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Sex and Relationships Education (SRE) discussion paper

Overview of the issue

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Mothers’ Union has a mandate to promote flourishing and healthy relationships. As such, we are interested in how best young people can be supported and equipped to enjoy healthy and positive relationships: with one another; friends; family members; and others. Young people’s relationships are facing unprecedented challenges in society, and there has been much discussion recently about the role that school-based sex and relationships education (SRE) and Personal, Social, Health, and Economic Education (PSHE) can play in supporting young people in this area. Much of the debate has centred around whether SRE within schools requires improvement; whether it should be delivered as part of a PSHE curriculum with a stronger focus on relationships, rather than merely the physiological aspects of sex and reproduction; and whether in order to ensure that this is delivered and delivered well, PSHE should be made a statutory subject, where this is not already the case. The purpose of this discussion paper is to gather the views and experiences of members about how society can best support children and young people to navigate this complex area, build healthy relationships both now and in the future, prevent abuse, and experience a better level of wellbeing generally.
SRE is defined by the current UK Government guidance as “lifelong learning about physical, moral and emotional development. It is about the understanding of the importance of marriage for family life, stable and loving relationships, respect, love and care. It is also about the teaching of sex, sexuality, and sexual health.” [i]
Current legislation in England means all maintained secondary schools must teach SRE, having regard to the Secretary of State’s ‘Sex and Relationships Guidance’ published in 2000[ii]. Parents can withdraw their children from any SRE which does not form part of the national curriculum for science, which includes the biological aspects of human growth and reproduction. PSHE, which the Government states SRE should be firmly rooted in, is not currently compulsory. In Wales, SRE is compulsory within maintained secondary schools, and PSE, which includes sex and relationships as part of its health and emotional wellbeing strand, is compulsory both in maintained primary and secondary schools. Parents have the right to withdraw their children from SRE in Wales. In Scotland, SRE forms part of health and wellbeing, one of the eight strands of the Curriculum for Excellence, and all schools are expected to provide this in some form. Parents can withdraw their children from SRE, however will be expected to explain how they intend to provide this to their children themselves. Relationships and Sex Education (RSE) is statutory within schools in Northern Ireland, through both the science programme of study and as part of personal development. There is no statutory right for parents to withdraw their children from RSE in Northern Ireland. In the Republic of Ireland, RSE is also a mandatory subject, although evidence suggests it is not taught in all schools in practice. Parents in the Republic of Ireland reserve the right to remove their children from aspects of RSE if they wish to.
What are the issues facing young people’s relationships today?

In recent years, research has suggested that young people do not feel equipped in navigating intimate relationships, and several reports have explored abusive or unhealthy experiences in young people’s relationships. Home Office statistics show that girls aged between 16 and 24 are the group most at risk of being in an abusive relationship in England and Wales[iii], and research from the NSPCC in 2009 found that one third of girls in England, Scotland and Wales, aged between 13 and 17 have experienced some form of sexual violence in relationships[iv].

Advances in technology have been accompanied by concerns over the sexual behaviours of children and young people; with reports of young people accessing pornography, or using technology to send sexual images to one another on the rise. A report by the Children’s Commissioner for England in 2014 found that a significant number of children and young people are being exposed to, or accessing pornography, and that this is affecting their sexual beliefs[v]. The issue of ‘sexting’ or the sharing of intimate pictures, either through mobile phones or online, is also of concern, with 44% of girls and 32% of boys in England, Scotland and Wales having sent a sexual image[vi].

Many children and young people do not have healthy and positive relationships modelled to them, with around one in five children in the UK exposed to domestic abuse[vii], which has been linked to experiences of relational violence or abuse in later life – either as a victim, or perpetrator.

Many young people themselves do not feel that they are being adequately prepared for the world of relationships, with the recent National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles (Natsal) showing that 70% of young people feel they do not know enough when they are first ready to have sex[viii]; and research for the Home Office by Against Violence and Abuse (AVA) finding that 77% of young people do not feel they have enough information and support to deal with physical or sexual violence[ix].
Is SRE helpful or harmful?

Many people argue that good quality school-based SRE is a helpful tool in teaching young people about aspects of relationships. However, it remains an emotive topic, with others voicing concern about either the provision or content of SRE. Some worry that teaching young people about sex and relationships may sexualise them, or cause them to become involved in sexual activity at an earlier age than they otherwise would[x]. However, there is evidence to suggest that good quality comprehensive SRE actually leads to delayed sexual initiation, and is linked to increased contraceptive use, and fewer sexually transmitted infections[xi]. A global study by UNESCO in 2009, found no link between the teaching of good quality SRE and starting sexual behaviour at a younger age, implying that it does not sexualise young people, but rather informs them enabling them to make considered choices.

Good quality SRE includes a variety of approaches such as abstinence, understanding consent and how to say no, knowing what is healthy and unhealthy in relationships and encouraging young people to understand their own value systems and boundaries around this issue. Teaching on sex, relationships, and abuse has also been linked to a reduction in and prevention of abuse and violence within young people’s current and future relationships[xii]; and has also been linked to an increase in the disclosure of sexual abuse in children, and an increase in protective behaviours around this[xiii].

Some argue against school-based SRE because they feel that parents should be the main providers of information for their children about this topic; however, in reality this is not happening. According to the most recent National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles (Natsal) [xiv], around 3% of young people aged between 16 and 24 stated that a parent had been their main source of information about sex when growing up. To put this in perspective, 3% of boys surveyed cited pornography as their main source of information about sex when growing up. When asked what their preferred source of information about sex would have been growing up, the majority of young people (48%) stated that they would choose schools, and around 21% stating they would have preferred the main source of information to be one of their parents[xv].
Is the current provision of SRE adequate?

