First Minister Nicola Sturgeon is out to end Scottish educational inequality. She has proposed compulsory qualifications for head teachers, instated a commission aiming to widen access to higher education, and has created a £100 million Attainment Scotland Fund to clamp down on the widening gulf in achievement between privileged and deprived pupils. Stating that she would never have got to where she is today without excellent state education, improving Scottish schools across the board is, Sturgeon claims, something very ‘close to her heart’.
Which makes it all the more ironic that the Scottish government continues to wilfully reinforce an aspect of the country’s own educational inequality. Sturgeon herself has yet to mention it. I’m talking about sex and relationships education (SRE) – or rather, Scotland’s lack of it.
The provision of comprehensive SRE has been proven time and time again to reduce both sexually transmitted diseases and school dropout rates due to pregnancy, thereby improving young people’s overall educational attainment and long term quality of life. There’s good reason SRE has been compulsory in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland since 1990, and as a nation priding itself on its progressive outlook, one would expect Scotland to have enthusiastically followed suit. Yet Scotland’s new Curriculum for Excellence, launched in 2010, contains no provision for SRE, compulsory or otherwise.
This omission not only puts Scottish children at a significant disadvantage on a national level, but is made more bizarre given the Curriculum for Excellence’s preoccupation with other aspects of pupil wellbeing, including healthy eating and substance abuse. While Scottish schools are able to introduce their own SRE lessons if they wish, these are of frustratingly inconsistent quality, and are frequently brushed aside. It is ludicrous that Scottish pupils are continuously forced to rely on the efforts of charities such as Sexpression: UK and the Family Planning Association for advice, when their peers elsewhere in Britain are guaranteed to receive realistic, in-classroom instruction from primary school age onwards.
It is true that Physical, Sexual and Health Education in England and Wales has significant room for improvement. Many will cringe at memories of awkward, outdated educational videos, and it is likewise shocking that despite persistently high levels of assault within relationships, the fundamentals of sexual consent are ignored in the PSHE curriculum. However, some things are slowly changing; backed by a growing campaign, two bills were given a second hearing in Westminster last Friday which, if passed, will make education about violence against women and consent compulsory. In Scotland, meanwhile, Holyrood has closed a petition from Sexpression: UK aiming to make basic SRE compulsory, on the grounds that Education Scotland is already publishing improved SRE ‘guidance’.
If the rest of the UK may be lagging somewhat behind the times with regards to SRE, Scotland has not even left the starting block. When even the notoriously conservative US state of Alabama is beginning to draw a tentative correlation between the drop in teen pregnancies and its pilot schemes promoting safer sex, the failings of the Scottish Curriculum for Excellence become woefully clear.
The underlying causes of social inequality are normally frustratingly complex and almost impossible to quantify, so a factor which is as easily fixable as it is definable should present a clear cop for policy makers.