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ss triple helix - Winter 2018,  The myth of neutrality: the agenda behind 'value-free' sex education

The myth of neutrality: the agenda behind 'value-free' sex education

The Department for Education has been consulting on draft guidance for schools on Relationships Education (RE) at primary school and Relationships and Sex Education (RSE) at secondary school. (1)

Sex education policy has been, and still is, largely driven by concerns about teenage pregnancy, STIs and the adequacy of 'consent'. Advice given on RSE by leading campaigners (2) is devoid of references to morality, marriage or family life and fidelity as the context for sex. This approach presumes that a young person can shape their own morality without being given any social values or world view to reason and act within.

The weakness of a 'value-free' approach that gives no moral guidance on saying 'no' to sexual activity is that choice then becomes the prime value, irrespective of what the choice actually is. A comment by a school nurse (3) 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'.

Dr Olwyn Mark warns that reducing decision-making to just 'consent' in effect socialises and educates young people to sleep with strangers. (4) This cannot be in the best interests of youngsters who are left rudderless.

We have evidence now that current sex education programmes do not produce the results they aim for.

A 2016 Cochrane study (5),(6) 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, STI rates have actually risen, (7) along with sexual harassment, sexting and online pornography. (8) A BMJ editorial by Dr Stammers draws similar conclusions on sex education policies. (9) Recent US research found that: '…comprehensive sex education has essentially been ineffective in US school classrooms and has produced a concerning number of negative outcomes.' (10)

Children's greatest need in RSE is not to reduce morality to consent, but is guidance in developing holistic relational values, healthy emotional development and moral teaching on the significance of sexual relationships. Dr Mark 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 values, she adds: 'The presumption that a religious voice is any less valid or rational within policy reasoning and formulation than, say, a naturalistic world view position is also a flawed position that must be challenged.' (11)

Review by Philippa Taylor, CMF Head of Public Policy

  1. Department for Education Consultation Hub. Relationships education, relationships and sex education, and health education
  2. Sex and relationships education (SRE) for the 21st century: Supplementary advice to the Sex and Relationship Education Guidance DfEE (0116/2000). Brook, PSHE Association and Sex Education Forum 2014
  3. Mark OE. From 'informed' to 'virtuous' choice: a theo-ethical case for the moral reconstruction of SRE policy discourse in England. Middlesex University Research Repository 2014
  4. Mark OE. Statutory Relationships and Sex Education: Exploring the moral complexities. Parent Power August 2018.
  5. Mason-Jones A J, Sinclair D et al. School-based interventions for preventing HIV, sexually transmitted infections, and pregnancy in adolescents. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2016; 08 November.
  6. Taylor P. Sex education programmes are largely ineffectual and do not reduce teen pregnancy or STI rates, says large new research review. CMF Blogs 15 November 2016
  7. Girma S, Paton D. The impact of emergency birth control on teen pregnancy and STIs. Journal of Health Economics 2011 Mar;30(2):373-80
  8. Hymas C. Children groomed online in less than 45 minutes, warns NSPCC. Daily Telegraph 10 August 2018
  9. Stammers T. 'Saved sex' and parental involvement are key to improving outcomes. BMJ 2007; 334:103
  10. Weed SE, Ericksen IH. Re-Examining the Evidence for Comprehensive Sex Education in Schools. The Institute for Research & Evaluation 2018
  11. Marks OE. Art cit
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