As part of new compulsory lessons to be brought in next September, primary and secondary school pupils in England will learn about relationships, looking after their mental health and staying safe online.
Three new subjects have been added in this government shake-up: while primary students will be taught exclusively on relationships and sex education for secondary school students, health education will be introduced for children of all ages. This health education will cover how to look after their own mental wellbeing and why simple self-care, such as seeing friends and getting enough sleep, are important. Plus, it’ll show children how to recognise the signs that a classmate is struggling.
When it comes to relationship education, younger children will be taught about age-appropriate online safety, including what to do if they come across anything they’re uncomfortable with, the importance of respecting others when posting content, even if anonymous, and the risks of talking to people online that they don’t know in real life.
When it comes to secondary school pupils, the curriculum will again aim to teach students to recognise classic signs of mental illness in themselves and others. Plus, they’ll learn the impact of alcohol and drugs on mental and physical help, learn how to discuss their emotions and how to get access to professional mental health.
A far cry from the sex education videos of the sixties where homosexual relationships were something to be wary of, the 2020 sex and relationships education will have more of a focus on not just heterosexual relationships, but LGBTQ relationships, too. The official guidance says students need to understand that “some people are LGBT and this should be respected in British society, and the law affords them and their relationships recognition and protections.”
It’ll also be key to teach them about safety, such as the risks of sharing private photos, and female genital mutilation (FGM), with a focus on awareness and the availability of support. With the internet and pornography promoting an often-unhealthy view of sex, teenagers will be made aware of the difference between how sex appears online and how it should be in real life.
Education Secretary Damian Hinds said of the renewed programme: "Growing up and adolescence are hard enough, but the internet and social media add new pressures that just weren't there even one generation ago. So many things about the way people interact have changed, and this new world, seamless between online and offline, can be difficult to navigate. Almost 20 years on from the last time guidance on sex education was updated, there is a lot to catch up on."
But, of course, progressive teachings such as this do not come without criticism. The Parent Power advice site have said parents should be able to educate their children in line with their own religious beliefs. Linda Rose, a member of the group, says she’s worried the teachings won’t be age appropriate: "Children are given too much information too young and don't have the emotional maturity to process all this information. We are worried that this isn't upholding religion as a protected characteristic with equal value to the other protected characteristics."
A petition calling for parents to be given the right to opt their child out of sex education lessons has attracted more than 106,000 signatures. Parents already do and still will have the right to withdraw their child up to the age of 15, but head teachers will likely talk to the parents that do wish to exclude their children from these lessons, “discuss[ing] with the parents the benefits of receiving this important education and any detrimental effects that withdrawal might have on the child.”
Since the last time the sex education curriculum was updated in 2000, there has been much to catch up on – particularly with the development of the internet. It’s important for schools to take proactive steps rather than reactive when it comes to both this and the mental health of their students, even if it’s tough to face. As the Guardian put it: “These are issues that require well-informed and sensitive handling: sexual orientation, gender identity, self-harm, FGM and abuse are deeply personal and difficult subjects to tackle in a classroom. That said, it is good to see a Conservative government turning its face so strongly against the homophobia of the past, by promoting a diverse understanding of human sexuality; and a relief to see a cross-party consensus emerge in our divided parliament in support of a humane and progressive direction for education.”