Page last updated at 15:23 GMT, Thursday, 23 October 2008 16:23 UK

Nine-month review bears fruit

By Angela Harrison
BBC News education reporter

There are guidelines on what should be taught at various ages

The review which prompted the government to make sex and relationship lessons compulsory in England's schools called for relationships to be at the heart of teaching.

On three occasions over nine months, representatives from faith groups met teachers, heads, governors and members of sexual health charities and found enough common ground on the charged subject of sex education to advise the government on what they thought should be done.

The 25-strong panel, who appear to cover all shades of opinion, agreed "some underlying principles" on how to improve the way the issue is covered.

Their principal recommendation was that PSHE (personal, social and health education) should be made compulsory, with a statutory programme of study setting out what all young people should be taught.

They also agreed on the need for more focus on relationships and the "skills and values young people need as they progress through childhood and adolescence into adulthood".

Not surprisingly, given their make-up, they could not agree on the issue of the existing right of parents to opt out of sex education for their children.

Schools Minister Jim Knight, at a news conference on the review, indicated he would be very reluctant to take away this right.

"I think it's important for individual parents' views to be taken into account in some of these sensitive areas and their right to withdraw from parts of education in those areas that they do not feel comply with their moral views and beliefs and that they will be better dealing with in the home.

"That would be something that would take us a lot of persuading to move away from."


The review called for a "re-balancing" between the factual aspects of sex education such as biology and contraception, and the context in which sex takes place.

And there was a need for schools to have better guidance on what to teach.

Surveys of young people and of teachers, they said, had shown that it was often areas such as sexuality, feelings and emotions, skills for coping with relationships and making decisions about sexual activity which were taught least well.

It's only sex. It's not some shameful guilty secret so let's talk about it
Gill Frances
Teenage Pregnancy Independent Advisory Group

For panel member Gill Frances, from the Teenage Pregnancy Independent Advisory Group, this is crucial.

"I am delighted that sex and relationship education is becoming compulsory under PSHE. It is what we have been calling for for years.

"We need to talk about the connections between the two, so that young people learn how to cope if they feel pressurised into having sex for example or about the effects of alcohol.

"A lot of people say of their sex education 'mum and dad didn't want to talk to me, school was too embarrassed'.

"It's not good enough. It's only sex. It's not some shameful guilty secret so let's talk about it."

The Catholic Education Service - also represented on the panel - likewise supports the emphasis on relationships.

Its chief executive and representative on the review panel Oona Stannard likes the priority given to establishing a "values context" for all SRE (sex and relationships education).

The "recognition of the importance of the role of parents as the first educators of their children" was also welcomed, as was the "respect for schools with a religious character and the clear expectation that all SRE in Catholic schools will be shaped by Catholic teaching".

Mr Knight told journalists faith schools would have to teach the curriculum on sex and relationships but would have their own supplementary guidance.

"Church schools can deliver the programme of studies in a moral context," he said.

Other key finding from the panel included the need for:

  • better training in this area for teachers - especially at primary level
  • teachers should be able to train as PSHE specialists when they enter the profession
  • need for a partnership between schools and parents on sex and relationship education
  • schools should work with outside agencies so young people have access to advice outside school
  • young people should influence what is taught

The group looked at international evidence and said it was difficult "to be precise" about the impact of sex and relationship education, partly because of differences in the way this could be judged.

Was success measured in term of a fall in unplanned pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections, they asked, or by improvements in the quality of relationships?

Despite this, the panel said where people were asked about the quality of the sex and relationship education they had at school, those who were positive had "better sexual health outcomes".

And evidence reviews suggested school-based sex education could be effective in reducing risk-taking behaviour.

The most effective programmes in terms of cutting teenage pregnancies were those where there were comprehensive school sessions coupled with easy access to contraceptive services in the local community.

The concept of teaching "just say no" while offering no information on contraception was not effective, research suggested, although the panel said this did not mean that efforts to delay sexual activity should not be a broader part of sex and relationship education.

SRE review group co-chair Jackie Fisher congratulated the government on taking the "bold step" of making PSHE compulsory.

"We had wanted SRE set in the broader framework of PSHE so that links could be made with alcohol, risk-taking, personal safety and career choices, to give a complete set of life skills," she said.

The group would be "watching closely" to ensure the government's commitments were carried through.

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