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Sex and relationships education stalling in schools

29 November 2019

Relationships and sex education will soon become a legal requirement in every child’s education. With only nine months to go before this process starts*, a survey of young people suggests that teaching of the subject in schools is flat-lining, and for many the ‘talk’ with parents is not filling in the gaps.

In a poll commissioned by the Sex Education Forum, 16 and 17-year-olds were asked to rate aspects of their RSE at school and home. Only 41% per cent rated their school-based RSE as good or very good, slightly lower than a similar poll (45%) conducted in 2018.

At home, young people rated the RSE they received from their parents or carers as only slightly better, with 48% saying it was good or very good.

The findings, being presented at the national conference ‘Final Countdown to Statutory RSE’, found that at the other end of the scale, one in six (17%) young people rated their school RSE as bad or very bad, and 19% said the same of their parents, raising concerns that a lack of consistency and fear of addressing more sensitive topics is depriving some young people of learning that would support their safety and well-being.

In schools, the topics that had been covered most adequately were how babies are conceived and born, bullying, puberty, condoms and contraception, the medically correct terms for genitalia and STIs.  The topics where young people were least likely to say they had learnt all they needed to at school were sexual pleasure, pornography and FGM.

LGBT+ teaching was another area of concern, with 18% of young people saying they learnt nothing about LGBT+ issues at school, and a further 28% said they had not learnt all that they needed to about LGBT+ issues.

Young people said parents were more likely than schools to fully discuss marriage and other committed relationships with them, with nearly three-quarters of 16-17 year olds saying they had learnt everything they needed to about this from discussions with their parents. Young people were also more likely to say they’d had adequate learning about healthy and abusive relationships from their parents compared with schools.

Young people are more likely to have learnt about ‘how babies are conceived and born’ from school than home, with 14% of young people not having learnt about this from parents/carers at all compared with only 3% who didn’t learn this at school.

Other findings include:

·       Nearly 1 in 5 (19%) young people had not learnt the medically correct names for genitalia from parents and carers, compared to just 1 in 20 (5%) who had not learnt this at school.

·       Condoms, contraception and STIs are topics missed out by around a fifth of parents/carers compared with 1 in 20 respondents not learning about these topics at school.

·       Near 1 in 10 (9%) of young people had not learnt anything about puberty from their parents/carers

Lucy Emmerson, Director of the Sex Education Forum, said:

“As we rapidly approach a new era in relationships and sex education, young people are making it loud and clear that school and parents both fall short in discussing issues that are pressing and relevant for them.

We call on the future Government to confidently lead the way, to make a proper investment in teacher training in this specialist subject, and to give clarity that all schools are expected to provide LGBT+ inclusive education.

Ultimately young people want to learn from home and school, and research shows that RSE is more effective when both are involved. We’d like to see future Ministers being ambitious and setting out a strategy to support parents in their role as educators and commitment to see through the changes in schools”.


Notes to editors

* From September 2019, Relationships Education will be compulsory in primary schools, Relationships and Sex Education in secondary schools, and Health Education in primary and secondary schools. More information is available here.

For further information, please contact the National Children’s Bureau media office: [email protected] / [email protected] / 07721 097 033.

About the poll

The Sex Education Forum commissioned Censuswide to carry out a poll of 1000 young people aged 16 and 17 years old.

In total 1000 young people participated in the survey, including 371 males, 671 females, 6 preferred not to say and 6 other. Participants were either 16 years old (453 individuals) or 17 years old (547 individuals).

Just over a fifth (21%) indicated that they are eligible for free school meals. 8% of respondents stated that they have a disability and 10% that they have a special educational need.

The survey ran between 28 October 2019 and 6 November 2019 and covered all 9 geographical regions in England.

The full report, along with a report from the 2018 poll is available from our 'evidence' resources