‘Sex ed helps young people make healthy choices’
Kat Wall, OUSU VP for Women
The UK still has the highest rates of teenage pregnancy in Western Europe. With 42,900 conceptions amongst under-18 year olds last year something must be done to make sure young people understand the ramifications of pregnancy, the responsibilities of having a child and how to prevent unwanted or unplanned pregnancies from happening in the first place. As Gill Frances, the chairman of the Independent Advisory Group on Teenage Pregnancy said, “Evidence shows that sex and relationships education helps young people…make healthy choices when they eventually do become sexually active.”
It is not only because of unplanned pregnancy rates however, that children should learn about sex from a young age. The prevention of disease is also of concern with Chlamydia at its highest peak to date. Teaching young people who may be sexually active to practice safe sex is important. Giving young people an understanding of the contraceptive options available to them and encouraging a dialogue about how to prevent the transfer of STI’s is to the benefit of the population in general, as well as to the children we are teaching.
The government’s proposals also include relationship education within the new sex ed curriculum which may remove some of the pressure for young people to rush into sexual activity. Providing advice and guidance on relationships alongside sexual education may also provide those young people who lack good role models at home to gain an understanding of what a healthy relationship is. This may also assist in helping to prevent abusive behaviour; children will learn younger that they do not have to stay silent and that certain kinds of behaviour just aren’t acceptable.
The fact that this programme is not hetronormatively biased is also a great sign of progress. To teach about sex in the context of a variety of relationship settings, whatever the gender mix, allows for the development of non-judgemental and free discussion. This may reduce the stigma around being gay at school, and ensure that whatever kind of sex young people practice, they will do so safely.
Children often do not receive adequate education on sex and relationships from their parents, largely because full information is not provided due to a lack of medical knowledge, life experience or embarrassment. Having a wide-ranging education in school on these issues should help to combat current levels of ignorance, unsafe practice and such high levels of unplanned pregnancy.
‘These classes fail to teach children anything’
Ben North, History, Magdalen
The issue of making sex and relationships education mandatory for all 15-year-olds skews and obscures to a dangerous degree the wider, more important issue of deteriorating sexual health among Britain’s young people. The behaviour of parents in removing their children from sex education classes is certainly irresponsible and misguided. ‘If this is the case, then bring in these mandatory reforms and be done with it’, you may reply. The issue is not as simple as this. There are two important factors which override any benefits that such a change may bring: the dire state of sex education generally, and the scarcity of political capital that exists in this area of reform.
Why force children to go to classes which fail to teach them anything? A recent NHS survey found that only 11% of respondents saw school or college as their main source of information about STIs, while television programmes and adverts were the two most popular authorities. This coincides with an alarming rise in infection rates; chlamydia rates almost tripled between 1998 and 2007. The fact that people find a thirty second advert more helpful than a qualified teacher indicates a fundamental failure on the part of schools to provide clear, neutral and thorough advice on sexual health.
The issue of misguided parents is merely ancillary to this fundamental problem of poor sex education – currently less than 0.1% of parents withdraw their children from classes. I would like the needs of 99.9% of families attended to first.
Sex’s continued status as a taboo subject means that as much as a breath from politicians that broaches the issue of educating about sex can whip up storms of controversy. Current developments in sex education reform emphasise the extent to which the vast majority of young people are at risk from chances of reform being dashed by the stifling effects of this taboo.
A recent government review has produced recommendations that will help tackle such shocking statistics as seen above. Despite the wide-ranging nature of the review, it is parents’ right to choose which has been focussed on in the media – this is the aforementioned skewing and obscuring at work. Educational reform will do far more to tackle sexual health problems among young people, which will consequently erode arguments in favour of parents’ right to choose. The fundamental problem is being confused with its ancillary; we have to get the education right first.