Why good sex education for primary school children is crucial

Amid news that the government is proposing to ban sex ed for under-9s, research shows that children who study it from a young age tend to be smarter and safer

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Amid news that the government is proposing to ban sex ed for under-9s, research shows that children who study it from a young age tend to be smarter and safer

By Beth Ashley16 May 2024
3 mins read time
3 mins read time

Sex education in the UK is notoriously terrible. Ask anyone you know what they learned about sex at school and you’ll likely hear much of the same sentiments – or groans. Millennials and older Gen Zers grew up receiving very little information about sex for school, filling the gaps in with advice from friends and porn, with… not great results.

While it's been some time since I was in secondary school, it seems nothing has changed for new generations, either. Recent research from the Sex Education Forum, carried out by Censuswide, showed that nearly one in five students said their in-school RSE [relationships and sex education] was ‘bad’ or ‘very bad’.

A variety of sex education organisations, including the Sex Education Forum, agree that the poor quality of school sex ed lessons calls for more funding, more expansive materials, and more standardisation on a national level, so that everyone in all schools is receiving the same (high) quality of education.

Yet, despite these calls, the British government announced plans yesterday to ban schools in England from teaching sex education to any children under the age of nine.

The reaction to this news has been divided. Some social media users expressed outrage over the news, concerned about how children will learn about sex from real experts. Others, however, have supported the ban. Hearing “banning lessons on how to have sex to kids under nine” to some, at face value, sounds reasonable. However, this isn’t the content of sex education classes for children of this age. Rather, sex ed for children rarely involves discussion of sex at all. At the age of nine and under, most lessons consist of information about the body, puberty, diversity, and menstruation – information kids need to have.

However, many British people – including the parents of those who receive sex education in schools – have fallen victim to misinformation, which has resulted in a moral panic around what happens in classrooms.

This hasn’t occurred in a vacuum, however, nor is it specific to this report of a ban for under nines. Rather, it's a small part of a widespread moral panic towards sex education that's been brewing in the political arena for the last few years.

The idea of young children being taught about sexual acts is uncomfortable and concerning. If this was truly what was happening in classrooms, the uproar might have been more understandable. And this myth that small children are taught explicit lessons about sex has been reinforced by various conservative MPs including Miriam Cates, Andrea Jenkyns and Gillian Keegan, who have either suggested or outright claimed that children are receiving “age inappropriate” lessons about sex, for over a year now.

In March 2023, Cates stated in parliament that parents had told her their children were learning how to “safely choke” one another during sex in their classrooms, as well as being told there were “72 genders” to pick from. Despite providing no evidence for these claims, even after being pressured to by several boards, Rishi Sunak agreed to an investigation into sex education in England and Wales, solely based on these claims.

During a parliamentary discussion in March 2024, Jenkyns said she supported a complete ban on sex education in schools. “As a mother of a primary school age child myself, I do not want him or other children to learn about sex full stop, whether that's straight or gay,” she said. “I also don't want to see children at primary school being taught about changing gender – we need to be protecting the innocence of children and their childhood, especially at primary school age."

All of this has contributed to a widespread myth that kids are learning “too much” even though, categorically, they are not learning anywhere close to enough about sexuality. With this in mind, what the government is truly proposing to ban for children is not sex lessons but important, life-saving information about bodies, consent, anatomy, diversity and their identities. The personal development children will be missing out on by banning these lessons is astronomical.

For instance, research from Harvard Medical School found that comprehensive RSE given at a young age helps to prevent sexual violence, while another study from the Council of Europe found it generally forms safer and more inclusive communities for children.

If that wasn't enough, one study from The Journal of Adolescent Health examined sex education and its effects on children as they develop into adults for an entire three decades, and linked thorough sex education to a better understanding and appreciation of "sexual diversity, dating and intimate partner violence prevention, development of healthy relationships, prevention of child sex abuse and improved social/emotional learning.” The study also notes that for the best chances of these social developments occurring, children need to start learning RSE in elementary school (primary school in the UK) and those lessons need to be LGBTQ+ inclusive.

The government is not even planning to save these important lessons in its ban. Guidance for schools on what they can and can’t teach in line with this ban was released today, and includes saving information about periods for year four onwards, when children are nine to ten years-old. Considering periods can start as early as eight years-old, this is too late to introduce these lessons. Issues on sexual harassment, which could have previously been taught to under-nines, are also advised not be taught until year 7, when children are 11 to 12-years-old. This is despite studies showing girls experience sexual harassment as young as five-years-old.

Perhaps most shockingly, schools are being advised not to teach anything explicit about sexual assault, rape, and domestic abuse until year nine, when children are 14 to 15 years-old. According to research, many teenagers will, tragically, already have been raped, assaulted, or be in an coercive or abusive relationship by then. It’s an uncomfortable truth to reckon with, but many children are also sexually assaulted, including by their own family members. Having the knowledge to name assault for what it is and understand how to report it, will save many children from further harm.

So, children who undergo sex education from a young age tend to be smarter, more tolerant and open, plus make more positive decisions about their relationships and sex lives when they come of age. They also have better friendships and communities and are generally safer. And many children will have already experienced hardships in sex and relationship by the age the government is proposing is ‘appropriate’ to be taught. Why, when all of this information is out there, would anyone want this ban to go through?

Without learning about their bodies, puberty, consent and other important issues in school, many children will go without this education entirely. The British government has talked about this ban “putting parents back in control”, yet research from Planned Parenthood found that over 20 percent of parents are not talking to their children about sex at home, and the ones that do speak about it are likely to skip important conversations like consent. You know, the lesson those studies found to be incredibly important. So, if children are to be pulled out of school sex education, they're unlikely to get it anywhere else.

Missing out on this kind of education as a child is nothing short of dangerous. When discussing how sex education works in this country, it’s imperative that we understand the facts.

Beth Ashley is a journalist specialising in sex and relationships – read our interview with her about her new book, Sluts: The Truth About Slutshaming & What We Can Do To Fight It.