Despite the potential value of good quality school-based SRE, studies have found that many young people are not receiving this, with a study by Brook in 2011[xvi], finding that one quarter of young people in the UK report not getting any SRE in school at all, and 26% of those who do, stating that the teacher is not able to deliver it well. A National Union of Students (NUS) survey in 2014 found that whilst most young people think that SRE is essential, only one in three feel that the SRE they received was useful[xvii]. The Sex Education Forum[xviii] also found that one in three young people in the UK feel that the SRE they received was ‘poor’ or ‘very poor’. Additionally, in 2013, Ofsted[xix] reported that almost half of all secondary schools require improvement in SRE teaching.

The concern that young people may access information about sex and relationships from potentially unreliable and damaging sources, such as pornography, has led many to call for improvements to be made to the quality of SRE, for this to be included as part of PSHE, and for PSHE to be given statutory status in schools. Those in favour of this argue that this would ensure that education which focuses more holistically on relationships, with sex as one element would enable young people to better navigate this complex issue. They argue that statutory status for PSHE will ensure provision, and that it is given adequate space and time in the curriculum.[xx] Opponents argue that giving PSHE, with relationships and sex education as a part of this, statutory status will not ensure quality and may result in individual schools having less control over what they teach in this area[xxi]. Many parents and students do support the idea of statutory PSHE, with a recent poll for YouGov identifying that 90% of parents and 92% of pupils would support compulsory PSHE with healthy relationships and consent at the heart of it[xxii].
Purpose of the discussion paper

The purpose of this discussion paper is to understand the views and learn from the valuable experiences and wide knowledge base of our members, in order to support Mothers’ Union’s work on this topic. Please answer the following questions to the best of your ability, but please don’t feel you need to answer a question if you do not feel able. Any examples you can give would be extremely helpful, both in terms of the issues, and any solutions you may have come across. You may want to complete this discussion paper as an individual, or as a group, for example in a branch meeting or at a parenting group.

Once you have completed this discussion paper, please return it, either by email to:, or by post to: Faith & Policy, Mothers’ Union, Mary Sumner House, 24 Tufton Street, London, SW1P 3RB, by 20th October at the latest.

[i] Department for Education and Employment, ‘Sex and Relationship Education Guidance’, (2000)
[ii] Ibid
[iii] Smith, K. (ed) ‘Home Office Statistical Bulletin Homicides, Firearm Offences and Intimate Violence 2009/10 Supplementary Volume 2 to Crime in England and Wales 2009/10 (2nd Edition)’ (2011)
[iv] Barter. C, McCarry. M, Berridge. B, and Evans. K ‘Partner exploitation and violence in teenage intimate relationships’ (2009)
[v] Horvath. M, Alys. L, Massey. K, Pina. A, Scally. M, and Adler. J, ‘Basically... porn is everywhere’ The Office of the Children’s Commissioner.
[vi] Barter. C, McCarry. M, Berridge. B, and Evans. K ‘Partner exploitation and violence in teenage intimate relationships’ (2009)
[vii] Radford. L, Corral. S, Bradley. C, Fisher. H, Bassett. C, Howat. N, and Collishaw, S. ‘Child abuse and neglect in the UK today’ (2011)
[viii] Tanton. C, Jones. KG, Macdowall. W, et al. ‘Patterns and trends in sources of information about sex among young people in Britain: evidence from three National Surveys of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles.’ (2015) BMJ Open:
[ix] AVA and the Home Office ‘Teenage Relationship Abuse: A Teacher’s Guide to Violence and Abuse in Teenage Relationships’ (2010)
[x] The Christian Institute ‘Too Much, Too Young.’ (2011)
[xi] UNESCO ‘International guidelines on sexuality education; an evidence informed approach to effective sex, relationships and HIV/STI education.’ (2009).
[xii] Holden, J. Bell, E. Schauerhammer, V. ‘We Want to Learn About Good Love: Findings from a Qualitative Study Assessing the Links Between Comprehensive Sexuality Education and Violence Against Women and Girls’ (2015) Plan International UK and Social Development Direct
[xiii] Walsh. K, Zwi. K, Woolfenden. S, Shlonsky. A, ‘School-based education programmes for the prevention of child sexual abuse.’ (2015)
[xiv] Tanton. C, Jones. KG, Macdowall. W, et al. ‘Patterns and trends in sources of information about sex among young people in Britain: evidence from three National Surveys of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles.’ (2015)
[xv] Ibid
[xvi] Brook “Sex and Relationships Education fit for the 21st century We need it now” (2011)
[xvii] National Union of Students ‘Student Opinion Survey’ (2014)
[xviii] Sex Education Forum ‘Young people’s survey on sex and relationships education’ (2008)
[xix] Ofsted ‘Not Yet Good Enough: Personal, Social and Health Education’ (2013)
[xx] PSHE Association ‘A Curriculum for Life: The case for statutory Personal, Social, Health and Economic (PSHE) Education’ (2016)
[xxi] Wells. N, ‘Too much, too soon The government’s plans for your child’s sex education’ (2009) Family Education Trust.
[xxii] PSHE Association ‘A Curriculum for Life: The case for statutory Personal, Social, Health and Economic (PSHE) Education’ (2016) 

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