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Learning to love

How sex and relationship education is currently taught in schools and why Mothers’ Union support is vital

01 May 2016

When you hear the phrase ‘sex and relationships education’ (SRE), what does it call to mind? A memory of an embarrassed science teacher, desperately trying to explain the secret workings of intimacy to a group of giggling teenagers; listening enthralled to an older friend or sibling about their experiences; or the long dreaded ‘talk’ with a parent? The fact is, learning about intimate relationships is an essential part of growing up, and one that is of increasing concern for children and young people, as well as their parents/carers.


The evidence suggests that good-quality, school-based SRE can support and inform children and young people to form healthy and positive relationships, and lead to a reduction in abuse within them. Many children and young people do not have relationships modelled well to them, especially those whose family life has been abusive or violent.

Home Office statistics show that girls aged between 16 and 24 are the group most at risk of domestic abuse and it is therefore key to support young people in understanding what healthy and unhealthy relationships look like, so that they are better equipped to make choices about the relationships that they enter in to.

Some people raise the argument that SRE sexualises young people and encourages them to have sex early, and that therefore they should not be taught about sex and relationships at all. However, the evidence suggests that the opposite is true. A study by UNESCO in 2009 found that comprehensive SRE, which covered both abstinence and contraceptive use, actually led to young people having their first sexual experience at an older age, compared to programmes teaching abstinence only. This is backed up by a range of other studies, which also show that there is no evidence to suggest that SRE hastens the initiation of sexual activity, and that it is also linked to better sexual health outcomes.

One issue resulting from a lack of school-based SRE is that young people are likely to look to other sources for information, such as the media, internet or pornography. These sources may present a sexualised view of the world, and may not be factually accurate. Recent research by the NSPCC has found that nearly one in 10 children aged 12–13 is worried they might be addicted to pornography, and there is a growing bank of evidence to suggest that watching pornography impacts children and young peoples’ perceptions of intimate relationships and sexual behaviour.


Some feel that it is the role of parents, rather than schools, to teach children about sex and relationships. However, in reality this is not happening. The recent National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles (Natsal-3, found that, while 39% of boys and 41% of girls identified lessons at school as their main source of information about sex, only 6% of boys and 14.5% of girls stated that one of their parents had been their main source of information. However, 46% of girls and 38% of boys stated that they would have liked their main source of information about sex when growing up to be a parent. This shows that, while there is a need for parents to be equipped and encouraged to support their children in learning about sex and relationships, school-based SRE remains important, particularly in the absence of other sources of information for children and young people.


In England and Wales, SRE is compulsory in state maintained secondary schools, and, according to the Government, ‘involves teaching children about reproduction, sexuality and sexual health’. Primary schools and academies do not have to teach SRE; and Personal, Social, Health and Economic Education (PSHE), in which teaching about healthy relationships often sits, is not statutory.

While SRE is a compulsory part of the curriculum, the fact is that children and young people still feel under-prepared in facing the world of relationships and sex. According to the recent Natsal survey, 70% of young people felt they didn’t know enough when they were first ready to have some sexual experience; and a 2008 report by the Sex Education Forum found that one in three young people felt that their SRE had been ‘poor’ or ‘very poor’.

In 2013, Ofsted reported that almost half of secondary schools required improvement in SRE teaching. The fact that academies are not required to teach SRE is also of concern, in light of moves by the Government to turn more state schools into academies. The current Government guidance on SRE is over 15 years old, and fails to reflect the changes in society, and the challenges that young people face today.

There have been widespread calls in recent years to make PSHE, with SRE at its heart, a statutory subject, in order to ensure that it is given the appropriate time and resources – to which Mothers’ Union has lent its support. The Government announced in February 2016 that it is not planning on making PSHE a statutory subject, but has said that it will look at measures to improve the quality of PSHE in schools.


Mothers’ Union supports children and young people in learning about healthy relationships and sex. In Cameroon, Mothers’ Union members run a Bible camp for girls, in which they talk about relationships and sex. In Melanesia, Mothers’ Union members, as part of the Girls Friendly Society, engage with girls around the issues of sex and relationships.

In the UK, members run groups to support and equip parents to talk to their children about the issue.

Mothers’ Union will also be engaging with the topic of SRE from a social policy perspective over the coming months.

As well as thoroughly researching the current evidence surrounding the issue, Mothers’ Union will be producing a discussion document for members, to gather their views. Mothers’ Union has also produced a report reflecting discussions from our 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence Conference in November 2015, which looks at the role of SRE in preventing violence against women and girls. Keep an eye on the social policy pages on the Mothers’ Union website:, to view the report, and also for details of how you can engage further with the campaign as it evolves.

We must ensure that the issue of good-quality SRE is kept on the agenda, so that our young people are equipped to develop healthy and flourishing relationships with one another, and to safeguard them from abuse and harmful behaviours, both now and in their future lives.

Written by Rose Wright and first published in Mothers' Union's Families First magazine in May/June 2016