A History of Sex Education in the UK
Sex education can play a big role in a young person’s sexual health both while they’re in their teens and when they’re older too. Studies in Finland and Estonia have found that comprehensive sex and relationships classes can help to lower teen fertility and abortion rates and reduce numbers of certain STIs among young people.
For some - including the teens who have to sit through it - sex ed here in the UK still isn’t up to scratch, but it’s come a long way. From hidden messages in biology lessons to changes in sexual health services outside the classroom, here’s a brief history of sex education and sexual health services in the UK.
1930s & 1940s
During the Second World War, sex education focused primarily on preventing the spread of STIs. This was due to the huge numbers of people - in this case soldiers - moving around Europe. What happens when you have a mass movement of people? They tend to take diseases with them and pass them on.
It wasn’t until after the war that more detailed sex education was taught in schools. This was still pretty basic by today’s standards and was taught in science classes as the biology of how plants and non-human animals reproduce. This meant 1950s teens had a lot to figure out for themselves. Girls were more likely to have these lessons as biology wasn’t seen as a subject for boys.
The 1960s saw big changes to sexual health services. In 1963 the Family Planning Association finally saw its recommendations put into action with a parliamentary bill to provide free family planning advice under the NHS.
Five years later the 1968 Abortion Act was passed, making abortion legal up to 28 weeks. Despite trying to make advice and other services more accessible, teenage pregnancy was still a problem.
1970s and 1980s
In 1974 contraception was made available on the NHS for free, meaning that the government was responsible for providing condoms and other methods of contraception to anyone who visited an NHS clinic, drop-in centre or youth club.
Sex education was also improving. Teens were now being taught about the different methods of contraception that were available to them and had more detailed lessons on human biology. Like the 1960s, these attempts made during the 1970s and 80s failed to lower teen pregnancy rates.
The mid-1980s also saw the AIDS epidemic. Up until then, STIs were something that many people shrugged off and that attitude was reflected in their small place in sex education curriculums. HIV was different. It was spreading, and unlike many other STIs, there was no treatment.
In the wake of the AIDS epidemic, the 1993 Education Act was written up and passed. The act required that sex education be provided in a way that would ‘encourage young people to have regard to moral considerations and the value of family life’. In other words that sex education should be about more than just biology, and teens should be taught how their actions affect others too.
All state schools had to provide sex education. Even primary schools had to teach the basic biology of sex and individual schools could decide whether to provide more than this. However parents could still take their kids out of classes they thought were inappropriate.
Sex education was broadened even further in 2000 with the introduction of the Learning and Skills act. There was a renewed emphasis on the importance of marriage and parents could still take their children out of lessons that covered more than basic biology so lessons.
These changes weren’t welcomed by the people they really affected - the kids. A University of Brighton study found that both boys and girls felt like they weren’t able to access the right information and, girls especially, felt like they weren’t being prepared for emotional side of things.
The internet started to play a bigger role in sex education around this time too. According to a 2008 YouGov survey, more than a third of teens said they relied on the internet, magazines, friends or pornography to get advice on sex. The same survey found that 3 in 10 teens said they needed better sex education in schools.
In 2013 Ofsted’s Not Yet Good Enough report showed that not much had changed since 2008, and that sex education focused too much on the mechanics of sex, but not enough on ‘relationships, sexuality and the influence of porn on students understanding of healthy relationships, dealing with emotions and staying safe’.