Parents are the first educators of the child

Last week the Education Select Committee published a report calling for sex and relationship education to be placed on the national curriculum – making it a statutory requirement in all state primary and secondary schools. I firmly believe that schools play a part in sex education but the announcement has caused concerns and raised questions for many families. What format will this statutory sex education take? Will it be delivered as an ‘embarrassing’ video for viewing in personal, social and health education (PSHE) classes, or a chat with the school nurse or a form tutor perhaps? All of these have been tried by schools before. Surely there are wider issues here including what is the rest of society doing that is age appropriate in this context?

We need to be having conversations with other organisations, such as youth groups like the Girl Guides or the Scouts, to see how they are tackling this issue; learning lessons from each other and working together and in parallel to reinforce important messages. Instead of saying it’s up to schools to educate the younger generation on this topic we need to be working in partnership with other organisations and individuals to ensure we offer a rounded influence on providing sex education, and parents, as first educators of the child, have an intrinsic part to play. We also must be mindful of the nuance of each individual school – if it is a religious school students, parents, teachers and governors will have particular views on sex education. The statement ‘sex education should be made compulsory in primary schools’ paints schools with a broad brush which needs defining.

We would also be foolish to ignore the impact that social media and technology have on our students in this day and age – the advent of social media has brought an added dimension (and pressure) to their lives. This should form a core part of modern, age appropriate, sex education, along with relationships, body image, contraception, STDs. For example, we know that ‘sexting’ is a national issue and unfortunately rife across both state and independent schools alike. Statistics from anti-bulling charity Ditch The Label show almost 40 percent of young people have sent a naked picture of themselves via a smartphone app and more than a quarter have had that picture forwarded on without their consent. As part of our school’s wider internet safety and IT strategy we provide our students with guidance on how to respond and interact in social situations: for example, we alert them to the dangers of sexting and posting in the heat of the moment, and what impact such additions to their digital footprint might have on their future education or career.

Between 2000 and 2005, national research showed that girls reported a dramatic increase in distressing, unwanted exposure to pornographic material; the same shift in exposure to unwanted pornographic material was not reported by boys. With regard to ‘sexting’, girls are more likely to have sent ‘sext’ messages, and boys are more likely to have received them. As we’re an all-girls’ school, we talk about trolling and sexual exploitation and ensure our students and parents are armed with the knowledge and know-how to keep them safe on the Internet.

Our girls and parents get a huge amount of information from us on internet safety. All students are required to sign an internet user agreement every year, reminding them about ‘netiquette’ (etiquette on the web). We recently hosted Richard Riley from Cambridgeshire ICT Service to talk to parents from across the school on the subject of internet safety ahead of Safer Internet Day.

As an independent school we’re not bound by the national curriculum and can design and organise our curriculum according to our own ethos and priorities. We’re ahead of any government call for sex education to feature in our curriculum as it has been firmly integrated into our timetable for a long time. A government mandate may provide new resources in terms of delivery of sex education but it won’t change our approach to the topic.

As educators, our joint priority with parents, care givers, government and other parties with a say in education, has to be to help students develop into happy, healthy, secure and ‘rounded’ young people. We are proud of the strong rapport between our school and our parent community, which reaffirms parents as the first educators of the child. We would encourage all schools to adopt a rounded approach in partnership with others, not just to sex education but e-safety; bullying; health and body image and the many other pastoral issues which affect students.


Charlotte Avery, Headmistress, St Mary’s School, Cambridge

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