Relationships and Sex Education

Conventional SRE, even if mandatory is unlikely to protect children

A recent report by the Times on the sexting epidemic amongst our young people has rightly re-ignited calls for mandatory Sex and Relationships Education (SRE) which we strongly support.  But what is the evidence that conventional SRE teaching is likely to influence the way young people behave?  In this country, it is very poor.

Imparting relevant information has, by itself, never been shown to promote healthier choices of behaviour. A worldwide analysis by the late American Doug Kirby shows that SRE curricula that have resulted in healthier behaviours have been underpinned by a well-established theory of behaviour such as social cognitive theory in which:  desired behaviours must be modelled and perceived as ‘normal’; the learners must identify in some way with the individuals or groups modelling those behaviours;  the behaviours need to be codified such that they can be readily recalled as symbols; the consequences or outcomes of such behaviours need to be seen as beneficial to the individual;  if the behaviours are novel and require specific competencies, they need to be practiced.  Even with all these components in place, individuals must have a sufficiency of self-efficacy belief such that they will choose to execute the behaviours when circumstances require it.  Lastly, and by no means least, all these learning processes need to be encountered within a positive affective state.  In short, the learners need to find it enjoyable and acceptable. 

So, if we want to implement a Sex and Relationships Education curriculum that is likely to impact on behaviours, it requires a radically different pedagogical tool box from the ones that most teachers can be equipped with.  Despite this, programmes have been designed which achieve these learning dynamics, and who better to deliver them than peer educators – young people one to four years older than the targeted learners.  Indeed, the only two SRE programmes with published results from the UK evidencing positive behaviour changes have involved peer educators.  Apause (Added Power and Understanding in Sex Education) originated in the University of Exeter and has been widely evaluated, demonstrating improved knowledge and beliefs, delayed intercourse and increased use of contraception. The RIPPLE study, carried out by University College London, showed that girls who had the intervention were significantly less likely to have reported sexual intercourse by the age of 16 or to have experienced an unwanted pregnancy by the age of 18.  Both research groups concluded that peer education warranted serious consideration within broader teenage pregnancy strategies.

This is not the place to discuss the relative merits of the two peer programmes, rather it should be pointed out that there has been no published school-based, teacher-led SRE intervention in the UK that has been shown to impact on behaviour.  This reality is not widely publicized by the various campaign groups and professional bodies fighting for mandatory SRE.  Realistically, why should teenagers accept advice about their relationships from an out-of-touch, out-of-date and unadmired, older generation?

Although the targeted behaviours in the two studies cited did not include sexting, we strongly suggest that peer education can offer an economic and effective mechanism to protect young people from bad decision making in their relationships.

David Evans and John Tripp