In Depth

Sex education debate: Lib Dems say 7-year-olds must learn facts of life

Labour back Lib Dem proposal, but why is sex education still such a controversial issue in the UK?

David Laws

The Liberal Democrats have reignited the debate about sex education by calling for "age-appropriate" lessons about reproduction for children from the age of seven. 

"We believe that by educating children about sex and relationships in an appropriate way, we can help them to make informed choices in their personal lives," said Lib Dem education minister David Laws, the Daily Telegraph reports.

Laws has said that lowering the age at which children receive sex education from eleven to seven will be included in his party's manifesto. He has also proposed that lessons be extended to all students, regardless of the type of school they attend.

Currently sex education is compulsory in state-run secondary schools but is not in academies or free schools, nor in primary schools. Parents have the right to withdraw their children from sex education lessons if they are under the age of 15.

Laws said the Lib Dems had consistently made the case to extend sex education to younger students, "but it is not something the Conservatives are open to", he said.

The social arguments

Britain has always had an "uncomfortable relationship" with sex education, writes Alex Stevenson for politics.co.uk. Sexual health charities have long campaigned for wider and more extensive sex education to be taught in schools. Its supporters argue that providing information early, long before teenagers begin having sex, better equips children to make informed choices and prevents unwanted pregnancies and the spread of sexually transmitted infections. However, opponents of sex education in schools argue that it removes a child's "innocence" and that parents should decide when – or even if – to broach the subject.

Last year, Ofsted published a report criticising the quality of sex education in schools, and a survey by the think-tank IPPR suggested that the majority of 18-year-olds were dissatisfied with the sex education they had been given. There is also concern that lessons might focus only on the "mechanics" of sex, with little discussion of other significant aspects such as consent and emotions.

The political arguments

Sex education, which has long divided political opinion, is also an area where "coalition tensions have been particularly strong", writes the Guardian's political correspondent Andrew Sparrow.

Conservatives have argued that the issue should be left to teachers, not politicians, while Labour has come out in support of the Lib Dem announcement, while criticising them for failing to act sooner.

"It is welcome that the Lib Dems have finally caught onto this agenda," said Labour's shadown Home Office minister Seema Malhotra. "But they have had four years in government to take some action and they have failed."

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