Education chair: Government must ensure all schools teach sex and relationship education

Neil Carmichael MP, the Chair of the Education Select Committee, writes for PinkNews about the need for compulsory sex and relationship education in schools, including teaching about same-sex relationships.

On Wednesday 1 May 2013, a child born on the day of Tony Blair’s first landslide would have turned 16.

Coincidentally, or possibly in celebration of that coming of age, Her Majesty’s Schools Inspectorate Ofsted produced a substantial report on that very day, dealing with the state of personal, social, health and economic education (PSHE) in schools across England.

The title of the report – ‘Not Yet Good Enough’ – gave a clear indication of the scale of the serious concerns it set out.

The Report disclosed that learning in PSHE education was ‘good or better’ in just 60 per cent of schools – and required improvement, or was inadequate, in 40 per cent of schools (42 per cent of primary schools and 38 per cent of secondary schools).

The evident disquiet at Ofsted was entirely justified. As the report itself put it, ‘lack of high-quality, age-appropriate sex and relationships education in more than a third of schools is a concern as it may leave children and young people vulnerable to inappropriate sexual behaviours and sexual exploitation’.

I think it’s hyperbole to speak of a sexual health “crisis” here in the United Kingdom, but there is certainly a problem; and there is no, and never can be any, excuse for complacency. Without doubt, the most effective way of improving the sexual health of the nation is through education – and I am afraid we are simply not doing enough.

In 2014, there were approximately 440,000 diagnoses of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) made in England. The most commonly diagnosed STI was chlamydia, with 206,774 diagnoses.

The largest proportional increase in diagnoses between 2013 and 2014 were for syphilis (33 per cent) and gonorrhoea (19 per cent). Notable increases were seen amongst men who have sex with men (the so-called “MSM” group), including a 46 per cent increase in syphilis and a 32 per cent increase in gonorrhoea. According to the Government, ‘high levels of condomless sex probably account for most of this rise’.

Meanwhile, according to the Terrence Higgins Trust, between 100,000 and 110,000 people are living with HIV in the United Kingdom; and around a quarter of those are undiagnosed and unaware of their condition.

There were 6,000 new HIV diagnoses in 2013; and 42 per cent of those people were diagnosed after they should already have started treatment. HIV may now be a life sentence, not a death sentence, but these statistics should concern us all.

In January 2014 Labour peer Margaret Jones proposed amendments to the Children and Families Bill requiring the Government to bring all the Sex and Relationship Education (SRE) Guidance for schools up to date, in particular ensuring that SRE would be both universally available (with a parental opt-out) also fully age-appropriate.

She cited considerable evidence that parents overwhelmingly support compulsory SRE and argued that the subject should be taught as a foundation subject in all key stages in all state-funded schools, not just in maintained schools. Ministers were not persuaded and peers voted down her amendments by a clear majority.

On 11 February 2015, the all-party Select Committee on Education, of which I was already a member, unanimously endorsed a report calling for radical improvements to PSHE and SRE.

We recommended that PSHE should be made compulsory in all schools and that compulsory guidance for schools (which currently dates back to 2000) should be fully updated, to ensure that PSHE is appropriately inclusive of information about same-sex relationships.

In July, the newly-elected majority Conservative Government published its response to the recommendations made by the Select Committee.

The Secretary of State, Nicky Morgan, accepted that, “high-quality PSHE and age-appropriate SRE teaching are … essential to keeping pupils safe and healthy, inside and outside the school gates”, but she did not accept a single recommendation from our report: “I intend to … examine all options, including the recommendations, in making sure PSHE is taught well everywhere”.

Deborah Gold, the Chief Executive of the National AIDS Trust, immediately warned that: “Depending which school you happen to go to, you may or may not have access to good sex and relationships education and you may or may not learn how to protect yourself from getting HIV in real-life situations.” I am in total agreement.

When the Government refused to give statutory status to PSHE and rejected or brushed over all our other recommendations, I was at a loss to understand why it should have taken it so long for it to publish such a feeble response.

It’s essential that momentum is now restored. The select committee has a broad remit and a busy schedule, so it may be a while before we are able to schedule another investigation into PSHE. The Department for Education has no such difficulties.

It should take another, urgent look at these questions and at our Report – and then, without delay, it should start acting on our recommendations.

Neil Carmichael is the Conservative MP for Stroud, and Chair of the Education Select Committee.