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Young people are being let down by sex education in schools

The current provision of relationship and sex education in schools isn’t adequate for many young people.

Nine in ten young people think Relationships and Sex Education should be provided in school. Photo: Relate

Today, the Institute for Public Policy Research publishes important findings from a study supported by Relate the relationship charity on young people’s relationships in the “digital age”.

IPPR together with Opinium surveyed 500 18-year-olds about their perceptions and norms around relationships and sex. The results show young people clearly want support in forming and sustaining healthy, positive relationships – but they are currently let down by relationships and sex education in schools which has not kept pace with the reality of young people’s lives.

The context young people are growing up in today is less “moderated” than for previous generations, with blurred lines between offline and online social activity. While the internet and social media brings opportunities for socialising and accessing information, it can also make explicit or extreme content more accessible, as well as magnifying bullying, breakups or social pressure. Norms have evolved too: pornography is seen as normal, particularly amongst young men, 81 per cent of those surveyed agreed that “most young men look at pornography”.

There’s an obvious gap between young people’s experiences and perceptions of the new context and their perceptions of adults’ understanding of this context. 61 per cent of young people said that adults were out of touch when it comes to young people’s relationships and friendships. 56 per cent felt that the adults in their lives (parents, teachers, guardians) find it hard to understand or help with online issues – although more (65 per cent) thought that adults worried too much about what happens online.

Those who have the responsibility for educating and supporting young people in their relationships have not grown up in the same world young people are negotiating their way through today. The influence of pornography is pervasive – almost half said that “sending sexual or naked photos or videos is part of everyday life”. But young people are also conscious of the potential damage – 72 per cent said “pornography leads to unrealistic attitudes to sex”, and 70 per cent said “pornography can have a damaging impact on young people’s views of sex or relationships”.

This is why Relate believes Relationships and Sex Education (RSE) at school is so important. In the survey, the top sources of information on sex and relationships were friends (45 per cent), then school (35 per cent), followed by boyfriends/girlfriends and the internet. This is why RSE at school is so important. It is also what young people want – almost nine in ten young people think that RSE should be provided in school, and 68% want RSE to be taught by a trained expert. 40 per cent explicitly said they want RSE taught by someone external – such as Relate practitioners. Only 19 per cent want it to be taught by a teacher from the school – and many commented that they wanted RSE to be “less embarrassing”, “less awkward”, and “more accessible”.

The comments also highlight that RSE needs to address relationships more generally rather than just the mechanics of sex: “I would have liked more information on the actual relationship side of things rather than just the science of sex… what a healthy relationship is, in contrast to an unhealthy one… 

Relate believes that all children and young people should be entitled to high-quality RSE. Unfortunately, the results of this study show that the current provision just isn’t adequate for many young people. RSE should be a compulsory part of the national curriculum, delivered by experts. Good quality RSE is vital to prepare young people to be able to develop and sustain safe, stable and nurturing relationships across the whole course of their lives.

Chris Sherwood is director of Policy and External Affairs at Relate