The Department for Education is drafting guidance for schools who are now required to teach Relationships Education (RE) at primary school and Relationships and Sex Education (RSE) at secondary school. It is seeking views from the public on these drafts before they are put before Parliament and the final guidance is published.
This is an important time in the development of sex and relationships resources in the UK. School sex education is intended, for good or for ill, to influence both attitudes and behaviours to improve sexual health. Whether improvements occur very much depends on what is in the curriculum.
Sex education policy has been, and still is, largely driven by concerns about teenage pregnancy and STIs and, more recently, the importance of the adequacy of ‘consent’. Advice given on SRE by leading campaigners is devoid of references to morality, marriage or family life. It talks about sex as a normal and pleasurable fact of life for youngsters and, apart from stressing the importance of contraception and consent, it has nothing to say about the moral context in which sex is to be enjoyed. This is the kind of guidance they would like to see in all schools, primary and secondary. There is no reference to fidelity and exclusivity.
The bar of sexual morality in school sex education seems to have been lowered to the minimum level that will satisfy the legal requirement of consent as set out in the criminal law.
Sometimes the bar is even lower than that: the serious case review into child exploitation in Oxfordshire in 2015 reported that: ‘There appears to have been a tolerance of underage sexual activity’ and some professionals showed: ‘…a reluctance to take a moral stance on right and wrong, seeing being non-judgemental as the overriding principle. What is right and wrong about youthful sexuality is anyway a rather blurred issue.’ In this case sexual health education policy facilitated an acceptance of criminal underage sexual activity and serious abuse.
Driving this is the liberal pursuit of value-neutral ideals and personal, rational autonomy.
There is now no commonly accepted sexual morality, thus any moral guidance as to when and in what circumstances it might be wise to say either ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to sexual activity is deemed to be too prescriptive and an infringement of individual liberty. It is simply assumed that sexual activity is a normal and inevitable stage in the development of children and young people. Consequently, genuine abstinence promotion is viewed as an obstacle rather than an option in the promotion of ‘safe’ sexual behaviours.
Dr Olwyn Mark, Head of Research at Love for Life, comments: ‘To date, a liberal understanding of moral education has dominated the moral discourse surrounding RSE. The ‘informed choice’ approach says that we are to educate children towards independence and self-sufficiency where young people are perceived to make free autonomous choices. It presumes that young people have the innate ability to reason morally and to act accordingly.’
This approach to RSE presumes that a young person can shape their own morality without being given any social values or worldview to reason and act within. It is perceived to be a morally neutral approach to education but it is not possible to promote rational decision-making, without first providing young people with moral resources or starting points from which to do so.
The weakness of a ‘value-free’, approach, that gives no moral guidance on when or under what circumstances it would be right or even prudent to say ‘no’ to sexual activity, is that it simply affirms that the young person has the freedom to consent. (It could be argued that a so-called ‘value-free approach actually steers young people towards consent, given their natural curiosity and the effect of peer pressure). Choice becomes the prime value, irrespective of what the choice actually is.
A comment by a school nurse illustrates this well: ‘I don’t consider I’ve failed if a girl gets pregnant as long as she’s got pregnant because she knew where advice was and chose not to access it’.
Olwyn Mark warns that reducing decision-making to just ‘consent’ in effect socialises and educates young people to sleep with strangers.
We are not as autonomous as we might think or wish. If teaching on ‘health protection’ is around safer sex, not abstinence, then not only are we reducing negative sexual outcomes to teenage pregnancy and STIs but, importantly, the underlying values of such education are revealed: the presumption of sexual experimentation by children.
Governments know how to be prescriptive in directing children’s ‘choices’ when it comes to taxing fizzy drinks, banning junk food adverts or underage alcohol consumption. Governments and professionals who create an environment where sexual activity amongst children is seen as acceptable and the norm are being equally prescriptive in promoting their particular value judgements, masquerading as neutral when they are nothing of the sort.
No policy approach to RSE can be morally neutral.
There is always a moral dimension where human relationships are concerned. And where political, cultural and educational ideologies are at work, the presuppositions behind those ideologies become embedded in policies concerning relationships.
When sex education programmes presuppose that there is no right or wrong in teenage sexual activity (just freedom of choice) they do not provide a robust and coherent moral framework for the guidance of young people. As such, they cannot be said to be in the best interests of youngsters, who are left rudderless.
They give young people little to aspire to and nothing to validate their intuitive sense that sex is best kept for committed relationships.
Christian Smith observes: ‘Emerging adults can jump into intimate relationships, assuming that sex is just another consumer item, recreational thrill, or lifestyle commodity. But many of them soon discover the hard way that sex is much more profound and precious than that. But then it is too late. They feel they have lost a part of themselves that they cannot recover.’
We have evidence now that current sex education programmes do not produce the results they aim for.
A 2016 Cochrane study found that current sex education programmes do not reduce pregnancy and STIs among the young. In fact, they have no effect on adolescent pregnancy and STI rates. At the same time we know STI rates have actually risen, along with sexual harassment, sexting and online pornography. This BMJ editorial draws similar conclusions on sex education policies. A 2015 US study found that providing over-the-counter access to emergency contraception had no effect on abortion rates and led to increased STI rates. Other US research has recently found that: ‘…comprehensive sex education has essentially been ineffective in US school classrooms and has produced a concerning number of negative outcomes.’
Where does that leave us?
Youngsters need to be taught how to critically evaluate the moral messages that are currently presented to them (under the guise of being neutral and ‘value-free’) and not to reduce morality to consent. We need to move beyond immediate health outcomes towards a more holistic understanding of young people’s relational and emotional wellbeing – a different policy approach – because: ‘Sex is not isolated from our overall emotional development but occurs within and contributes towards it.’ (note also the WHO definition of sexual health). Our aim should be to guide them towards a better vision of relationships.
Rather than merely warn against the narrowly defined dangers of unplanned pregnancy and STIs, or the importance of consent (which of course are important warnings) we should be confident about presenting a more positive moral message about the significance of sexual relationships and the goodness of healthy sexual intimacy in the context of life-long fidelity. There is no reason not to: the SRE Guidance 2000 by the DfEE said that young people often complain that there is a ‘lack of any meaningful discussion about feelings, relationships and values’.
Children’s greatest need in RSE is not more autonomy, but support and guidance as they develop holistic sexual values and attitudes. Dr Olwyn Marks suggests they also need to be taught: ‘the virtues of Christian love and chastity, dispositions which can enrich the moral discourse of SRE.’
To those fearful of speaking Christian truths boldly, she adds that: ‘The presumption that a religious voice is any less valid or rational within policy reasoning and formulation than, say, a naturalistic worldview position is also a flawed position that must be challenged.’
I said at the beginning that school sex education is intended to influence attitudes and behaviours. I end with this encouragement: ‘By teaching young people what is morally good, we can encourage them to aspire to what is good and to go on to live out what is good.’
I gratefully acknowledge the work of Dr Olwyn Mark, Head of Research and Strategic Partnerships at Love for Life, in her two papers here and here, and her book: Educating for Sexual Virtue: A Moral Vision for Relationships and Sex Education.