Stop screwing around with the curriculum

Instead of yet more sex education, young people need the freedom to explore and develop among themselves.

Alka Sehgal Cuthbert

Topics Politics

Two academics, Juliette Goldman and Christine Collier-Harris, recently wrote a rather excitable article in the prestigious Cambridge Journal of Education.

In the course of analysing the 2009 UNESCO report, International Technical Guidance on Sexuality Education, they concluded that without comprehensive sex education in schools, young people across the world would be at risk from ‘gynaecological trauma, unsafe abortions, obstetric complications such as fistula and haemorrhage, and unconscionable rates of perinatal mortality/morbidity for mothers and babies… emotional trauma, exploitation, loss of cognitive function, greatly reduced educational opportunities, increased risk of substance abuse and self-harm, including suicide…’

That’s quite a set of scary consequences. It would be nice to dismiss the above as an isolated case of hysteria. But it’s not. It echoes the ideas and initiatives of charities such as End Violence Against Women in the UK, the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS), and multinational bodies like the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisations – all of which believe that promoting the prominence of sex education in school curricula is essential for protecting youngsters from disease and trauma and worse.

The situation as it stands in England is that the biological elements of sex education are mandatory for primary and secondary levels as part of the UK national curriculum. At secondary level, schools are required to provide sex and relationships education (SRE), the content of which is largely unspecified, except that it has to contain information about sexually transmitted infections and HIV/AIDS. Other aspects of SRE are non-statutory and have been incorporated into schools’ personal health and social education (PHSE) programmes.

For the likes of Goldman and Collier-Harris, this is not enough. Sexual health promotion ‘is in a parlous state globally’, they write: ‘There are few carefully considered calls for resolution to this state.’ They then go on to assert that young people themselves want to be taught about sex and reproduction. It is a subject, claim Goldman and Collier-Harris, that should take its place alongside such well-established subjects as ‘road safety, healthy food preparation and obesity, drug-taking, including alcohol and tobacco, hygiene and community health, interpersonal violence and bullying’.

Neither Goldman nor Collier-Harris seems able to distinguish between traditional subject-based knowledge and, well, road-safety lessons. Hence they write that, ‘as with every subject’, ‘learning about puberty, sexuality, and reproductive health and safety should be sequential, evidential and based on previous learning…’. It is as if they believe that by adding a few educational-sounding words they can transform sex education into a subject like mathematics or French.

Those advocating increased sex education are clearly desperate for it to have the same educational standing in the curriculum as traditional school subjects. Yet, as illustrated by UNESCO’s list of aims and objectives for sex education, in sex-education classes pupils are required to do little more than voice received opinion about relationships and sex. Take Key Concept 1.3 ‘Tolerance and Respect’, for example. Pupils are expected to be able to explain why ‘stigma, discrimination and bullying are harmful’. This is not knowledge; it is plain old indoctrination.

Another problematic aspect of the drive for more sex education is that it is underpinned by a strange idea of what it means to develop into an autonomous adult. So both Goldman and Collier-Harris claim that before sexual experimentation, young people need to develop ‘capacities for decision-making autonomy, status perception and evaluation of risk/reward, affect regulation and voluntary response suppression’.

Nobody needs autonomy and judgement to be prescribed in this way, least of all teenagers. In fact, autonomy cannot be taught; autonomy is something young people develop by experimenting in the adult world, where they increasingly have to think about ideas, feelings and values for themselves, and learn from their mistakes. That is what makes them become autonomous. Autonomy isn’t something that can be conferred upon young people from on high. And it certainly is not engendered through Learning Objective No. 4 of some ridiculous sex and relationships curriculum.

As adults, our duty to the young is to guide and be there for them. It is to offer them education, not indoctrination; to offer judicious understanding and support, not horror stories about gynaecological trauma and sexual abuse.

Yet in the minds of those pushing for more sex education to be included in school curricula, parents and adults in general are damned for their lack of expertise. As Goldman and Harris-Colliers argue, parents and everyday adults offer ‘inept, infrequent and inadequate sexuality education’. Teachers themselves fare little better in this account: their ‘personal choice in the construction and implementation of [sex education] programmes’ must be overridden by ‘inclusive laws… teacher training… and rigorous scientific evidence’.

In a way, this denigration of parents and teachers makes sense: it is an ideal way for sex education experts to bolster their own authority. But at what cost? With the risks and dangers of adult relationships inflated, and autonomy redefined as compliance with a narrow set of imposed values, the last thing young people will become at the hands of intrusive sex educators is autonomous adults.

Alka Sehgal Cuthbert is reading for a PhD in the philosophy of education. She is a member of the Institute of Ideas Education Forum.

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Topics Politics


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