Fantastic news: sex education to be made compulsory in all schools by 2010.

// 23 October 2008

A government review has concluded that sex education should be made a compulsory part of the national curriculum in both primary and secondary schools. Religious schools will not be able to opt out of the curriculum, although they will have the right to teach their own bigotry, sorry, beliefs on “contraception, abortion, and homosexuality”. Quite how that will sit alongside the curriculum I don’t know, hopefully it won’t. The Guardian reports that:

Children will learn about body parts and the fact that animals reproduce from the age of five, puberty and intercourse from the age of seven and contraception and abortion from the age of 11.

Sounds sensible to me. And to pre-empt squeals from the Daily Mail, the head of the review board assures us that:

We are not talking about five-year-old kids being taught sex. What we’re talking about for key stage 1 is children knowing about themselves, their differences, their friendships and how to manage their feelings.

Of course, the usual suspects are nevertheless up in arms:

Norman Wells, director of the Family Education Trust, said: ‘One of the dangers of introducing sex education at an early age is that it runs the risk of breaking down children’s natural sense of reserve.’

Natural sense of reserve my arse. I’ve had sexual feelings from the age of about seven, and, even if it is the case that I’m a complete freak, I think it’s fair to say that many kids have a genuine interest in how their bodies work and where they come from. All the curriculum will do is provide them with the answers that they have a right to know.

But, wait, there’s more:

‘We have had 30 years of sex education in secondary schools and it has never been easier for teenagers to get hold of contraception without their parents knowing, yet we still have the highest rate of teenage conceptions in Western Europe, and both abortion rates and sexually transmitted infection rates have continued to rise.’

Wells fails to note that we’ve had 30 years of extremely patchy sex education that has generally not been fit for purpose. The fact that it’s now easier to get hold of contraception doesn’t mean that it is sufficiently easy to access nor that teenagers are knowledgeable enough or comfortable enough to use it in the correct manner.

What exactly does Wells propose we do? Because let’s face it, most teenagers are horny as hell, and simply telling them that sex outside of holy matrimony just ain’t cricket really won’t make the blindest bit of difference to teen pregnancy rates, the number of abortions or the spread of STDs. They are categorically Going. To. Do. It. Anyway.

What will make a difference, as the government has finally realised, is ensuring children and young people are given sufficient information about their bodies, relationships, safe, consensual sex, contraception and sexual health before they begin any kind of sexual exploration, and that means compulsory, comprehensive sex education for all. Here’s hoping it turns out to be as good as it sounds.

Comments From You

Lauren O // Posted 24 October 2008 at 2:45 am

The highest rate of teenage conceptions in Western Europe, eh? You should send that fellow over to the States. We’ll show him high teenage conception rates.

GypsyBall // Posted 24 October 2008 at 3:27 am

I’m sixteen and I knew sex education had failed when I went out to lunch with five female friends and it came to light that not ONE of them knew anything about the clitoris, nevermind it’s existence. (This discussion was brought up when a friend asked to see my copy of ‘The Whole Woman’.)

So I was asked about it and as I was about to explain they were all suddenly uncomfortable and didn’t want to hear anything and so the subject was quickly changed. What there were interested in, though, was why I read ‘stuff like that’, as if my knowledge was dirty and perverted.

I know some people are more comfortable discussing such things than others but the reality is so many girls about my age really don’t know themselves down south. There was a lot of detail involved in describing male genitalia in the sex ed course but the female part seemed very much skipped over – this could just be at my school, though.

If you want to teach someone something well then it’s always best to start from a young age. Unfortunately, so far this is only for England but hopefully the rest of the UK will follow.

Adele // Posted 24 October 2008 at 8:07 am

This sounds exactly like the sort of stuff I was taught as a kid (in Australia). I don’t know why, but Australians don’t seem to be as insane about this as Americans or Brits.

The right-wing comments that inevitably follow anything about sex education always worry me. Why do they object to children being taught to protect themselves against sexual abuse?

Good work Brits, anyway.

Sian // Posted 24 October 2008 at 9:10 am

This is fantastic news. In school I had fairly good education in dispelling myths, the facts about sex, contraception and periods/pregnancy-and it has always horrified me that other schools did not receive the same. On Question Time last night there were some fantastic comments from the audience dispelling this myth of innocence that the Tory minister on the programme spoke about (one girl remembered hiding behind the couch aged 5 asking her mum what sex was!) and makng it clear that they understood that this is obviously going to be age-related, and Roy Hattersley said “let’s not confuse innocence with ignorance” which I thought was great. I would’ve thought that religious groups would welcome a more comprehensive sex education as currently most kids just get taught the facts and this aims to talk about family and relationships too. The only thing that worries me is how able teachers are going to be at teaching this sort of thing-I hope they’re given the proper training so they don’t pass on bias/ignorance to the next generation (I’ve a vague recollection of my teacher saying something homophobic in sex ed.) and I hope that gay relationships are covered too.

