Let’s get it on (the curriculum)

By Guest contributor 23 July 2015

There are political moves afoot to reform to personal, social and health education (PSHE). NPC’s Katy Murray, formerly of the Faculty of Sexual and Reproductive Healthcare, wonders what charities might teach us all.

I recently read On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan—an oldie but a goodie, and remarkably topical given last weeks renewed attempt to introduce statutory PSHE lessons in all schools. The novella, set in the 1960s, tracks the story of a newly-married couple attempting to navigate the crippling awkwardness of their wedding night. It goes disastrously and (spoiler alert) the marriage is annulled.

The book serves as a useful comparison point. As I read, I swung back and forth between thinking ‘weren’t they awfully repressed, they really could have done with some sex and relationships education (SRE) classes’ and ‘but weren’t things simpler then, without social media, porn and a sex-obsessed media?’

While in many ways society is more ready to talk openly about sex than it was in the time the book was set, today there exists an awful paradox that is frequently pointed out by sex positive campaigners—‘kids today’ are bombarded with depictions of sex, but are starved of clear, supportive and positive information about their personal sexuality.

While the recent NASTAL survey shows that there has been an increase in access to information about sex and relationships within schools, it also found that 70% said they wished they had received more information before becoming sexually active.

A successful PSHE or SRE class offers these open and judgement-free discussions. Without them, young people–whatever their orientation or views on marriage–are at risk of developing an approach to sex that is equally as confused and shame-ridden as McEwan’s heartbreaking young couple of half a century ago.

As NPC research has found, the well-being of young people in Britain takes a sharp nose-dive as they enter their teens—the time when you go through puberty, your body prepares itself to become sexually active, and your relationships (sexual or otherwise) become paramount to your happiness.

I’m only 24, so I still dimly remember my teen years. Between Hollyoaks, magazines aimed at women much older than I was, older siblings, open minded parents and my school’s sex ed classes, I got by. But what if you are not equipped with both the practical and emotional information you need? From contraceptive choices, through boundaries and consent, to where to turn if you relationship becomes abusive, PSHE and SRE lessons are about empowering young people, and enabling them to make informed decisions. How else is society to guarantee they obtain this crucial information?

There is no other way to put it: if we fail to equip our young people with the information and support they need, we fail them. For that reason, I am eternally grateful for charities and campaign networks like Brook, Sexpression, Sex Education Forum, the FPA and the PSHE Association, among many others. These organisations not only lobby tirelessly for these much needed changes to legislation, but fill this huge gap in resources, information and support. Whether it’s through guides to giving lessons on consent, free and accessible clinics, free online resources and help, ensuring the SRE syllabus is LGBT friendly, or leading in digital solutions like text advice and chat groups, sexual health charities are be a lifebelt for young people and adults who work with them.

It is possible to imagine a version of On Chesil Beach where the couple had received SRE from a young age. They would be equipped to have an open dialogue about their individual needs. They would understand each other’s biology so it is not a surprise when it reveals itself (those who have read the book know which scene I’m talking about). They would embark upon sex emotionally, as well as physically, together.

Reforms to PSHE and SRE remain to be seen. But some of the UK’s best charities are ahead of the curve—they have the expertise to make sure we step up on the needs of young people, and help Britain’s young people towards achieving happy and healthy relationships.