The majority of people schooled in the UK will have their personal experiences of sex and relationship education (SRE), whether they were good, bad or non-existent. For many, the extent of their SRE was a lecture on the mechanics of reproduction and how babies happen.
Some may have been lucky enough to put condoms on various fruit or vegetables, and I remember one lesson where, strangely, the boys were sent out of the room while the girls were told about menstruation as if this was a dirty secret we were meant to keep. LGBTQ issues, if at all discussed, might be glossed over only briefly; healthy relationships, the effects of pornography, the nuances of consent and many other important topics under the SRE umbrella seem mostly ignored. This is not to say that some schools don't get it right, but generally, according to personal testimonies, Ofsted reports and more, SRE in the UK is delivered inconsistently and often inadequately. Improvements need to be made.
Some action is however being taken. For a start, some politicians, campaign groups and teachers are pushing for statutory SRE to be made law, which is a vital step to ensure inclusion and that all schoolchildren can get the information they need when they need it. Organisations such as Sexpression work across the country to try and bring what they call 'judgement-free' SRE – on topics from the ins-and-outs to body image – to more schools. Services such as the charity Brook and the C-Card in Edinburgh and the Lothians work to provide a range of accessible tools and advice regarding sexual health. Yet all this can only go so far if services and information provisions are not improved on a more comprehensive level.
Better SRE would mean that schoolchildren would have the best possible knowledge to make decisions for themselves and for their romantic and sexual partners, as well as help equip people with ideas of consent and what to do in cases of sexual abuse or harassment. It would help create an understanding of trans and non-binary gender ideas, such as homosexuality, bisexuality and asexuality, as well as create a safe space for pupils who may not be cis or heterosexual to understand, explore and feel good about themselves. But what does 'better' SRE mean?
SRE needs to be statutory in all schools across the UK at least from secondary school age, and it needs to be judgement-free. The first issue is a question of law which needs to be debated and fully considered, and to an extent is easily achieved; the second is a more difficult question of human nature. We are judgemental creatures: it is hard to expect someone teaching about the personal and intimate issues of SRE not to have their own spin on them. Nonetheless, judgement-free SRE is still achievable: the key is to 'facilitate' rather than 'teach'. Give pupils information, give them a safe and encouraging space to think about and discuss their views, but do not attempt to in still a certain subjective viewpoint on personal issues.
Of course, some aspects of SRE must be factual and instructional, such as how birth control works or how an egg is fertilised by sperm, but the flipside of this is not to advocate one type of birth control over another, or to suggest that you absolutely must be having penis-in-vagina penetrative sex in order to have children. Either all teachers must be trained to deliver proper SRE in this kind of style, or we should support outside organisations with specially-trained staff to go into all schools. Otherwise, SRE can never move forward.