JENNIFER DREW // Posted 24 October 2008 at 10:44 am

Excellent news and I just hope the Government doesn’t interfere with regards as to how sex education will be taught. Most importantly is the fact female sexuality must be taught rather than simply focusing as always on biological reproduction and male sexuality. Human sexuality is more than just ‘sex’ whatever that means. Equally important is the fact girls and boys are bombarded with images of women depicted as men’s sexualised commodities via the media and culture in general. Yet those opposed to teaching girls and boys sex education appear to wear blinkers because these images are never, ever raised.

Let’s have factual, comprehensive sex education and not leave it to boys primarily learning about male sexuality and its supposed privileges via pornographic websites, men’s porn magazines and of course porn news masquerading as ‘newspapers.’ All of these are easily available to boys.

Another fact is that comprehensive sex education which will be age related will assist girls in particular but boys too, in respect of understanding about respecting another person’s bodily autonomy and the fact no one has the right to coerce, pressurise or threaten anyone into unwanted sexual activity. Something which is conveniently forgotten about when debate rages about childhood innocence and learning about human sexuality.

Charlie // Posted 24 October 2008 at 11:58 am

One of my friend’s friends, aged 22, was discussing tampons. She had never used one because she was worried about how you could wee whilst wearing one. She genuinely thought they were the same hole. Scary example of girls not understanding their own bodies.

I’m not sure if it was Germaine Greer who said (also in The Whole Woman?) that girls’ sex education tends to be made up of telling girls what is INSIDE their bodies; fallopian tubes, womb etc, but nothing about their genitals.

lisa // Posted 24 October 2008 at 12:34 pm

In France-Germany etc there is a lot of sex education from about 5 onwards BUT age appropriate. No one is suggesting showing 5 year olds pornography ! Not only do children have a right to learn about sex in a gradual way throughout their childhood but adults have a responsibility to inform, educate, guide and advise them until they’re capable of handling a powerful and important aspect of life as a human on their own. No one would expect an 18 year old to ‘just know’ how to drive a car or do quadratic equations so why do some adults expect children to ‘just know’ about sex overnight at the age of 18 ? I have my suspicions that those who wish to keep children ignorant (dangerously ignorant – can’t get pregnant if you do it standing up, won’t get pregnant if you drink asprin dissolved in coke etc !!!) are just uncomfortable and repressed about sex themselves. They are wrong if not abusive to condemn children to ignorance because of their own sexual problems.

Jess // Posted 24 October 2008 at 1:41 pm

This is fantastic. I taught Sex Education as a volunteer for Planned Parenthood when I was still in high school, and I don’t need to tell you how important it is! When I moved to Britain just a few years ago, I was shocked by how the sex education varied between schools and how many barely-teenage mothers there were. I know that the US has significant problems with Sex Ed from state to state, but it seems to me that the UK is far worse in many ways. Yes, abortion might not be as violently contested, but contaception is harder to find and fewer people understand the importance of condom use. To really see the difference, try walking into a chemist and asking for spermacide. I did this, and after being looked at like a degenerate at half a dozen chemists, I finally met a pharmacist who said she could order it in for me, although there were only three varieties available, one of which has since been discontinued. There are also fewer varieties of condoms (which are more expensive), but most worryingly, I think, is the cervical screening policy. Cervical screening is not done as part of the STI screening although the tests are similar, and you are “invited” to your GP to have one only once every three years, rather than walk-in clinics doing them once a year (or more frequently with irregularities). I have to say that it doesn’t make me feel all that confident. Sure, the US has its Sex Ed problems, but the UK could really use an equivalent to Planned Parenthood.

Fran // Posted 24 October 2008 at 2:04 pm

Wow, GypsyBall, sixteen-year-olds not knowing about the clitoris? That blows my mind.

But now you mention it, I don’t remember ever being told about the clitoris in sex ed either — all we learnt about was penile-vaginal sex and the rest came from playground rumours.

magic_at_mungos // Posted 24 October 2008 at 2:28 pm

As I read the comments on the Mail article, I was absolutely seething.

The fact that the UK has one of the highest teenage rates in Europe means that the current sex education isn’t working. I don’t know whether it’s society as a whole glamourising this idea of sex being normal and everyone being at or parents and/or schools not trying to push the idea that you don’y have to have sex to fit in.

I am nearly 25 and I remeber that someone was boasting about having sex at 13/14. Therefore waiting for secondary school to give sex education and teaching us about contraception and healthy relationships is too late.

Puberty is hitting some earlier and earlier and so there’s going to be some fairly young children who need to be told that what they are feeling is normal and how to deal with it. That’s it’s all right to fancy someone who is the same gender as yourself. It’s OK to say no if someone is pressuring you into having sex and you’re not ready and being able to access somewhere where contraception is avaiable cheaply and easily if that is the best descion for you.

