Frank Young is Head of Family Policy at the Centre for Social Justice
During the coming weeks, the Government will publish new draft guidance on Relationships and Sex Education (RSE) in schools. This will be the biggest shake-up of what young people are taught about sex and relationships in 20 twenty years. The last time a Government issued guidance on this subject, no one had heard of Facebook or Snapchat, pornography was something you found on the top shelf of your local newsagent, and the ‘smart phone’ hadn’t been invented. It is a long overdue reform to the school curriculum.
When the guidance is published, a lot of attention will be paid to updating the sex bit to bring it in line with the modern world, and rightly so. But what shouldn’t be forgotten is the importance of relationship education. Our approach to talking about relationships in schools should look to the future as much as it does to the challenges facing young people today. This which is what young people themselves are asking for, according to a survey conducted by Survation on behalf of the Centre for Social Justice and Family Stability Network.
It found that almost eighty per cent (78 per cent) of 14-17 year olds in England think a long term, lasting relationship in adult life is just as important (or even more important) to them than their career ambitions. We invest heavily in careers advice for young people, but they aspire to a lasting relationship just as much as a good job.
When we asked young people what they wanted from Relationships and Sex Education, 72 per cent said they wanted these lessons to teach them how to achieve a lasting relationship when they grow up. This is an important finding for officials drafting new guidance.Not only do young people want a lasting relationship in adult life; they aspire to get married. Eight in 10 14-17 year olds we quizzed told us they want get married when they grow up, with only four per cent saying its not in their life plans. Relationships Education shouldn’t ignore the word ‘marriage’ and the ambition of young people to get married as adults.
Policy documents published by the Department for Education on this subject talk about helping older children develop their understanding of what makes a healthy adult relationship and how to maintain these relationships. If we want to give our children the skills and knowledge to develop stronger relationships when they grow up, we need to talk to them about marriage and overcome our strange political mutism on this subject.
The world has moved on since we last looked at Sex and Relationships Education in schools. What hasn’t changed in that time is the evidence for backing marriage if we want to encourage long-term relationship stability. On current trends, a child born today has no better than a 50/50 chance of living with both birth parents by the time they take their GCSE exams. However, for those who do nearly all of their parents (93 per cent) are married. In fact, by the time they collect their GCSE results a British teenager is three times more likely to live with both their birth parents if they are married. If we want to give our children the skills and knowledge to develop stronger relationships when they grow up, we need to talk to them about marriage.
We should have the confidence to do this, and not be afraid simply because some marriages will fail. There are few other areas of policy where there is such a reluctance to speak up for fear of failure. We don’t shy away from encouraging business and new start-ups because we are worried that some will fail: we encourage new businesses with enthusiasm because we understand the benefits of a business succeeding. We should take a similar approach to talking about the importance of marriage, and putting it firmly on the school curriculum.
Our polling shows that there is a long way to go in supporting young people in achieving their relationship ambitions. Teenagers are evenly split when it comes to understanding the important role of marriage as more than just another kind of relationship. When we asked young people if they agreed or disagreed with the statement ‘being married is no different to just living together’ 41 per cent agreed with 39 per cent disagreeing. This follows recent evidence showing that only half of today’s 20 year olds will ever marry. Schools need to step in to address the mismatch between this ambition and the reality years later.
This issue is near the top of the ‘to-do’ list for the Education Department, with laws passed last year setting a tight deadlines on the Government. These numbers should give Ministers the confidence to put a positive statement on marriage onto the school curriculum, knowing they are not just backing marriage they are backing the ambitions of young people themselves.