Sex Education in Primary School
Sex Education in Primary School
December 2009 - The UK Government recently announced plans to introduce a new sex education curriculum into schools in England and Wales.
This broadly following the existing Dutch model which has been successful in that country in introducing the subject to children.
It is a controversial proposal as it has raised complaints that it will sexualise children and take away the innocence of childhood.
It has also been criticised for insisting on a compulsory course for teenagers of 16 years and over. Prior to this age group the programme will require parental consent and the right to withdraw children from the classes. The general points about the new programme are broken into three developmental stages.
- · Between the ages of 5 to 7 years children will learn about physical changes since birth, close relationships and similarities and differences between boys and girls.
- · From 7 to 11 years physical changes about puberty will be taught, classes will be in relation to reproduction and will discuss different relationships, marriage and civil partnerships.
- · Older children bertween 11 and 14 years of age will attend classes on sexual activity, contraception, sexually transmitted infections (STI), pregnancy and relationships
The reason it is felt that the system needs updating is because Britain has almost the highest rate of teenage pregnancy in Europe, it is five times higher than the Netherlands. Only around 53 per cent of young people in Britain use contraception, compared with 93 per cent in the Netherlands.
In a recent survey by the Sex Education Forum, a third of young people said they felt that they received poor advice on sex at school. The most dramatic statistics put forward are that in the UK the number of abortions performed on under-16s rose by 10 per cent last year (2008) to a figure of 4,376 young people. Even today young teenage girls have revealed that they have never been told about subjects such as menstruation.
Controversy over the curriculum
Much of the outcry surrounds the resistance to the government attempting to legislate in family life. Another example of the 'Nanny State' entering into areas where it should leave well alone and allow parents to rear their children as they deem fit. Margaret Morrissey, from the campaign group 'Parents Outloud' has condemned government ministers for “infringing parents' rights” and 'Respect' MP George Galloway agrees. Speaking on his radio show he comments that "children are not the property of the state" and that parents should be in control of sex education.
However, Government research suggests that four out of five parents had no objections and wanted their children to be given sex education in school. Nevertheless almost a third insisted they should have the option to withdraw them from lessons at any age. To date very few children in the UK have been withdrawn from classes by their parents as it is less than 0.5% of the total.
There are concerns that sex education classes would conflict with deeply held religious morals and teachings. At home parents can teach the subject in the context of their faith thereby avoiding the contradictions or dilemmas pertaining to sensitive subjects such as contraception, unmarried sex and homosexuality. Particular attention has been focused on devout Moslem families and possible outrage that sex education in a secular environment would go against their strong beliefs.
But it has been pointed out that this may represent more of a generational difference than an issue of religion. Certainly ultra-conservative Moslems of the older generation may object to these new teachings but it is reckoned that many Moslems under the age of 35 years would be more open and tolerant to the curriculum. And of course this would probably be the same age-related difference of views across all religions whether they be Christian, Moslem or otherwise
More controversially the new curriculum will allow 'Faith Schools' to stage lessons within the “tenets of their faith”. A third of schools in England are faith schools and therefore this means that a great deal of schoolchildren will be exempt from the new classes. This has caused alarm and has even been described as a ‘bigots charter’ in which children could be taught that homosexuality is wrong and a sinful act, the teaching of which could actually be illegal under UK discrimination law.
In any event it is felt that there is little point in introducing a new method of sex education if it is not applied universally. If it is so needed and so beneficial to health and welfare then why should a large group of children be denied the classes.This is especially since the new curriculum will not be about questioning religion but merely giving information and advice.
It raises the difficult question of whether religion needs to modernise and move with the times although that is an issue far beyond the scope of this article. An interesting angle on the role of Faith Schools is that if they can be exempt then why cannot other exemptions be made, or indeed any exemptions on a genuine point of principle. For the first time it will be compulsory for children to be taught evolution.
But what if the parents of a child strongly believe in creationism as part of their creed? Should they not be allowed to withdraw their child from classes on evolution? Even if a parent of a teenager objected to the syllabus in a History topic or in Politics or Sociological issues. Could they not have the same right to object on the grounds that their child is being indoctrinated by being taught a viewpoint that they vehemently disagree with. It could descend into absurd extremes if the principle was applied fairly.
The role of the Teacher
Traditionally it is an accepted fact that it is difficult for children to ask their parents about matters relating to sex and reproduction. It can be comfortable to learn from teachers despite the blushes or embarrassed sniggers from the back row of the classroom. Parents can still have worries about this as they may not know the teacher well. They may not know what framework and values the teacher possesses. However as with any state curriculum, surely the teaching on sex education would be standard across all teachers irrespective of their own personal values. We should feel secure that they would approach the subject in a professional and objective manner as they would any class.
Ben Hicks of 'Brook', an organisation that provides sexual health information and advice to young people, explained that there has been an immediate misconception about the new programme in the media. This has caused worries among parents of the sexualisation of young children and a loss of innocence at too early an age. He emphasises that "sex education is not sexualisation" and particularly among 5 to 7 year olds there is no actual teaching on sex at this level. Young primary school children will learn likes and dislikes, well-being and welfare, personal hygiene, the process growing up and learn about the main parts of their bodies. He states that the intention is to empower children and help them develop a healthy respect for themselves.
It is important to remember that it is not all about sex and reproduction. The curriculum is oficially described as 'Personal, Social, Health and Economic Education' or PHSE for short. Therefore it will cover a broad spectrum encompassing well-being, confidence, self-esteem, positive relationships and good citizenship. Children are naturally curious about their themselves, about others and where they came from. There seems little harm in them being taught about the facts of life at an age-appropriate level suited to their stage of development and their understanding.
Certainly parents have rights and these should be respected. But children also have rights to be informed on matters that can and will affect their health and their welfare now and in the future. The brittle fault line between family and state is always a sensitive area and it will be interesting to see how the new curriculum is received once it is put into action.
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