Zenobia // Posted 24 October 2008 at 4:35 pm

In France-Germany etc there is a lot of sex education from about 5 onwards BUT age appropriate.

Yes, that reminds me of a conversation in biology class when I was in high school in France, when we were learning about the reproductive system.

Teacher: the clitoris is the woman’s pleasure centre

Male student: is that why women like having a dick up them so much?

Teacher: Oh yes, even me, at least five times a day!

Looks like the teachers were well-trained into how to field potentially awkward questions as well!

Shea // Posted 24 October 2008 at 5:25 pm

On the face of this it sounds like progress, but if you allow religious schools to teach their views on abortion, contraception and homosexuality, you won’t get a decent sex education for children. I think we need to have trained sex educators, able to give the facts on abortion, childbirth, homosexuality and contraception and the context (sex is consensual etc) come in and teach children away from religious wing nuts who try to give them a complex through skewed morality.

I’m not sure what Norman Wells means by “childrens natural sense of reserve”- I’d say children are anything but reserved. They are curious, lively and inquisitive about their bodies and sex, as they should be. Its only later when the full weight of moralistic religious hypocrisy and pseudo-Victorian bullsh*t is imposed on them that they lose that. I wish people like this would get over themselves and their hang ups.

Sex is a natural biological imperiative, its up to individuals to engage in it and enjoy it. I wish they would stop trying to control and impose their own beliefs on everyone else, no doubt as some form of social control.

@ Jess – I disagree with your comparison, I found the US to have a much worse problem with teenage pregnancy than here (though in both cases I don’t believe its solely down to sex ed but to socio-economic factors). I also think contraceptives are much more accessible here. Its possible you struggled with spermicide because it’s used with the diaphragm which has fallen out of favour as a form of contraception in the UK, since the advent of the pill. We also have Brook clinics and Marie Stopes which are like Planned Parenthood.

I welcome this development but with caution. Educate yes, but are we empowering young women to choose not to have sex? I would say no, and thats something that needs real work.

Anne Onne // Posted 24 October 2008 at 7:53 pm

I’m with Shea (don’t worry, Hell isn’t freezing over, if it exists ;) ) – I just don’t see how allowing religious schools to teach their version of ‘sex morality’ would fit in with the scientific, liberal, factual approach. I can’t see how you could allow someone to teach that homosexuality is unnatural and just plain wrong, that abortion is unacceptable in any circumstance, that nobody should ever have sex before marriage, and that women essentially give up any right to say ‘no’ after that ring is on her finger, and then expect that they WILL cover contraception in enough detail to be of use to the children, not shame children who are queer, that sex or sexual feelings are healthy and natural, and that nobody has the right to rape.

I respect that individuals have their opinions, I really do. They have a right to be as uninformed as they like, they really do. But the children – will they please ACTUALLY think of the children – have a right to know the truth, know the science behind reproduction, know the facts about contraception, and know that not everyone thinks homosexuality is wrong. We (rightly) don’t let people’s religious views dictate that children shouldn’t learn about evolution, because we rightly recognise that the educational authority has a duty to educate all children, and that children have a right to see the arguments for something, even if their parents consider it controversial.

Most parents feel at least squicky about talking to their kids about sex. Hell, many of them feel very, very freaked out by anything hinting that their kids might have sexual urges. But this isn’t going to help the kids when (as the majority do) they start having unprotected sex and don’t understand how to interact on a fun, safe, considerate level. I find it’s kids with parents who are very awkward about this who need the most help, because their parents are least likely to work up the guts to research what they don’t know about sex (let’s face it, we adults suck at sex ed as much as kids, a lot of the time!) and talk frankly and supportively to their kid, yet they deny their kid the chance to have a good education in it at school!

And kids being naturally Yeah,that’s why the last 5 year old I talked to asked me what the balloons on my chest were for! Children are surprisingly quick to notice physical differences between girls and boys, and being relatively immune to the shame brigade, have little delicacy about asking such questions even in the most awkward times!

Cara // Posted 24 October 2008 at 10:17 pm

YES. Great news indeed.

Exactly Jennifer Drew, with inadequate sex education kids replace it with the wonders of lads’ mags and rumour.

The ‘ah but innocence of childhood oMG!’ brigade really annoy me. I knew the mechanics of sex from the age of about 6 and well, I didn’t really think much of it at the time. This trope implies that sex is by definition not innocent i.e. bad and dirty. For women, that is.

Lawtears // Posted 25 October 2008 at 12:57 pm

The British inability to talk to their own children is unbelievable. I don’t approve of sex education in schools, mainly because I think that should be done in the home, by the parents. I pity the gov’t/teachers who have to pick up the pieces.

