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Our history - 30 years of campaigning

Established in 1987, the Sex Education Forum has a long history of successfully influencing policy, utilising research evidence and supporting educators with resources and advice. After 34 years of being hosted at National Children’s Bureau, we established ourselves as an independent charity in April 2021.

For schools, educators, researchers and other professionals involved in RSE, the Sex Education Forum is an indispensable source of knowledge and support - we hope you will consider joining us.

How far have we come?

The Sex Education Forum was established in 1987 in an era of great negativity towards sex education and has grown and developed through a time of cultural shifts and policy changes.

Sex education became sex and relationships education (SRE), signalling that children and young people are entitled to more than just the biological basics, and will now be referred to as relationships and sex education (RSE) - as it appears in The Children and Social Work Act, which makes RSE statutory in all schools.  

The information below provides a time-line of key events in the three decades of the Sex Education Forum

*1986 - 'The Moral Panic'

In 1986 there was a moral panic in the tabloid press centred on AIDS, young people's sexuality and sexual orientation. On the one hand the public were exposed to hard-hitting campaigns such as 'Don't die of ignorance' and on the other there was press outrage around some sex education materials being used in schools.

One example is the Danish book Jenny Lives with Eric and Martin (Bosche 1983), a story about a gay couple who bring up a five-year-old girl, the daughter of Martin, that caused headlines such as 'Vile book in schools' and 'Scandal of gay porn in books read in schools' (Clyde 2001). Not unsurprisingly, this climate affected rational discussions about sex education. And in the eye of this storm, the Sex Education Forum was conceived.

The founder eight members already reflected a diversity that continues to characterise the Sex Education Forum's partners today, and consisted of the Health Visitors Association, the Catholic Marriage Advisory Council (Marriage Care), the Health Education Authority, the National Marriage Guidance Council (RELATE), SPOD (a sexual health charity for people with disability), fpa (formerly the Family Planning Association), Brook and NCB.

1988 - Building consensus

In 1988 the Local Government Act introduced a new clause, which commonly became known as Section 28. This stated that a local authority should not promote homosexuality or promote the teaching of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship. Although it did not apply to schools, it served to cause confusion and anxiety amongst the teaching profession and undermined the confidence of those delivering sex education.

Throughout the early years, the Sex Education Forum worked on developing a common set of values for sex education that all members could sign up to. These have, over time, evolved but still remain at the heart of all of our work. 

The Sex Education Forum's first publication was a simple list of resources, which proved so popular that the huge demand from professionals for support in this area could no longer be ignored. By the summer of 1990 funding was secured from the Department of Education and work with the public could really begin.

1992 - Understanding local provision of sex education

In 1992 the government launched its Health of the Nation strategy, with the reduction of teenage pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases (STIs) being two of its targets.

At the same time the Sex Education Forum carried out a ground breaking survey of 87 local authorities; the report concluded that there existed

  • an inconsistency in terms of the numbers of schools with sex education policies,
  • confusion concerning the place of sex education in the National Curriculum and
  • anxiety at all levels which had resulted in young people not receiving the sex education they needed (Thomson and Scott 1992).

1993 - Building a values framework for SRE

The 1993 Education Act included some new challenges for sex education. It stated that only the biological aspects of HIV, AIDS, STIs and human sexual behaviour could be included in the National Curriculum. Parents were also given the right to withdraw their children from sex education and were not required to give a reason.

The Act was followed by a long awaited circular on sex education for schools that was greeted by the Sex Education Forum with some optimism. We welcomed the government's commitment to the view that all pupils should be offered the opportunity to receive a comprehensive, well-planned programme of sex education during their school careers. The notion of a moral framework was also further developed in this circular.

