Gaps in sex and relationships education leave too many children at risk

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Press release
20 January 2016 by ATL Media Office
A joint press release with the Sex Education Forum.
  • Survey of over 2,000 young people finds their safety may be at risk due to inconsistent sex and relationships education
  • Half (50%) of young people did not learn how to get help if they were abused
  • Over half (53%) did not learn how to recognise grooming for sexual exploitation
  • More than 4 in ten had not learned about healthy or abusive relationships
  • A third (34%) of young people said they learnt nothing about sexual consent at school
  • Campaigners call for statutory sex and relationships education to help keep young people safe.

Campaigners at the Sex Education Forum are calling for mandatory status for sex and relationships education (SRE) in all schools, after a survey of young people found that their safety is being undermined by dramatic variations in what is taught.

The survey of over 2,000 11-25 year-olds, showed that across a range of topics that could protect children and young adults from harm, such as knowing where to turn to for help if they experience sexual abuse, or information about female genital mutilation (FGM) or sexual consent, many young people are left in the dark by gaps in their SRE.

Half (50%) of those surveyed had not learnt from their primary school about how to get help if you experience unwanted touching or sexual abuse, 16% had not learnt the correct names for genitalia and even more (17%) had not leant that the genitals are private to you, all key to recognising and reporting abuse. Young people were more likely to have learnt about the difference between safe and unwanted touch from discussions at home than at school, but even so, less than half of young people (45%) said they had learnt about this with a parent or carer.

When asked about their school SRE as a whole:

  • Over half of young people (53%) had not been taught to spot the signs of when someone is being groomed for sexual exploitation.
  • More than 4 in ten had not learnt about how to tell when a relationship is healthy (46%) or abusive (44%).
  • Worryingly, given that sexual assault is something that a significant minority of young people experience[1], lessons about sexual consent are not routinely covered in schools.
  • Half (50%) of young people had not discussed real-life scenarios about sexual consent.
  • A third (34%) had been taught nothing at all about sexual consent.
  • Only a quarter (24%) of young people said they learnt about FGM, but the figure increased to 4 in ten (40%) amongst 11-13 year olds, suggesting things are starting to change.

Overall, despite signs that SRE is slowly improving, just 10% of those surveyed said the SRE they received was 'very good', and nearly a third (22%) said it was 'bad' or 'very bad', indicating that young people themselves are dissatisfied.

Lucy Emmerson, Coordinator of the Sex Education Forum, said:

"The odds of a young person learning vital information about equal, safe and enjoyable relationships are no different than the toss of a coin. The ultimate consequence of this is that many children don't know how to recognise abusive behaviour or how to seek help.

With evidence about the benefits for children and young people of teaching SRE stacked up high and a growing list of politicians calling for the subject to be mandatory, there is no excuse for Government to continue leaving SRE to chance."

Dr Mary Bousted, General Secretary, Association of Teachers and Lecturers said:

"As members of the Sex Education Forum, ATL fully supports its call for mandatory and inclusive Sex and Relationships Education. We know that education staff want high quality training so that they can deliver the SRE that will enable young people to keep themselves safe. We call upon the Government to take this important step, which parents, education staff and young people all want, so that we can all help to tackle child abuse, sexual health issues and young people's poor mental health."

Full details about the survey can be found in: 'Heads or Tails: What young people tell us about sex and relationships education' at


Notes to editors

  1. The Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) is an independent, registered trade union and professional association, representing approximately 170,000 teachers, headteachers, lecturers and support staff in maintained and independent nurseries, schools, sixth form, tertiary and further education colleges in the United Kingdom.
  2. ATL exists to help members, as their careers develop, through first rate research, advice, information and legal advice.
  3. ATL is affiliated to the Trades Union Congress (TUC), European Trade Union Committee for Education (ETUCE) and Education International (EI). ATL is not affiliated to any political party and seeks to work constructively with all the main political parties.