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Fifty Years of Sex Education: Where are we and how did we get here? | Gill Robins

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Wind the school clock back fifty years to 27 July 1967. The Sexual Offences Act 1967 gains Royal Assent and homosexual practice is no longer illegal. Based on the current zeitgeist, you might expect that schools would be encouraged to hold Pride parties, to make posters or wear badges celebrating this new step in sexual liberty, and to teach a few lessons about overcoming social prejudice and the length of the journey still to be travelled to genuine equality.

Actually, what happened in schools was absolutely nothing. Even though the Sixties were in full swing, sex education looked very different then - it was virtually non-existent. No school would have seen a need to celebrate, or even discuss, the decriminalisation of the way a tiny percentage of the population chose to live. So, how did we get where we are today?

Parental responsibility, modesty and temptation

In the late nineteenth century, sex education was seen as a parental responsibility - publications were available to help parents inform their children about reproduction. Girls were sometimes taught about modesty and boys about temptation, but sex education didn't figure in the school curriculum. The Second World War saw the first significant move to an education programme, prompted by a sudden increase in sexually transmitted diseases. Taught as 'hygiene', the principle aim of the programme was disease prevention.

Throughout the 1960s, most education about reproduction was delivered in secondary school biology lessons, leaning heavily on the reproductive habits of plants and animals: girls were more likely to receive lessons in the biology of human reproduction than boys. The passing of the Sexual Offences Act in 1967 went unmarked in schools because it was irrelevant to the social needs that sex education programmes are usually designed to meet.

Contraception and abortion

In 1963, The Family Planning Association recommended the provision of free family planning advice on the NHS, although it was another decade before free contraception became available. But combined with the 1968 Abortion Act, total sexual freedom without the consequence of an unwanted child became possible and the social landscape started to change out of recognition.

Although the sexual revolution played out during the 60s did eventually impact on education, little changed in the school curriculum during the following decade. In response to rising rates of teenage pregnancy, teaching about contraception became more widespread. Relationships were not generally part of the agenda but some sex education programmes started, for the first time, to encourage discussion about feelings, with the aim of lessening guilt and embarrassment about both sex outside of marriage and the early sexual activity that contraception and abortion facilitated.

Feminism and sexuality

But by the 1980s, things looked very different. Feminist thinking was starting to influence education. The concept of gender inequality entered the arena, together with the criticism that sex education merely reinforced that inequality. Lesson content on puberty and human reproduction widened to include discussion on sexuality and relationships.

Then suddenly, in 1985, two things happened that ensured that sex education became the political football that it remains to this day. HIV/AIDS became a serious health issue and Victoria Gillick, mother of ten children, started her campaign against the House of Lords ruling that contraception could be prescribed to under-16s without parental consent. And while attitudes to premarital and extramarital sex became increasingly liberal, attitudes to same-sex relationships hardened as HIV/AIDS spread through the gay community. In 1983, 50 per cent of adults thought single sex relationships were wrong - by 1987 that had risen to 64 per cent. 1987 saw the introduction of Section 28, aimed to secure the family as an essential building block of society and to protect children from same-sex propaganda, stating that local government "shall not intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality" or "promote the teaching in state schools of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship". Margaret Thatcher observed that, "Children who need to be taught to respect traditional moral values are being taught that they have an inalienable right to be gay".

Compulsory sex education

Until the end of the 80s, schools largely made their own decisions about sex education and appropriate content. But the 90s saw a flurry of legislation, with John Major's 1993 Education Act making sex education statutory as a response to the Aids epidemic. It required all schools to teach "in such a manner as to encourage young people to have regard to moral considerations and the value of family life". The ensuing 1996 Education Act required governors to provide detailed sex education policies that encompassed anatomy, puberty, the mechanics of human reproduction and sexually transmitted infections.

Although they chose to emphasise the importance of marriage, New Labour broadened the subject still further, so parents were given the right of opt out. They could remove their child from all lessons which they felt were inappropriate (apart from the biology content of the curriculum), and students were protected from teaching which was inappropriate to their religious or cultural background. 


The liberal social orthodoxy

Sweeping secularism characterises the first 17 years of this century. We have become increasingly dominated by a liberal social orthodoxy - an orthodoxy that is now being imposed on our education system. In 2014, the family was irrevocably redefined by the legalisation of same sex marriage. With the internet offering young people access to frank and graphic online information, sex education programmes quickly became seen as out of date and out of touch. The growth in smart phone ownership has allowed children as young as five to send indecent photos of themselves to friends - photos which soon find their way into general circulation. So today, as sex becomes relentlessly commodified, sexting, pornography, revenge porn and online sexual bullying are part of everyday life for most teens and many children.

Under pressure since 2014 to make sex education programmes relevant both to these problems and to the perceived needs of today's youth, the government finally amended the law earlier this year, piggy backing in drastic changes to the current law under the guise of the Children and Social Work Bill.

So, from 2018, Relationships and Sex Education will reflect the current culture. From Infant school, children will be encouraged to explore their own sexuality as they learn about relationships of all kinds, including lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) ones. The concept of family will no longer be promoted, or even protected. Parents will not be able to remove their children from Relationships Education and the government is exploring ways of ending the parental opt out from sex education, too. Compulsory programmes will include pornography; domestic abuse; violence against women; online safety; protecting yourself against grooming and sexual abuse, and consent. 

And in a move to force everyone of belief to comply with the agenda, all schools (including Christian private schools) will be required to prioritise LGBT teaching over faith - a faith school recently failed 3 consecutive Ofsted inspections solely for refusing to teach gender reassignment and sexual orientation to its 3 to 8 year olds on the grounds that it conflicts with the tenets of their faith. 

As the tsunami of liberalism sweeps through our society, sex has become a catalyst for the destruction of all that is seen as irrelevant in modern Britain - faith, morality, family and the exclusivity of a sexual relationship for which marriage is designed. And it is in our schools that this battle for the minds of our children and young people is being fought.

Related Links: 
Fifty years of word games | Jonathan Saunders
Leaving the 'Gay Cult' and the politicisation of 'Change': How the decriminalisation of homosexuality silences dissenters
Fifty years of Sex Education: Why are we here?


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