he British establishment has a deeply conservative
attitude to sex. It's the top shelf in newsagents, it's secretive visits
to call girls and massage parlours, it's marriage (strictly
heterosexual). It's not talked about. It's repressed. A vast
double standard was erected from Victorian times until the
sixties. There had always been the saucy seaside postcards
but changes in laws regarding homosexuality, divorce, abortion,
the advent of the pill and a more 'permissive' climate began
to change attitudes. The tabloids, satellite and cable TV
have further opened up sex, but as a commercial product. The
Internet offers previously unimaginable access to naked flesh
and sexual encounters of every sort.
So it is not so surprising that Britain boasts the highest
rates of teenage pregnancy in Europe, that violence against
women and rape is a huge, largely unreported area of crime,
that child sexual abuse is extensive.we have been a nation
in denial. But moreover, we have been a people in ignorance.
No wonder children are confused. On the one side sex surrounds
them, on the other misinformation, prejudice, ambiguity.
One of the first moves by the new government was to commission
the Social Exclusion Unit to report on the issue of Teenage
Pregnancy. A 100 page report was produced in 1998 which made
some thoughtful recommendations. Besides a national campaign
of information and targeted initiatives to reduce school girl
conceptions (see below) the report also recommended an updated
guidance to schools on sex and relationships education. This
was due out last Autumn. However, it became embroiled in the
furore over the Government's welcome intention to repeal Section
28 which helped stir up so much anti-gay prejudice under the
Tories. Although Section 28 never applied directly to schools
and teachers, its injunction against local authorities 'promoting
homosexuality as a pretended family relationship' caused confusion
and aided the climate of homophobic bullying in and out of
Instead of getting the Guidance out promptly, the Government
allowed the Daily Mail to make the running with its
campaign for 'marriage'. The proposed guidance became tangled
up with efforts to repeal Section 28 and in particular with
Tory Lords keen to disrupt Government plans as a response
to Lords reform. The right wing Christian Institute worked
closely with Baroness Young to mount a scare campaign against
repeal and to amend the new Guidance. Baroness Young opened
a room in the Lords where she displayed evidence of teaching
materials purporting to corrupt the morals of the nation's
children. Perfectly sound health education videos somehow
got labelled 'How to become a Lesbian' while any teaching
material that showed homosexual relations in a positive way
were branded as anti-family and evil.
When the Government recently tried to amend the Learning
and Skills Bill in the Lords to include the Sex and Relationship
guidance they were narrowly defeated. Baroness Young complained,
"marriage is hardly mentioned.it's all about sex and
relationships". This of course, is precisely what it
is supposed to be about. The fevered imaginations of some
noble Lords ran so high that during the debate on March 23rd
Lord Moran bemoaned the fact that "stable relationships.could
even include any union outside marriage." He gave examples
of "necophiliacs, transvestites and sado-masochists who
had been living together for some years" to which the
Liberal Democrat peer Lord Russell interjected "is the
noble Lord suggesting that necrophiliacs have relationships?"
The DfEE's efforts to provide new and improved guidance to
schools on sex and relationships education is a welcome advance
on virtually everything produced up until the 1970s. International
and local research demonstrates that schools are the most
important place for young people to gain information and skills
to equip them with the knowledge and skills to enjoy a safe
and fulfilling sexual life. Confident, enlightened and open
education about sex and relationships, within a confidential
environment, starting from an early age, will make a major
contribution to this aim and to reducing unwanted pregnancies.
Unfortunately, the draft Guidance: Sex and Relationship
Education (SRE) will not be the 'user friendly' guidance
teachers need. Teachers require authoritative guidance that
is clear, practical and free of ambiguity and value judgements.
Although the Guidance represents a huge step forward it remains
deficient. A whistle-stop tour over the past century of efforts
at providing sex education indicates a tortured journey. Throughout
the first half of the century there was little public discussion
of sex, let alone sex education in schools. It was virtually
a taboo subject. Efforts to include biology in the school
curriculum came from moral conservatives keen to provide a
basic awareness of sexual hygiene as protection against sexually
transmitted infections (venereal diseases as they were then
There was little formal encouragement of sex education. The
Board of Education recommended sex education in schools in
1927 but it was discretionary. Most school text books ignored
the subject. Fureau and Smart's Human Physiology, a
leading school text book (published as one of Longman's Elementary
Science Manuals) still did not deal with sex organs or reproduction
in its 1930 edition.
Local Authorities were similarly discreet. A London County
Council Memorandum on the Curriculum for Science (July
1935) suggested the study of the reproduction of flowering
plants and the life history of frogs and birds but concluded:
"It will generally be agreed that class instruction in
senior schools should not include mammals."
The great 20th Century sexual health pioneers: Havelock Ellis
and Marie Stopes wrote and campaigned widely for information
and education about sex. In her best seller, Contraception
(first published in 1923) Marie Stopes talked about sex, planned
parenthood, orgasm, sex for pleasure, sexually transmitted
diseases. In those pre-pill days she recommended the cap and
chemicals as the best form of contraception. Havelock Ellis
generally recommended the condom.
In the 1946 edition of Contraception Dr Stopes reminded
readers that the Ministry of Health finally agreed "to
public demand that contraceptive information should be available
through Centres and Clinics subsidised by the Ministry of
Health." While Stopes was advocating this kind of education
the Ministry of Education was publishing Health Education.
This was a 100-page plus booklet circulated to schools. It
was founded very much on the medical model of health education.
The booklet did not mention sex or contraception once. In
the section on 'Health Education and School Curriculum' we
find a sub-section headed 'The last year of school life'.
