forum, ATL fully supports its call for mandatory and inclusive Sex and Relationships Education. We know that education staff want high quality training so that they can deliver the SRE that will enable young people to keep themselves safe. 

“We call upon the Government to take this important step, which parents, education staff and young people all want, so that we can all help to tackle child abuse, sexual health issues and young people’s poor mental health.” 

Read more about the survey: 

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