Culture, Media and Sport CommitteeWritten evidence submitted by the Sex Education Forum


1. Technical solutions such as lessons about online safety in computing classes and internet controls are by themselves insufficient to protect children and young people. A broad and comprehensive programme of sex and relationships education (SRE) in school is essential to ensure that children and young people get accurate information about sex and sexual health and an understanding of what constitutes respectful relationships. This has been recognised in numerous reports including by Ofsted and the Office of the Children’s Commissioner.

2. A broad programme of good quality SRE should also address the issue of on-line safety and pornography. This can complement the more technical learning about safety gained through computing classes.

3. Currently the provision of SRE in schools is unacceptably patchy and inconsistent. Every child and young person has a right to comprehensive SRE and we (as adults) have a duty to ensure this.

4. The best way to ensure this is by making SRE (within Personal, Social, Health and Economic (PSHE) education) compulsory for primary and secondary schools, and for teachers to receive training on the subject. The Government guidance on SRE should also be updated to provide clarity to schools.

5. The majority of parents want SRE to be compulsory in schools and many would also like support to fulfil their role at home as educators about growing up, safety, sex and relationships.

6. Our evidence submission to this inquiry covers:

What is SRE and how can it address online safety?

What is the standard of SRE in schools today?

What is the evidence that SRE works?

What is SRE and how can it address online safety?

7. SRE involves learning about the emotional, social and physical aspects of growing up, relationships, human sexuality, sex and sexual health. It should equip children and young people with the information, skills and positive values to enable them to have safe, fulfilling relationships and to take responsibility for their sexual health and wellbeing.

8. Children and young people sometimes find pornography because they are looking for information about sex and relationships online. Further research is needed to establish if there is a link between good quality SRE and access/avoidance of pornography. Gaps in research about the link between accessing pornography and behaviour are identified by Horvath (2013) in the Office of the Chidlren’s Commissioner report “ is everywhere”. However, provision of good quality SRE means that young people have a reliable source of information about sex and relationships. Good quality SRE contributes to understanding how pornography distorts reality by discussing how media represents men and women and gender roles, and how pictures and videos are routinely edited.

9. The Sex Education Forum e-magazine shows how pornography and issues related to it can be effectively addressed in SRE and includes suggestions from pupils about the key messages that should be taught to their peers.

10. This is what a group of Year 11 pupils thought other young people should know about pornography:

About safety: Not all things shown in pornography are safe in your own sex life: keep safe, use condoms and go to a clinic regularly.

About privacy: No video cameras in the room! In case you film yourself but then have a bad breakup, keep your sex life private.

About reality: Don’t believe everything you see. Pornography is acting and not “real”. The sex and bodies are mostly unrealistic—and there is a lot of editing.

About the actors: Some people may be forced into making it. Some actors use performance enhancing drugs to “perform” or to be able to get through stuff that is painful. It can affect the actors physically, mentally and emotionally, and can mean that relationships suffer. There are dangers risked by the actors like infections and abuse.

About sex lives and relationships: You can learn some helpful positions from some films. The so-called pleasure you see may be anything but. You don’t have to watch it at all. It can be addictive to the viewer and can mean that you might not be able to have a healthy, happy sex life yourself if you are addicted.

Always have consent: don’t pressure people to do stuff from pornography or to watch it if they don’t want to.

From “The Sex Educational Supplement” Issue 1 (2013).

11. At primary school classes should start with discussing differences between boys and girls bodies, and the importance of loving and respectful relationships. Learning correct names for genitalia is important so that children have the language to describe their bodies, understand what behaviour would be abusive and report it if it happens to them. At secondary level lessons can look at “sexting” and pressures from peers and make more direct reference to pornography in the context of learning about consent, body image, gender roles and respectful relationships.

12. Having a basic universal language about respect, our bodies, growing up and sex is essential to support children with the words needed to report abuse and the belief that it is “OK to talk about this”.

What is the standard of SRE in schools today?

13. Ofsted inspectors report that SRE is currently inadequate in a third of schools (2013). Young people have repeatedly said that the SRE they receive is inadequate—with 28% describing their school SRE as “bad” or “very bad” in a survey in 2011 (Sex Education Forum). Young people say that the relationships aspect of SRE is the most neglected (Sex Education Forum 2008).

