If children don’t learn about sex at school, who will teach them?

Gillian Keegan has overhauled school sex education
Gillian Keegan has overhauled school sex education - Andy Rain /Shutterstock

I have a horrid suspicion I may be just the kind of parent the Government is trying to appeal to with its planned overhaul of sex education. An old-fashioned common sense type: the feminist equivalent of a retired major from Tunbridge Wells, my imaginary moustache quivering with indignation over the contorted doctrines of gender ideology befuddling our young.

But if the plan was to impress the likes of me with a daring salvo in the culture wars, the Government has overshot. New guidelines, still under consultation, may ban schools from teaching sex education until year nine. That means until pupils are 13 or 14, there must be no discussion about specific sexual acts, contraception, abortion, sexual violence or sexually transmitted diseases. And across all year groups, teachers will be required to tell children that “gender ideology is contested” if the dreaded subject comes up.

This is an acrobatic feat – both a drastic over-reaction, and a cowardly fudge. It seeks to mollify two quite different cohorts of concerned parents: the middle-aged liberals like me who think sex is tremendous but the whole gender thing has gone a bit far; and the religiously devout, who don’t want their children exposed to any of this filth.

Both cohorts are somewhat deluded. Like it or not, our children will pick up most of their sex “education” from the internet. By the age of nine, around a quarter of children in this country already have their own smartphone. Half of children have seen pornography by the age of 13, and nearly 80 per cent have seen content involving sexual violence before they reach 18. The rapid spread of gender ideology, likewise, has happened on the internet, beyond adult supervision.

Precisely because children are doing so much of their growing up online, they need sex education classes more than ever. They need responsible grown-ups, armed with facts and compassion, to help them make sense of all the bad, exciting, frightening or confusing things they have seen.

Parents, of course, should be responsible for much of this. But some are too embarrassed, or ideologically constrained, or not worldly enough. And even if you pride yourself on being open about sex, there’s a limit to what your children want to learn from you. My son recently announced that he can put a condom on a banana faster than anyone else in his class. That’s a lesson I’m glad I didn’t have to give.

In fact, all three of my children – all at different schools – have had the benefit of excellent sex education. They have been taught things I wish I had known at their age, both practical and emotional. They have learned about newfangled menstrual products, contraception and consent – and what’s more, they seem to have done so with a minimum of embarrassed laughter. My impression is that sex ed, like Maths and RE, is actually much better taught than it used to be.

If the Government is concerned about unscientific gender notions being reinforced in schools, it should address that issue separately. Lumping gender in with sex – quite apart from being a category error – is politically short-sighted. It risks destroying a good, and increasingly necessary, part of the education system in order to pacify two completely different groups of anxious parents, neither of whom are likely to be satisfied.