It recommends pupils should be expected to know: how to keep
healthy and clean; how to render first aid; how to do sick
nursing and know something about infant care ("in the
case of girls"); where local clinics, Welfare Centres
and hospitals are situated and so on. No mention of reproduction,
sex or contraception. In the section on 'Healthy Body and
Mind' there was plenty on the structure and function of the
body, school fatigue, but nothing on sex. In the 'Biology
and Health' section.nothing on sex. In the 'Mothercraft' section
an unquestioned responsibility of girls to care for the upbringing
of children and infant welfare, but nothing on sex and reproduction.
And no mention of sexually transmitted infections (despite
a growth following World War 2).
In 1943 the Board of Education produced a pamphlet, Sex
Education in Schools and Youth Organisations noting
the need for suitable instruction in schools, with parental
backing, before strong emotions develop. Few teachers carried
out the recommendations.
On the eve on the 1944 Education Act only about one third
of secondary schools made any provision for sex education-chiefly
through special lectures. Formal sex education remained normative
in tone, inculcating a general respect for the ethics of married
life and condemning extra-marital sex or 'deviant' sex.
The Crowther Report-15-18 (1959) encouraged the conscious
use of sex education to inculcate the values of chastity,
marriage and family life. The Newsom Report (1963)
on 'average' and 'below average' children did move forward.
It recommended that "positive and realistic guidance
to adolescent boys and girls on sexual behaviour is essential.
This should include the biological, moral, social and personal
aspects." However it went on to say, "Religious
instruction has a part to play in helping boys and girls to
find a firm basis for sexual morality based on chastity before
marriage and fidelity within it." It also suggested married
teachers were best equipped to handle the teaching of sex
In his 1973 survey The Sexual Behaviour of Young Adults,
Michael Schofield found that only one in ten boys in his sample
and one in five of the girls had "adequate sex education."
The late 1960s and 1970s saw something of a book boom around
sexual matters. However, most school texts were highly moralistic
and usually confused or conservative about different sexual
orientations. Homosexuality, for example, was seen as a 'psychological
disturbance'. (Julia Dankus, A Textbook of Sex Education,
1967). Some were positively dangerous. One suggested, "Your
eggs won't get fertilised until you are quite grown up and
have a husband." The Little Red SchoolBook (1971)
translated from the Danish was legally supressed. It gave
sensible advice about drugs, school work and sex.
By 1986 attitudes had progressed and the HMI Curriculum
Matters: Health Education 5-16 talked of teaching about
the physical aspects of sex combined with a consideration
of the qualities of relationships in family life and personal
There had been high hopes for the new Guidance. The title
of the draft Sex and Relationship Education Guidance
gives a clue to its strength and weakness. At last we have
guidance that proposes sex education is more than just plumbing
- names of body parts, how babies are made, puberty - but
also "lifelong learning about physical, moral and emotional
development. loving relationships, respect, love and care."
But why the singular 'Relationship'? Do we only have one
relationship in life? Is this the way 'marriage' is to be
introduced as the one and only life-long sexual relationship
young people will have? Children today are growing up in a
huge variety of relationships: heterosexual, gay, step, foster,
'looked after', single-parent. What's important is security
and love. If we are talking of just one relationship i.e.
heterosexual marriage, are we not both stigmatising children
in different home circumstances (something the draft Guidance
warns against) and suggesting only sex within marriage is
legitimate? Marriage is important, but it is not the only
form loving relationships or child-rearing circumstances take.
Nor is sex just about having children. In amongst the 'safe
sex' education on Sexually Transmitted Infections and HIV/AIDS
the pleasure principle should get a look in. And why will
it still remain optional for primary schools to teach SRE?
The message from the Teenage Pregnancy Report was that the
earlier information and skills about sex are taught, the better
chance young people have of staying safe and avoiding unwanted
Is it not self-contradictory to promote essentially heterosexual
marriage while gay marriage is forbidden and the definition
employed in the draft Guidance explicitly states that SRE
"is not about the promotion of sexual orientation"?
Nor is the voice of young people clear in the Guidance. Parent
partnership is understandably encouraged, but what about partnership
with young people, directly, through School Councils or other
agencies? What do young people want to know and how do they
want to learn? A glance at the letters columns in Just
17, Bliss or More indicates the concerns
of young people about sex in relationships. They want to know
about safety, making and sustaining relationships. But they
also want to know about orgasms, erogenous zones, the clitoris,
none of which get a mention in the draft Guidance.
The needs of lesbian and gay young people must be addressed
more fully within the Guidance and particularly the issue
of homophobic bullying. Every day thousands of young people
are insulted and victimised over their actual or possible
sexual orientation. Schools and youth services need to be
clear that they must meet these young people's needs and be
given clear guidance on how to do it.
The Personal, Social and Health Education (PSHE)/Citizenship
framework provides the most effective and coherent curriculum
location for the delivery of SRE. This is emphasised although
the Guidance reiterates the Science curriculum without detailing
what would be taught at each Key Stage in PSHE/Citizenship.
Links between SRE, PSHE and Citizenship and the National Healthy
School Standard need to be made much more explicit with a
'how to' manual that provides more detailed information and
support to schools.
There is much in the Guidance that is positive. We have come
a long way. Government officers and ministers will now be
examining responses to the draft Guidance and have declared
an intention to push through updated Guidance and repeal of
Section 28. Ministers need to follow through their commitment
to a modern and enlightened approach to sex for young people
that empowers rather than cowers in the face of the forces
of sexual dishonesty and repression.