Youngsters have a right to information that will help to keep them healthy and safe and should be taught the subject throughout their schooling, according to the influential Commons education select committee.
In a new report, it called for personal, social, health and economic education (PSHE) to be given statutory status in all of England’s state primary and secondary schools to ensure that enough lesson time is devoted to the subject and teachers are properly trained.
Sex and relationships education (SRE) should be a “core part” of these classes. But the committee also said that parents should retain their right to withdraw their children from lessons.
The recommendation comes amid continuing calls for sex education, and PSHE in general, to be given more importance in schools.
Campaigners have called for the subject to be mandatory, and a damning Ofsted report published in 2013 found that PSHE education was not up to scratch in two fifths of schools.
In its report, the committee said that PSHE in schools appears to have worsened over time. This situation would not be tolerated in other subjects, MPs warned, but the Government’s plans for improving it are not good enough.
The latest official government guidance on SRE is 14 years old, and many people told the committee that the world is now very different - seeing changes such as the rise of social media, and new laws on same-sex marriages.
Some noted that increasingly easy access to pornography through the internet is shaping young people’s behaviours - such as “sexting” and fuelling the need to reassess PSHE.
Although ministers have taken action recently to improve PSHE and SRE, these are not enough to make a difference, the report suggested.
It warned: “There is a mismatch between the priority that the Government claims it gives to PSHE and the steps it has taken to improve the quality of teaching in the subject.”
The Government should formally endorse and issue supplementary advice on SRE drawn up by charities and advisory groups last year, MPs said, as well as checking that schools are publishing information about their PSHE and SRE curriculum on their website.
Under the current system, primary schools do not have to provide sex and relationships lessons beyond what is covered in the science curriculum, while local council-run secondaries have to provide SRE covering issues such as sexually transmitted diseases, the report noted. Academies do not have to offer SRE. The committee said that there is a “lack of clarity” over the status of the subject.
A DfE spokeswoman said: “We want to see all young people leave school prepared for life in modern Britain. This means not only ensuring that young people receive a rigorous academic education, but also helping them to develop personal and emotional wellbeing.”
The Government is working with schools and experts to ensure that young people are getting a decent education in PSHE and SRE, she said, adding that they are aware more needs to be done.
Lucy Emmerson, co-ordinator of the Sex Education Forum, said: “This inquiry has very effectively scrutinised the inconsistency of sex and relationships education (SRE) in schools.”