"The Secretary of State believes that schools programme for sex education should therefore aim to present the facts in an objective, balanced and sensitive manner, set within a clear framework of values, an awareness of the law on sexual behaviour. Pupils should be encouraged to appreciate the value of stable family life, marriage and the responsibilities of parenthood. They should also be helped to consider the importance of self-restraint, dignity, respect for themselves and others, acceptance of responsibility, sensitivity towards the needs of others, loyalty and fidelity " (DfEE 1993).

We responded to this new focus by exploring values and morals from a range of perspectives, in consultation with numerous organisations including religious organisations. As a result it published its pioneering document Religion, Ethnicity and Sex Education (Thomson 1993).

1994 - Sex and the nation

The following year the first ever survey on National Survey on Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles (NATSAL) was published. This found that a massive 70 per cent of respondents felt that they had insufficient information available to them when they first had sex. (Johnson and others 1994)

1996 - Education Act

Two years later there was another Education Act, which consolidated all previous legislation and now expected that the biological aspects of sex education should be taught both in primary and secondary.

1999 - Birth of SRE

Just before the millennium, the pace really started picking up and SEF was very busy indeed. Sex education became known as 'sex and relationships education', or SRE, to acknowledge that children and young people are entitled to more than just the biological basics.

The new Framework for Personal, Social and Health Education (PSHE) was published, which embedded SRE firmly within the broader programme of learning. This reflected the growing appreciation that young people do not compartmentalise their lives according to sex, drugs, alcohol and health, but rather that all of these elements are interwoven.

Further, the National Healthy Schools Standard was launched, and the pioneering Teenage Pregnancy Report published, SRE being a significant element within the prevention strand. The Sex Education Forum was a key partner in the development of these important government initiatives, which proved to be vital levers for change.

2000 - First SRE Guidance

As a result of the growing need for clarity and support, the 2000 SRE Guidance was published. Although non-statutory, this was the most comprehensive document the government had produced on the subject and it represented an important milestone in the history of SRE.

Other important events for 2000 were the equalisation of the age of consent and the launch of our very first Charter for Young People.

2001 - Just say NO to abstinence education

In 2001 we saw the launch of the national programme for the Certification of PSHE (Personal, Social and Health Education) Teaching, which was a very important milestone in the history of this subject.

Also, after two study tours to the United States, the Sex Education Forum published its Just Say No to Abstinence education book (Blake and Frances, 2001), which confirmed that abstinence-only education was not a quick-fix solution to teenage pregnancy or a viable alternative to a broader, more comprehensive, programme of SRE.

2003 - Repeal of Section 28

In 2003, after a long campaign which the Sex Education Forum supported, we saw the repeal of Section 28, legislation that forbade the 'promoting of homosexuality'.

The Sexual Offences Act was also drafted in 2003, and aimed to clarify what constitutes a crime of a sexual nature against a child; the Sex Education Forum along with other colleagues, worked hard to ensure that professionals could continue to provide information and advice without fear of criminalisation.

2006 - Beyond Biology Campaign

This year saw the launch of our Beyond Biology Campaign. The campaign highlighted the consensus and commitment amongst its 50 member organisations to the call for PSHE, which includes SRE, to be made a statutory subject (Martinez 2006).

This truly set the ball rolling.

2007 - UK Youth Parliament's 'Are you getting it?' campaign

In 2007 the UK Youth Parliament (UKYP) launched their 'Are you Getting It?' survey and campaign, which also called for PSHE to be made statutory.

Other significant events in this year included the launch by the National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE) of a two-year programme to develop PSHE guidance with a focus on sex and relationships and alcohol education, and the introduction of a revised national curriculum for secondary schools, including a new programme of study, 'Personal well-being'. Of even greater importance was the introduction of a duty on schools to promote the well-being of their pupils.

2008 - Review of SRE

In 2008 following the increasing groundswell of professional support for statutory SRE, the concern that SRE is not meeting the needs of over a third of young people, as well as reports from Ofsted that PSHE, although improving, was still patchy, led the government to announce a review of SRE. The Sex Education Forum made a significant contribution to this review including a survey of the views of young people and a survey of the views of teachers.

