A new sex education

Words: Liam Beattie


Ask any adult in the UK what their experience of sex education was like in school and the answer is likely to be the same: a one-off lesson about body parts, or a video of a woman giving birth that was designed to scare people into abstinence. Worse, they might have had no sex education at all. 

Starting from this September, schools in England are rolling out compulsory Relationships and Sex Education (RSE) lessons. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic means the introduction of these lessons will now be phased, but all schools will be required to deliver RSE by September 2021 by the latest. Similar moves will take place in Wales in 2022, and the Scottish Government recently announced it would become the first country in the world to require schools to deliver LGBT-inclusive lessons.

Until now – and despite the obvious necessity for young people to know what a healthy relationship looks like – there’s been no requirement for schools to teach sex education. Progress is happening, but it’s taken decades to reach this point. 

With sex education, moral panic is never far away. Whether it’s fears about HIV rates, same-sex relationships or something else considered deviant and dangerous, there has been consistent pushback by successive governments against making sex education mandatory.

It’s been over 30 years since the notorious Section 28 amendment was added to the Local Government Act, which effectively banned all schools from discussing LGBT+ issues in the classroom. The change in law was marked by Margaret Thatcher’s warning that ‘children who need to be taught to respect traditional moral values are being taught that they have an alienable right to be gay.’

The legislation left generations of young LGBT+ people without any visibility in education, and with little information about their own sexual health. 

The backdrop of this change in legislation couldn’t have been more harmful. The decision was enacted in 1988, at a time when HIV diagnoses were continuing to climb and no effective treatment was available. There was an urgent need to educate and inform young people about HIV, how it’s passed on, and how to reduce their risk. The opportunity was missed, and young people were failed. 

In the days before internet access, whispers in the classroom were the only way to find out information, which was usually inaccurate. Public education about HIV came in the form of the government’s tombstone adverts, which remain the only HIV reference point for many people in the UK today. 

Section 28 remained on the statute books for 15 years in England and Wales before it was finally repealed in 2003. Before becoming Prime Minister, David Cameron issued an apology on behalf of the Conservative Party, describing the Section as ‘offensive to gay people.’ 

But despite legal changes and a marked shift in political discourse, the impact of Section 28 is still felt in schools today. LGBT+ issues are not spoken about. At best, they’re inconsistently taught. 

The impact of this on young people was uncovered by the HIV and sexual health charity Terrence Higgins Trust. In a 2018 survey of 900 young people, the charity found:

  • 95% of young people did not learn about LGBT+ relationships;
  • 97% of young people missed out on any discussion around gender identity;
  • 50% of young people rated their RSE as ‘poor’ or ‘terrible’, with just 10% rating it as ‘good’;
  • 75% of young people were not taught about consent.

These statistics came at a time when young people continue to experience poor sexual health. In England in 2018, a new sexually transmitted infection was diagnosed every 70 seconds. Under-25s accounted for half of all new cases. 

A recent joint report by Terrence Higgins Trust and the British Association for HIV and Sexual Health found that a lack of sexual health discussions runs the risk of perpetuating stigma, leaving young people feeling awkward or embarrassed about accessing services. We’d never allow a driver to get behind the wheel of a car without having a comprehensive understanding of how the mechanics work: the same logic needs to be applied to sexual health. 

In 2017, Parliament passed the historic Children & Social Work Bill which paved the way for RSE lessons to finally become compulsory in England. It was a big moment for progress in LGBT+ equality too, with MPs signalling the clear need for lessons to be fully LGBT+ inclusive. It was an opportunity to finally put to bed the question of whether young people should learn about LGBT+ issues in schools. 

This has proved to be a short-sighted aspiration. Pop-up protests have taken place outside schools across the country, fuelled by inaccurate information about what will be included in the new lessons. The government has been far too slow to shut down these rumours, resulting in the perennial interrogation of inclusive sex education lessons playing out in the media yet again. 

The Equality Act should leave no one in doubt. LGBT+ people are protected under legislation, and cannot be discriminated against in schools.

As schools prepare, the opportunity for a new era of vital education must be seized. This can only happen if teachers have the support and resources to properly deliver lessons, and if young people are given time in the curriculum to learn important skills.

The content of these lessons must also reflect the challenges young people are likely to face in 2020 and beyond, including the current state of issues of HIV and sexual health. Unlike the slow push to deliver sex education lessons, progress in sexual health has not stood idle. Most people living with HIV can now expect a normal and healthy life, and thanks to effective treatment, cannot pass on the virus to others. Advances in testing for STIs means people can now test at home in the same time as it takes to make a cup of tea. 

These lessons have been hard won, and victory has only been achieved thanks to the tenacity of generations of activists and organisations who refused to be silent. To honour them, these must be lessons for life, not just for a solitary hour.

Now is time to put consign the argument about the morality of sex education to the history books, and give schools the opportunity and resources to right this wrong. All young people deserve the best start to prepare for the challenges of adulthood.

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Liam Beattie is a charity worker and sex education campaigner. Follow him on Twitter.