Sex education is a right

Pupils want it, there’s good evidence that it reduces rates of unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections, and it teaches young people just the skills they need to negotiate the complex adult relationships they will need to handle. So why should ‘faith schools’ be permitted not to teach it and parents to exempt their children from it? My contribution to the debate is on Comment is Free today.

“No parent or school should be able to prevent a young person receiving good, high-quality sex and relationship education.” Typical, some would say, of the view of humanists and others who believe that sex and relationships education should be an entitlement for all our children, and are often accused as a consequence of riding roughshod over the rights of some religious parents and the “rights” of religious schools.

But this is not the voice of your stock strident secularist, but a 16-year-old, speaking as a representative of the Youth Parliament today. Young people themselves are some of the strongest supporters (pdf) of sex and relationships education, and recognise that it will improve their ability to deal with the emotional, moral and practical difficulties of adolescent and adult life. The Youth Parliament has been a key leader in the drive for compulsory sex and relationships education, and has called not just for all state schools – including religious schools – to be legally obliged to teach it, but for parents not to be able to opt their children out of it.

It’s not a surprise that young people want this education. We know that the sexual health and wellbeing of young people is improved (pdf) by sex and relationships education. We also know that teaching only abstinence in schools has no effect on the likelihood of teenagers to have sex (they are just as likely to do so – it simply means they are less able to take the proper precautions and negotiate complex relationships). Young people have a right to expect that we as a community will provide it for them – and when we say that young people have a right to such education this is in fact literally true. As Article 13 of the convention on the rights of the child says, “The child shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers … ”

In the face of overwhelming evidence that sex and relationships education improves the lives of young people, what right do we have to deny them it? If we know that sex and relationships education of an objective sort improves young people’s health and wellbeing (and we do) and if we accept that it is the right of the child to receive information of all sorts (which it is) and if we go on to conclude that the responsibility of society is therefore to ensure that all our children receive this entitlement, then why allow state-funded religious schools to do something different? Why in particular, as has been announced today, should the religious character of a school (which may or may not be shared by the school’s pupils or their parents) be allowed to skew the sex and relationships education that children receive?

In PSHE, as in RE, pupils should have the opportunity to learn about and engage with a range of different perspectives on relationships. Many different views do exist in society and sex and relationships education should engage them – as it does. But above all else, we need to be honest with young people, not withhold from them knowledge of the full range of human sexuality that does exist in reality, which they will encounter and engage with in the world outside school and which they need to be prepared for.

In sex and relationships education, more than in any other area, we must place the child – not our own prejudices – firmly at the centre of our thinking. Young people want this education, they need it, it is their right to have it, and if we withhold it from them on grounds of our own ideologies, we will only be doing harm.