On the 23rd October 2008 the government published their response to the recommendations made by the review group. The Minster for Schools and Learners Jim Knight announced, at the our 21st Birthday conference, the government's intention, following a review of PSHE, to make PSHE statutory. The government also committed to re-writing the 2000 SRE guidance.

At the birthday conference we also launched our new Young People's Charter "We Want More!"

2009 - Anticipating statutory PSHE

The drafting of the revised SRE Guidance got underway. Sir Alasdair MacDonald completed his review of PSHE and educators and campaigners began waiting for the introduction of legislation to make PSHE, including SRE, statutory.  

2010 - A change of government 

A general election in May ushered in a coalition Government. During the 'wash-up' the legislation to make PSHE statutory was discarded. This was a source of great disappointment, and another era of campaigning begun. Dialogue with Government about SRE was relatively cold at this point.  

2014 - Education Select Committee inquiry 

Evidence about the benefits of SRE really starts to accumulate, and political interest across all parties is gathering momentum now.  An Education Select Committee inquiry into PSHE and SRE took place in 2014, Chaired by Graham Stuart MP, with the Life Lessons report in 2015 calling for SRE to be statutory with a strong emphasis on the safeguarding role of SRE.

The Sex Education Forum launched the 'SRE - it's my right' campaign (see launch letter printed in the guardian 06 June 2014).and harnessed support from four teaching unions (see letter published in the Times 30 October 2014) stating that 'education should prepare children for adult life, and curriculums should promote the spiritual, moral, cultural, mental and physical development of pupils - including teaching about sex and relationships'. The National Union of Students, UK Youth and the UK Youth Parliament all backed the 'SRE - It's my Right' campaign - see NUS news story

2015 - No turning back on the campaign for statutory status

The Government published their response to the Education Select Committee recommendations on SRE and PSHE (16 July 2015) but failed to make a firm commitment to change legislation. A 10 Minute Rule Motion by Caroline Lucas on PSHE was presented in the Commons on 15 July 2015 and was pushed to a vote which was supported with 183 votes to 44. We invited people to email their MP asking for their support for two Bills which were due to be presented in Parliament on February 27th 2015. As a result, 691 letters were sent to MPs.

The Sex Education Forum organised a series of 'write to your MP' campaigns to demonstrate grass-roots support for statutory RSE and to engage individual MPs with the issues. In the run up to the General Election we invited people to ask their MP candidates for their views on SRE. 333 people wrote to their MP candidates in April 2015.  The Sex Education Forum coordinated a letter in the Times signed by 5 national public health organisations (RCN, FPH, ADPH, RCPCH & BASHH) calling on all political parties to support statutory SRE, saying 'it is a basic responsibility of government to protect and inform young people about their bodies and health' (16 February 2015). 

2016 - Children's rights, equalities and safeguarding concerns push the campaign forward

The Chairs of Education, Health, Home Affairs, and Business, Innovation, and Skills Committees joined forces to call on the Secretary of State for Education, Rt Hon Nicky Morgan MP, to move towards PSHE (Personal, Social, Health and Economic Education) becoming statutory in all schools. Read the letter. The Women and Equalities Select Committee, Chaired by Maria Miller MP calls on the Government to make SRE statutory in primary and secondary schools as one of three key recommendations in their sexual harassment and sexual violence in schools inquiry report.  This is a public change fo stance from Maria Miller MP (Telegraph 12 March 2016). Vera Baird QC calls on the government  to make sex education compulsory in all schools, at both primary and secondary levels  (guardian 01 August 2016). 

House of Commons Library briefing provides an overview of the legislation and guidance currently in place regarding SRE in schools. It also documents the extraordinary history of the campaign efforts to make SRE statutory. 

Secretary of State for Education, Nicky Morgan calls on colleagues to put squeamishness aside and listen to the views of young people and do more to equip children to deal with online life, including more explicit teaching about sex and online pornography (Telegraph, 28 June 2016).

