Frank Young is Head of Family Policy at the Centre for Social Justice
It has become almost hackneyed to state that Britain has a family breakdown crisis. The figures never seem to get any better. Only last week new stats showed that we are a country slowly but surely moving away from marriage. Last year the World Family Map showed Britain was a world leader in family breakdown with record numbers of children experiencing the break-up of their parents before they sit their GCSEs. Despite all this gloom, the government is quietly and determinedly doing something about it and starting with schools. Three cheers for Damian Hinds the new reformer on the bloc.
In amongst the Brexit brouhaha the Education Secretary has launched new guidance on Relationships and Sex Education in schools, fit for a modern social media age with a big emphasis on helping young people understand the age-old ingredients of a long-term, stable relationship in adulthood and the importance of family. It has been 18 years since a government last looked at this issue but a hat tip to the current administration for making this happen (special mentions to David Burrowes and Maria Miller).
It hasn’t dodged the issue of marriage which young people overwhelmingly told the Government they aspire to when it comes to future relationships. The regulations which underpin the guidance make it clear that pupils should learn about “the nature of marriage and its importance for family life and the bringing up of children”. This isn’t controversial, last year a poll commissioned by the CSJ showed that almost eight in 10 young people say they want to get married when they are older and a similar number want relationship education to help them understand how to build long-term, lasting relationships as adults.
If we have any chance of climbing the family stability league we need to find a new confidence in promoting the most stable form of relationship there is – marriage. The data is clear – it is the gold-standard, with nearly all parents who stay together until their children get their GCSE results being married. This guidance delivers on that.
It rightly places healthy, stable relationships at the heart of what children will learn as part of a new curriculum for Relationships Education in Primary Schools and Relationships and Sex Education in Secondary school. There are lots of things that we need to teach our young people who are living through a maelstrom of sexual imagery, pornography, and huge increases in sexual bullying online and inside our schools.
The last time we talked about ‘sex ed’ was in a pre social media and pre smartphone era. The law and guidance to schools was badly out of date. What government reforms in this area do is nicely balance the need to address modern day dangers that young people face with a positive vision for helping them build relationships now and in adulthood.
There have been lots of headlines about what schools will be ‘told’ to teach and plenty of it is misinformed. Parents in the new guidance stay as “the prime educators for children” on relationship matters. On this the government has it the right way round. New style Relationships Education is mandatory which is separated from ‘sex ed’ where an opt-out remains. Young people will need to learn the ‘building blocks’ of a healthy relationships whether that be a friendship in school or a romantic relationship later in life. When legislation was passing through Parliament last year the government jiggled about with letters so ‘Sex and Relationships Education’ became ‘Relationships and Sex Education’. The draft guidance now shows this wasn’t just semantics. Understanding the building blocks of a healthy relationship really does come first.
We talk a lot about skills – and relationship charities recently came together to call for the teaching of relationship skills to be considered an important life skill in its own right. It looks like the government agrees with plenty of advice to schools about helping young people develop their understanding of ‘the characteristics of healthy family life’. We won’t begin to turn around decades of family breakdown without starting at school.
The Government will now embark on three months of consultation which will bring with it lots of comment and maybe a little controversy but the Government should stick to its guns on this one. If it is bold enough to publish a draft document that puts healthy, stable family life at the centre of a new Relationships Sex and Health Education curriculum it should be gutsy enough to see it through.
There’s big support for this on the backbenches with more than 60 Conservative backbenchers openly supporting the Manifesto for Strengthening Families which endorsed these proposals. The Secretary of State can be confident of support from his colleagues, as long as he gives his big red pen a holiday during recess. He can then be worthy of an end of term prizegiving award for the most family friendly policy of this Government.