LibDem policy to guarantee sex and relationship education for seven and up has been published to a muted fanfare and the usual prurient response.
Broadly the idea is to ensure that from as young an age as possible, children in all schools including academies and free schools get good solid teaching about relationships and about sex as appropriate. Part of the aim is to prevent the kind of abuse that we have seen in Rotherham by enabling children to avoid getting into difficult situations. But it is about much more than that, the ability to make sensible decisions about relationships of all kinds and in all situations. Good schools do this already, but not all schools do, and good schools find the place for this kind of education squeezed by the legal requirement to do so much other stuff. Sex and relationship education is just as important, so reluctantly, as a liberal, I accept the need to put it on as firm a footing as other educational requirements.
One of the reasons it is necessary is because British society in general and media in particular are hopeless at setting the right tone for children to make decent decisions for themselves. This is largely because the media and the chattering elements of all classes are obsessed with sex. Predictably, all the headlines on this initiative are about “sex education”, when the full title is “sex and relationship education”. Good schools, even good nurseries, start doing relationships at a really young age, teaching how to share, how not to hit, and good schools continue the process at age appropriate levels. They need to be encouraged to do so and to keep it central to the curriculum.
I think one small adjustment to the language we use might help to make debate more purposeful and rational. We should call it “relationship and sex education” rather than the other way round. The reason is that those who most need to consider it properly stop listening as soon as they hear the word “sex”, and assume that it must be about teaching five year olds what an erection is and which holes it can go in. If the phrase were the other way round, some people might start reacting more sensibly and understanding that relationship education is properly a part of what a school teaches, and that sex education is a part of that at the appropriate time.