In June 2016, the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child calls for introduction of mandatory SRE in the UK, and recommends that such education should provide age-appropriate information on: confidential sexual and reproductive health-care services; contraceptives; prevention of sexual abuse or exploitation, including sexual bullying; available support in cases of such abuse and exploitation; and sexuality, including that of LGBT children’. 

Updated Government safeguarding guidance (May 2016) falls short of requiring that all schools teach about safeguarding, but strengthens the wording of the guidance in relation to teaching about safeguarding. 

The Sex Education Forum coordinated a letter in the Times (27 April 2016) explaining that if all schools in England become academies none of them will be required to teach basic SRE.  It goes on to say “With overwhelming support for SRE from teachers, parents, young people, child protection and health organisations and MPs themselves, the government must act without delay to require all schools, including academies, to provide high quality SRE”. 

The voices of 2000+ young people are represented in the 'Heads or Tails' report published by the Sex Education Forum, which finds that 50% of young people did NOT learn at primary school about how to get help if they were sexually abused. Launched at Parliamentary event on 20 January hosted by Caroline Nokes MP.

2017 - Finally.... statutory Relationships and Sex Education

Following the General Election of 2016 the Sex Education Forum and others urged the new Prime Minister (Teresa May) and Secretary of State for Education (Justine Greening) to act on pressure from so many MPs and public figures and to change legislation. The Children and Social Work Act received Royal Assent in March 2017, making RSE statutory in all secondary schools and relationships education statutory in all primary schools. 

The Sex Education Forum also celebrated our 30th Anniversary in November 2017, on the same day as an event in Parliament, during which young people presented their views on updating RSE to the Secretary of State for Education, Justine Greening, and MPs Sarah Champion and Maria Miller. 

2018 - Getting ready for statutory RSE - we need PSHE to be mandatory too

As the Government developed updated guidance on RSE we backed calls for PSHE to be mandatory too, since this is the best vehicle for schools to deliver high quality RSE. Draft guidance was produced for public consultation, and this included a new subject - Health Education, which would have no parental opt out andd would be mandatory alongside Relationships Education and RSE. Health Education includes a wide range of curriculum content including mental health and emotional wellbeing, drugs and alcohol, sleep, vaccinations, first aid, menstrual wellbeing and the changing adolescent body. 

We published findings from an independent poll of 1000 young people. The survey asked young people aged 16 and 17 about their experiences of RSE and 23% said they didn’t learn anything at all about how to tell if a relationship is healthy.

2019 - Guidance on Relationships Education, RSE and Health Education updated

The new Government guidance was debated in Parliament, and was followed by a watershed vote in the Commons on 27 March 2019, resulting in 538 'AYES' and 21 'NOES' (UK), and 482 'AYES' and 14 'NOES' (MPs representing constituencies in England), providing overwhelming support for the updates. At the same time, a minority of parents protested against the changes, with particular focus on the LGBT+ inclusive aspects of Relationships Education - and the absence of parental opt out from Relationships Education. Protests were held outside schools, initially in Birmingham.  A High Court judge permanently banned protesters from outside the gates of Anderton Primary School. 

2020 - RSHE officially becomes statutory from 1 September

Schools in England must follow the new Government guidance from 1 September, with a phased start in implementing the new curriculum if they are not prepared due to Covid-19 disruption. All children and young people in England can now expect RSE to be provided as part of their primary and secondary education.  

2021 – Sex Education Forum established as independent charity

Established in 1987, the Sex Education Forum has a long history of successfully influencing policy, utilising research evidence and supporting educators with resources and advice. After 34 years of being hosted at National Children’s Bureau, we established ourselves as an independent charity in April 2021.

*The sections from 1986 - 2009 are an extract From "Celebrating Sex and Relationships Education. Past, present and future". 2008. NCB: London