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Spiritual, Moral, Social and Cultural (SMSC) education is back on the political agenda. Best defined as “…the training of good human beings, purposeful and wise, themselves with a vision of what it is to be human and the kind of society that makes that possible”, politicians in a post-Govian world are waking up to the idea that churning our children through an exam factory system of schooling may not be the best way to develop well-rounded citizens. 

And so SMSC is now in vogue, with the Lib Dems wanting Personal, Social, Health and Economic (PSHE) education to include content on mental health and sexting, Nicky Morgan’s speech at the Conservative Party Conference commenting on the need for ‘character’ education and Labour recently reiterating their long-held view that Sex and Relationship Education (SRE) should be made mandatory (and you can also read the RSA’s own recommendations on SMSC education here).

SRE has, of late, been a particularly (un)popular topic within the walls of Whitehall, with the motion of mandatory SRE voted down once last June by the House of Commons and then by the House of Lords this January. Despite this obvious reluctance on the issue, the Education Select Committee launched an inquiry in April into whether PSHE should be a statutory part of the curriculum and, within that, investigating the quality of SRE teaching in all state schools. At the moment, no elements of PSHE are compulsory to teach in state schools, including SRE in its broader sense – schools only have to cover the biological aspects of puberty and reproduction and, most recently, information on STIs at Key Stage 4 (14-16 year olds). And yet, when asked, young people have continuously complained that this approach is ‘too little, too late and too biological’.

So why, in a society where we are fighting to address issues of gender inequality, sexual and domestic violence, the hyper-sexualisation of young people, child abuse and homophobia (particularly prevalent in schools), is the government shying away from a 21st Century SRE curriculum that legally commits to young people receiving comprehensive sex education? And the more research published on this, the more this question demands an answer, with (among other findings):


  • IPPR reporting that the constant exposure to gender stereotyping and ease of access to sexually explicit material is creating “unrealistic norms and assumptions for young men and women in how they should conduct their relationships”;

  • Ofsted concluding that a third of schools need to improve their SRE, leaving children open to sexual exploitation and abuse; and


As such, the government’s stance on merely ‘recommending’ that schools cover these issues appears completely out of step both with the world young people are living in and with the sex education they want.

The RSA’s new mission, the Power to Create, centres on enabling citizens to have the capacity to exercise their creative capabilities, empowering people to express themselves as individuals and lead meaningful, fulfilled lives. In order to make this a reality, we need our future citizens to be educated in ways that free them from the shackles of prejudice, (whether based on gender, sexual orientation, or other forms of discrimination) and to flourish in their relationships with others, equipping all with the skills to recognise at any age when such relationships become exploitative or abusive. One, albeit small, step towards this world is guaranteeing young people the sex and relationship education they deserve.

Roisin Ellison is the RSA Academies Programme Coordinator.



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