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Should parents be allowed to opt their children out of sex education at school?


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Yesterday, Monday 25th February, MPs debated a petition urging the government to ensure parents can opt their child out of relationship and sex education.

This debate was in response to the government’s plans to update the sex and relationships curriculum from September 2019. All students will be taught Relationships and Sex Education – topics that the lesson will cover will include teaching about same-sex marriage, sexual identity, menstruation, online relationships, and sexual health. And these lessons will be compulsory for all school-age children.

The biological aspects of sex are covered in the compulsory science curriculum. Parents currently have the right to remove their child from ‘relationship’ lessons.

Sex and Relationship Education (SRE) is compulsory in all maintained secondary schools, with many primary schools also choosing to teach it.  The aim is that all young people are equipped to have healthy and respectful relationships, and to leave school with the knowledge to prepare them for adult life. But the curriculum has not been updated for almost 20 years, and the current provision is woefully inadequate in our modern world.

Image Credit: The People Speak! on Flickr

Young people, when asked about their experiences of sex education at school, often complain about the focus on the physical aspects of reproduction and the lack of any meaningful discussion about feelings, relationships and values. When it comes to your body, it’s important that you have the facts. At present a teenage girl will be taught how to have safe sex, but not how to say no to her boyfriend who wants to have sex. Being in the dark is not doing her sexual health or self-understanding any favours. More open conversation and an awareness of where to go for help and support will ensure that children are aware of what is and isn't ok, how to keep themselves safe and how to recognise abusive relationships. Well trained teachers can provide this opportunity.

Parents are the primary educators of their children and this should be respected; however, our teens and young people are dealing with issues that didn’t exist 20 years ago. 20 years ago, information about sex and relationships came from reading Just 17 magazine – where there was at least some factual accuracy in what was written. Or you talked to your mates and realised you were all just as clueless.

A BBC report suggests that some parents feel their children should not be taught any sex or relationship education until they are at least 13, and some feel it does not have any place in the school curriculum. But today’s 11 years olds are dealing with sexting, mental health problems, body image and the challenge of online relationships. In the age of Facebook, Instagram, reality TV shows and Snapchat, it is virtually impossible to shield children from sexual knowledge. Many parents are just not equipped to effectively deal with this.

Parents fear that exposing children to sex education will encourage children to have sex earlier. In truth studies show that school based sex education reduces sexual activity and promotes safe sex. Relationships and Sex Education can increase knowledge about sexual risk, lead to increased use of contraceptives, and reduce young people’s number of sexual partners. Surely parents want this for their children?

Many parents are uncomfortable discussing sex  and the issues arising around relationships with their children, which leads to the obvious question - where will children gain their knowledge? The answer is the most unreliable of sources – the internet. It’s so vital that schools fill the void. If teachers don’t provide this information, kids will pick up often partial, inaccurate or sensationalist information from social media and porn sites.

Every child has the right to education. Parents are not able to withdraw their children from aspects of a maths lesson because they feel Pythagoras is irrelevant or old fashioned; so, when it is guaranteed that children will have relationships why would they be allowed to withdraw them from perhaps the most vital lessons for a happy and safe adult life?

Taught properly, sex education equips children and young people with the necessary tools to combat abuse and make safe and informed choices about their sexuality, sexual health and well-being and their future relationships. Parents should be informed of the contents of the curriculum so that they can support their child, but sex education should be the right of the child – and not a decision to be made by their parents. So, while most of the government’s proposals for a revamped curriculum are to be welcomed, there is no reason for the parental right to withdraw to still exist.

Lead Image Credit: The People Speak! on Flickr

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