The government has opened an online consultation allowing parents to say what sex and relationships education topics should be covered and how. Meanwhile, an Evangelical Alliance poll said 78 per cent of adults think parents are the best people to talk about it. The dialogue is open, but how should we talk about it? We spoke to Gareth Cheeseman from acet UK about what this means and how parents and youth and children’s workers can get involved.
Do you agree with the Evangelical Alliance poll that parents are the best people to decide what their children are taught in sex education?
Before that, I think we need to remind ourselves where we are currently. We have such a patchwork of schools opting in or opting out. One school might just do a little bit of biology, another school might partner with local youth workers to provide comprehensive sex education and then another might decide not cover it at all. So what we have now is a postcode lottery where we don’t know what young people are going to get.
I am encouraged by the Evangelical Alliance poll reporting that 78 per cent of parents want to be involved. But I’m also aware that a significant number of young people are growing up with parents and carers who either don’t want to, or don’t know how to, talk about these topics. So there needs to be a role for our schools in meeting the needs of some of our most vulnerable young people.
Do you think the government consultation on sex education is good news?
I think it has the potential to be really helpful. This current public consultation is an opportunity for a large number of parents to speak into the government process and that is going to have an impact – hopefully positive. We don’t have an opinion on the guidance that comes off the back of it until we see it, but this is a hopeful sign.
But more relevant and powerful is parents going to their local schools and asking for a copy of their policy. They have the right now to ask to see this. This has the best chance of making an impact on the lives and education of young people. It’s also an opportunity if they’re worried or concerned to direct them to other people, like the local youth worker. I think a lot of parents aren’t aware that they have that opportunity.
This is also an opportunity for youth workers. If they’ve never thought about relationship and sex education before, this is a brilliant time to get equipped up and see if this an opportunity to be a bigger blessing to local young people and the schools they attend. Maybe they’ve struggled to get involved in their local schools; this is a brilliant opportunity to build reputation.
Beyond that, talk to your local MP and authority about what they are doing. We have found that we get the best success when we’re providing an alternative; a positive offer not a purely negative criticism.
How can parents influence sex education in their school in a way that doesn’t insult?
Honest conversations early. Be proactive and speak to schools. Sex education is not compulsory in primary schools, its only relationships education. And in secondary schools parents retain the right of removal if they are unhappy with the content. But it’s better to have a conversation a few weeks or months before the content is delivered than ringing them up the night before and expecting a lot of progress in a short amount of time.
What about when a secular viewpoint doesn’t match a Christian viewpoint?
It was very helpful that during the parliamentary debate over these new statutory guidance rules, it was clarified that schools will have freedom over how to cover topics, not if they cover topics. They have said from the beginning that this curriculum is one which schools can apply to their local context in reference to their local community. So there is going to be space for conversation around how we talk about these issues. The Equalities Act and the department of education’s guidance on application of the Equalities Act make clear that the faith perspective on relationships, sex education and marriage, even if the faith perspective does not align with a secular viewpoint, the faith perspectives must be respected.
Where can youth workers go to get training?
We provide a four-day training course. No prior knowledge is needed of schools work or sex education. We teach people how to plan a lesson, how to talk about difficult topics like HIV and STIs but also how to cover the emotional side. Youth workers need quality training from recognised providers. In the past we have also provided focused days on specific topics and have partnered with other organisations such as Romance Academy, who are also excellent people to be trained by. To see more visit our training page.
I would also look at resources publicly available. The key document that will probably be quite influential on the final guidance is Sex and Relationship Education for the 21st Century written by the Sex Education Forum, Brook and the PSHE Association. This is helpful if you want to dig deep into what the guidance might look like. If you want to learn more about the consultation, the Sex Education Forum [http://www.sexeducationforum.org.uk/ ] has an essay queue-up of the implications and known facts surrounding the new government guidance and what the status will be.
How can youth workers offer that support in a way that isn’t patronising but supportive of a school?
Schools are busy places, with many overburdened teachers getting pressure from a lot of different places. And if an offer of a local youth worker is: “We would like to help you. Where are the topics where you would like some extra help in providing these materials?” We have found most schools welcome this with open arms. Many of the teachers working in schools have had zero sex and relationships training. Depending on when and where they trained, the topic may not have been brought up at all. They suddenly get these lesson plans and curriculums on topics that they’re not trained to teach. Offering help frees staff up to teach on things that they’re confident to provide.
What do you think is the most important sex education topic that we need to talk about with young people?
Forming healthy relationships, without a doubt. We start from a position of self-esteem and helping young people recognise their own value. They can then identify what a healthy relationship looks like and then they can raise the aspiration that they deserve the best possible relationship.