The conclusion of the education select committee could not have been starker. “Better PSHE (personal, social health and economic education) and SRE (sex and relationships education) has the potential to help efforts to address many ‘problems’ in society, including teenage pregnancy, STI rates, drug and alcohol abuse, cyberbullying and child exploitation.”
You might think, then, that the Conservative-dominated committee’s recommendation that sex education be made compulsory in primary schools would be quickly accepted by ministers.
But not so. While the Department for Education said it would study the findings carefully, it failed to concede the point that – in a modern Britain – there is a greater need for SRE to protect children from abuse, bullying and a whole range of other problems.
In essence, it is siding with what the select committee calls “a small but vocal minority of parents” who believe they, and not the state, should educate their children about sex. The department is also responding to the concerns of faith groups who might find some of the syllabus – such as tackling homophobia – hard to swallow.
There have been some inflammatory articles in some sections of the media criticising, in particular, Labour for planning to introduce sex education lessons in primary schools and it does seem to be that there is an unconscious fear of bad publicity so close to an election behind the decision to ward off calls for statutory lessons.
It would not be the first time this has happened so close to an election. One of the biggest mistakes in education of the Blair government was to jettison the recommendations of the inquiry into exam reform by former chief schools inspector Sir Mike Tomlinson. That was vetoed amid fears of headlines accusing Labour of ditching the so called “gold standard” of the examination system.
My advice now to ministers – as then – would be: be bolder.