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18 April 2013

Government reviews PSHE

Government reviews PSHE

A government review has found that parents want sex education to be taught in its moral context with an emphasis on marriage and the importance of the legal age of consent.

Before Easter, Elizabeth Truss, the parliamentary under-secretary of state for education, announced the outcome of the Department for Education's review of personal, social, health and economic (PSHE) education which had been commissioned by education secretary Michael Gove after the 2010 election. The government response was in light of the associated consultation which attracted 633 responses from a wide variety of organisations and individuals representing various interests. The need for Christians to maintain a strong and active interest in public education issues could not be better exemplified.

The government has now decided that PSHE will remain a non-statutory subject. The PSHE Association – effectively the expert trade body for the subject – will receive government funding to provide advice to schools. Crucially, they will be instructed to “promote the teaching of consent as part of sex and relationships education”.

As a result, sex education will remain an "important", "necessary" though voluntary subject for schools after the government rejected calls from campaign groups to make it compulsory. The minister stated: "To allow teachers the flexibility to deliver high quality PSHE we consider it unnecessary to provide new standardised frameworks or programmes of study. Teachers are best placed to understand the needs of their pupils and do not need additional central prescription."

Schools will effectively remain free to determine their own approach to the teaching of sex education while the government appears to have decisively rejected calls to impose a uniform, state-mandated sex education programme on schools.

The decision provoked criticism and strong expressions of disappointment from sexual health campaigners and humanist groups with high profile agendas that include marginalising the role of parents and assuming that sexual relations should be encouraged as long as they are consensual. The British Humanist Association reaction was representative: "Young people need full and comprehensive information around sex, relationships and other matters in PSHE, as all the evidence shows that this improves outcomes in relation to STIs and reducing unwanted pregnancies, and ensures that they have healthier, happier, consensual relationships."

The government response should hopefully now bring to an end three years of controversy after Ed Balls, the previous Labour secretary of state, controversially attempted to make sex education compulsory. His plans included removing the right of parents to request the withdrawal of a pupil from sex education lessons once their child reached 15.

Key summary findings from the consultation included the following:

·   Many of the respondents were of the opinion that sex education should be taught within the context of relationship education. It was suggested that pupils were being taught about the mechanics of sex without an understanding of relationship management, and that the latter was vital to ensure children and young people appreciated and respected themselves and their peers.

·   Many respondents believed that parents had the principal responsibility for PSHE education, particularly where moral choices had to be made. It was noted that the key areas of learning and knowledge relating to health, lifestyle, social and emotional behaviour and welfare were primarily the responsibility of parents and carers, and that PSHE should reinforce knowledge rather than pre-empt parents and carers.

·   Most respondents believed that parental engagement in PSHE was crucial across all school provision and providing parents with every possible and practical opportunity to interact and engage with PSHE provision was the most effective way of defining and accounting for PSHE.

Detailed responses to the consultation included the following:

·   52 per cent were of the opinion the most important core outcome was that pupils were able to make informed choices, recognise and manage risk, and have the knowledge and awareness to make safe decisions. They said it was vital that pupils had the ability to negotiate the challenges that life presents.

·   20 per cent were of the opinion that PSHE should not be made statutory and schools should be offered a non-statutory programme of study to help with their programme planning. Respondents believed schools, with input from parents, should be responsible for the nature of the topics being taught, including the content, the material and its delivery.

·   Conversely, 15 per cent felt that PSHE should be made statutory in its entirety.

·   Only five per cent were of the opinion that all schools should be covered by the legislation to provide SRE, including private and faith schools. Respondents said that at present, academies and free schools did not have to teach any sex education and respondents believed that this should be amended to bring them in line with mainstream schools.

·   64 per cent were of the opinion that parents should be informed about the content of PSHE education in schools and they must be given the opportunity to express their opinions through surveys and parent awareness sessions. Concerns were raised that some schools simply informed parents of what had already been decided on, particularly in the SRE element of PSHE.

·   40 per cent believed that it was extremely important to teach pupils about building positive and sustainable relationships. It was suggested that strengthening the priority given to relationships as part of SRE was vital and could improve links with the issues relating to domestic violence, abuse, sexual exploitation and bullying.

·   45 per cent said positive parenting was very important and should be part of all pupils’ education. Respondents considered school-based parenting programmes to have a positive effect on pupils, helping them to think more objectively about the role of parenting and the responsibilities of parenthood.

·   52 per cent said it was essential that SRE must place sexual relationships within a clear and objective moral context. They mentioned it was important for pupils to know their own self-worth, to have self-respect and learn to value their own bodies. Respondents were of the opinion that commitment and fidelity in sexual relationships were no less important than sexual consent, and the emphasis should be on having respect for themselves and others. It was also put forward that teaching about ‘abstinence’ before marriage should be taught alongside contraception.

·   39 per cent said schools should be accountable to parents and that parents should be included and involved in PSHE programmes to maximise the impact of the programmes. They believed providing parents with every possible and practical opportunity to interact and engage was the most effective way of defining and accounting for outcomes.

· 38 per cent were of the opinion that SRE was a particularly sensitive subject and it was essential that schools should not be allowed to force the teaching of this on pupils without proper consideration for the needs of the individual child, nor without proper consultation with the parents of the children involved. Respondents strongly supported maintaining section 403 of the Education Act, which allows parents to withdraw their child wholly or partly from SRE.