Everything except the mechanics of sex I learned from the playground. I was permanently bombarded with sexual imagery from the girls. I was permanently bombarded with ‘pervy’ ideas from the boys. Add in society’s prudish semi-religious aversion to sex, I fail to see why parents *don’t* talk about it. Would you prefer it if a complete stranger did it instead? How about a pervert?

When my mother saw my shocked/disgusted expression when I learnt about sex, she laughed at me. What she didn’t realise was that I had already engaged in sexual activity some 8 years ealier. Ever since then I’ve wondered how often that moment, the point when you realise what’s happened to you and you look up to see your laughing smug mother’s face, has been repeated around the country ad infintium. Why are pregnant girls a surprise? Why do you think loads of young blokes don’t seem to give much of a toss about women?

I can’t believe that 50% of parents have pushed their offspring through the length of their vagina and still can’t talk about it, about love, about sex or feelings. British parents need to grow up.


(No of children: 0)

Laura // Posted 25 October 2008 at 2:18 pm


I agree basic sex education should ideally come from parents – I certainly wish my mum had talked to me about periods because the first I learnt of them was in a Judy Blume book written in the 1970s which described having to wear some kind of belt and nappy type contraption that scared the crap out of me! Sadly, though, as you point out, many parents entirely shirk their responsibilities in this area so I think sex education in schools is vital.

I also think it’s important that all children receive non-discriminatory education that will help combat, for example, homophobic or unhelpful anti-sex attitudes which parents may pass onto their offspring.

Shea and Anne Onne,

I don’t think I made it clear enough that I think it is entirely contradictory to say that religious schools will not be able to opt out of the curriculum yet will still be permitted to push their own often damaging and discriminatory views alongside it. Plenty of parents send their children to religious schools simply because they are the best schools in their area, rather than because they support the religion’s values, so it can’t be argued that they actively choose to have their children taught sex education along religious lines. Personally, I think all state schools should be secular and religious schools private (I’d rather there weren’t any private schools at all and every child received a decent state education, but that’s another debate entirely, in which I always get caught up in a conflict between my socialist and liberal selves…)

Rachael // Posted 25 October 2008 at 5:42 pm

I too, totally apllaud this decision. Children can still be totally un-prepared because they receive little or no education on sex or relatioships.

But my issue is more about what this new initiative will teach girls. As a girl – all I was taught at school was about periods and how sexuality is something boys “take” and girls need to guard against.

There was absolutely no mention of female sexual power, orgasms or masturbation. And certainly not that girls can enjoy sex as much as boys.

So is this new initiative really going to be that dynamic? Not if it just teaches the same tired old gender stereotypes. Do not mean to put a dampner on it because it is a wonderful decision but this is a massive issue that must be addressed by sex education if it is to consider itself a fair and realisitc portrayal of adult sex.

Anne Onne // Posted 25 October 2008 at 6:24 pm

No worries, Laura. I don’t think it comes accross that you agree, at all, and I got the impression that you thought it was contradictory, just chose to spend more words addressing other points. Which is fair enough, when there’s so much to criticise.

I wrote to rant off and add to the points, not to take the focus of a blogger or commenter on one particular part to mean tacit acceptance of any other point. I quite like that each commenter will expand on a different point.

Fliss // Posted 26 October 2008 at 7:42 pm

Right, i’m REALLY offended by some of the material in this article! (

Onyinye // Posted 2 January 2009 at 2:37 am

Good news… But to be honest the rate of STIs and teenage pregnancy is horrifying in this morden age. Am not sure why its going to take another year to start, why not start it as soon as possible.

Parents, teachers and students dont need to worry so much about contect of sex education being taught to kids, its for their own betterment, since the parents themselves are shy and afraid of talking to their children about sex in closed doors. So they should allow outsiders take the lead now.

Thanks to politics…health needs politics to sustain a growing society.

Rebecca // Posted 10 April 2009 at 12:17 am

I am over the moon that this level of sex education is finally going to be implemented in schools. Like many of the commenters on here, I believe that the sex ed I received at school came far too late. Feeling too embarassed to talk to my parents about sex after hearing whispers in the playground, I gained a (very patchy) understanding of sex from magazines and my peers. By the time my school felt it was time to educate students about the subject, my young, curious and confused self had already formed various opinions about body image and sex, many of them misguided and not entirely positive.

As many have mentioned, it is the shame we Brits seem to feel about the subject which forces young people to seek answers in the wrong places, formulate negative opinions on body image and make bad decisions when it comes to having sex.

Only once this generation of young people is correctly educated about sex and relationships (which includes the emotional side of sex and how pleasure fits into it all) will a positive and shame-free attitude towards the subject be formed as an example for future generations. Maybe then sex ed from within the family might actually be able to match, if not fully replace, sex education within schools.

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