14. Ofsted consulted pupils for their recent PSHE report “Not yet good enough” (2013) and consequently recommended that schools address pornography within SRE. New research with young people carried out by Brook (2013 unpublished: also being submitted to this inquiry) shows that young people want young people need better, more inclusive education on internet safety, both for children and for parents, not least to ensure that knowledge, skills and understanding around online safety are embedded in the next generation.

15. Ofsted are also concerned that some primary schools are failing to teach the basic body science that is necessary to underpin further learning about bodily privacy and safety. They found: “younger pupils had not always learnt the correct names for sexual body parts” and see this as a safeguarding failure because it leaves children without the language skills to understand their bodies, know what is acceptable/unacceptable and to say what has happened to them (2013).

What is the evidence that SRE works?

16. National and international research shows that good quality SRE has a protective function as young people who have good SRE are more likely to choose to have sex for the first time later, more likely to use contraception and to have fewer sexual partners (Kirby 2007, UNESCO 2009 and NICE 2010).

17. A comprehensive programme of SRE also results in young people being less likely to have an “age-discrepant” partner (Lindberg 2012). Having an older partner is a significant risk factor for experiencing physical, emotional and sexual violence (for girls)—and a risk for sexual exploitation (Barter, 2009).

18. There is also evidence that SRE is more effective if home and school are involved (Kirby 2007 and see Emmerson 2011). Parents are overwhelmingly supportive of SRE and a recent survey shows that 83% of parents want SRE lessons to cover issues relating to pornography (NAHT, 2013 and see also Mumsnet 2011).

19. SRE aims to contribute to behaviour change, including reducing unprotected and unwanted sex, and reducing harmful behaviour, including sexual offences such as assault and abuse.

20. Good SRE, together with access to sexual health services will contribute to several public health priorities that are essential for the health and well-being of the nation, and especially to women:

earlier reporting of sexual abuse and, in some cases, its prevention;

reduction in intimate partner violence;

reduced number of unplanned pregnancies;

reduced maternal mortality;

reduced infant mortality;

prevention and earlier treatment of sexually transmitted infections; and

reduced gap in health inequality.


Barter, C, et al (2009). Partner exploitation and violence in teenage intimate relationships. London: NSPCC.209pp

Emmerson, L (2011). Parents and SRE: A Sex Education Forum evidence briefing, London: Sex Education Forum.

Horvath, M and others (2013). “Basically... porn is everywhere; A Rapid Evidence Assessment on the Effects that Access and Exposure to Pornography has on Children and Young People, Middlesex University London for the Office of the Children’s Commissioner”.

Kirby, D (2007). Emerging Answers: Research Findings on Programs to Reduce Teen Pregnancy and Sexually Transmitted Diseases. Washington, DC: National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy.

Lindberg, L and Maddow-Zimet, I (2012). Consequences of Sex Education on Teen and Young Adult Sexual Behaviors and Outcomes, in Journal of Adolescent Health, Volume 51, Issue 4, Pages 332–338, October 2012.–139X(11)00717–8/fulltext

Mumsnet survey of 1,000 parents (2011).

National Association of Headteachers (2013). Research carried out in April 2013 by Research Now and commissioned by the National Association of Headteachers (NAHT) and press released by NAHT in May 2013.

NICE (2010). Public Health draft guidance; School, college and community-based personal, social, health and economic education focusing on sex and relationships and alcohol education.

Ofsted (2013). “Not yet good enough; personal, social, health and economic education in schools”, Ofsted, May 2013.

Sex Education Forum (2008). Forum briefing: Young people’s survey on sex and relationships education, NCB.

Sex Education Forum (2011). Survey report: young people’s experiences of HIV and AIDS education. See

Sex Education Forum (2013). The Sex Educational Supplement, Issue 1: The Pornography Issue. See

UNCRC (2008). 49th session, Consideration of reports submitted by states parties under Article 44 of the Convention, Concluding observations: United Kingdom and Northern Ireland.

UNESCO (2009). International guidelines on sexuality education; an evidence informed approach to effective sex, relationships and HIV/STI education. Paris: UNESCO.

About the Sex Education Forum

The Sex Education Forum, hosted by the National Children’s Bureau, is the national authority on sex and relationships education (SRE). It is a unique collaboration of national organisations and practitioners with representatives from health, education, faith, disability and children’s organisations. The Sex Education Forum believes that all children and young people have the right to good SRE and aims to provide all professionals involved in SRE with the information they need to ensure this right.

September 2013

Prepared 18th March 2014