The Department for Education has been consulting on draft guidance for schools on Relationships Education (RE) at primary school and Relationships and Sex Education (RSE) at secondary school.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