I have recently sent an open letter to the various media outlets in Cornwall on why PHSE and RSE is so important to a young persons development. This follows on from the subject of Sex Education has been much in the news recently following the report of the Education Select Committee which highlighted the vital role of Relationship and Sex Education (RSE) in a child’s emotional development. The recommendations from the Committee was that Personal, Social and Health Education (PSHE) should be statutory in both primary and secondary all schools.
Both I and other professionals, including lead officers from the Council’s Children’s and Health services, support the call for PHSE , including RSE, to be made compulsory for all schools with accountability measures built-in to ensure all young people receive good, quality, age appropriate RSE. The key issue is for this education and guidance to be age appropriate.
Some parents and carers have expressed concern that the subject is about sex and /or this subject will sexualise young people. While this is not the case, the issue is not helped when the subject is called Sex Education. In Cornwall we use the term Relationship and Sex Education to highlight the importance of relationships in a child’s development. Unfortunately the term RSE is not widely used, with most people using the term Sex Education. This might change as one of the recommendations from the Select Committee is for the term RSE to be used on this subject. I really welcome this, as do the many professionals who work in the field.
As stated earlier both I and other professional fully support schools to deliver age appropriate RSE. It is important to remember that RSE is wide-ranging and a variety of issues that will be introduced at the appropriate time. These include subjects such as relationships; consent; stay(ing) safe; boundaries and sexuality. This also includes understanding our own bodies as they develop. It may surprise some readers, but young people can start to go through puberty from year 4 and lack of knowledge could make this a terrifying experience. This is one reason the Samaritans started up over 60 years ago in 1953 after the founder presided over a funeral of a 14-year-old; she had taken her own life after starting her periods and thinking she had an STI.
The difficulty is that whilst schools are required to make provisions for PHSE and RSE, it does not hold the same statutory footing as other core subjects. Some elements of Sex education are required but only from year 7 onwards, and only as part of the national science curriculum. Whilst PSHE and RSE hold a lessor statutory footing, they have to compete with the statutory subjects and often ends up being an add-on. RSE is not an add-on, it is life.
Currently state-run schools are only required to include some information on reproduction and STI’s within the science curriculum which means many of the topics that fall under ‘relationships’ are missed. Academies are required to do even less. Ofsted has said PSHE, of which RSE is a core element requires improvement in 40% of schools so it is clear young people are not currently getting all of the information they need. This must change, but the only way it is really going to change is by making PHSE a statutory.
The Council supports a partnership approach between schools and parents. Evidence shows that children and young people who have sexuality conversations at home have sex later, less frequently and use contraception more consistently than their peers. They are also more likely to positively model conversations and discuss contraception within their relationships.
Cornwall aims to promote a model of positive sexual development throughout childhood and adolescence and into adulthood. We have implemented the Brook Sexual Behaviours Traffic Light Tool as its multi-agency sexual health framework to support professionals to understand and identify both healthy and potential harmful sexual behaviours. It is very important to highlight healthy (age appropriate) sexual behaviours and not stigmatise them with the attitude of ‘no sex please, we are British.’
In the past young people have told us that RSE was ‘too little, too late and too biological’ and they want more information about relationships. They have said they want to talk to parents and carers to learn more about all areas of sexual health and understanding the risks. However, I also know how this subject is difficult for parents to talk about, especially if they do not have access to up to date information. This is something we are looking at with our partners. We want to make sure parents have access to and, perhaps most importantly, are confident in using, up to date information. It is all well and good giving young people the right information, but we must also give parents and carers this information too otherwise both groups are left having to depend on unreliable sources.
Access to services goes hand in hand with access to knowledge. These need to be non-judgmental, honest and open advice and support. With the right support young people will remain safe and informed. Young people in Cornwall were recently consulted about this issue, with one-third reporting that they have not been able to talk about relationships and sexual health as much as they would like to.
Furthermore, research shows that young people aged 16-24 carry the greatest burden of sexual ill-health, both nationally and in Cornwall, with Chlamydia being the most common sexually transmitted infection. This is why good sexual health is important for all age groups but it is clear that young people need access to information, services and to develop the skills they need to negotiate healthy relationships before they become sexually active.
The subject of Relationships, Sex Education, and Sexual Health are very important to emotional development for young people. My own experience of Sex Education was limited. In fact I should say it was non-existent in my school and therefore, I understand the need for young people to have the right age appropriate advice to allow them to make informed choices and to stay safe.
To give a better understanding the following summary can help parents and carers, schools and other educators understand what children and young people want to learn about in relation to growing up, relationships and sex from ages 3-19. This summary has been taken from the Sex Education Forum’s ‘Understanding Sex and Relationship Education briefing’ about Learning about growing up, relationships and sex from 3-19,
- Age 3–6 – At this age children are interested in the differences between boys and girls, naming body parts, where babies come from, and friends and family. What areas of the body are private and should not be touched and who they can talk to if they are worried are also important.
- Age 7–8 – At this age children are interested in the changing nature of friendships, the emotional and physical changes of growing up, similarities and differences between boys and girls, coping with strong emotions and how babies are made from eggs and sperm. How to look after our bodies and how to be safe and healthy are also important.
- Age 9–10 – At this age children are interested in knowing about love and the different kinds of families, they will be curious about puberty and sexual feelings and changing body image. They will want more details about conception, how babies develop and are born and why families are important for having babies. They will be interested in knowing about how people can get diseases, including HIV, from sex and how they can be prevented. They will also want to know who they can talk to if they want help or advice and information about puberty and sex.
- Age 11–13 – At this age most young people will be entering puberty and will be interested in hormones, how they will be affected by them, the menstrual cycle, wet dreams, erections, fertility, pregnancy – how it can be avoided, and safer sex. They may also be wondering if their physical development is ‘normal’. They will want to know about the difference between sexual attraction and love and whether it is normal to be attracted or in love with someone of the same gender. Young people will be asking questions about relationships, when is the right time to have sex, how to avoid pressure and where they can get more information if they need it, including the best websites, confidential services etc.
- Age 14–16 – At this age some young people will either be sexually experimental or know friends who are. They will be interested to know what they should expect of a partner and how to talk to them. They will need more information on contraception, sexual health and how to access services. They will want to know about different types of relationships and homophobia. They may want to know about how to cope with strong feelings and how to cope with the pressures to have sex. They will start to ask questions about parenthood and may like to know how they can talk to their own parents or a trusted adult. They will also be interested in other influences on sexual decision-making such as the law, different cultures and religious beliefs, pornography, the media and the effects of drugs and alcohol.
- Age 16–19 (and beyond) – At this age young people are at the legal age of consent and many, but not all, will be in intimate relationships and will be interested to know about the challenges of long-term commitments and the qualities needed for successful loving relationships. They will be interested in what issues can be difficult to talk about in intimate relationships, for example sexual pleasure and contraception and how this can be addressed. They will be interested to know more about being gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender. Young people at this age will need more information on sexual risk, pregnancy, sexual health, fertility and infertility. They will be keen to discuss gender stereotyping, violence, exploitation, the law, and discrimination. Learning about the relationship between self-esteem and body image and how to challenge negative messages from peers, the media and society is also important.
This is why PHSE and RSE must be core subjects and treated in the same way as maths and English.