How far have we come?

The Forum was established in 1987 in an era of great negativity towards sex education and has grown and developed through a time of cultural shifts and policy changes.

Sex education has now become sex and relationships education (SRE), signalling that children and young people are entitled to more than just the biological basics!

The book extract below provides a time-line of key events in the first 21 years of the Sex Education Forum.


Celebrating Sex and Relationships Education: Past, Present and Future.
Proceedings of the Sex Education Forum's 21st Birthday Conference

This book provides an overview of the changes in SRE in England over the last 21 years, and marks the success of the Forum in campaigning for statutory SRE. It is essential reading for anyone interested in the development of SRE in schools and the advancement of SRE policy internationally.

Below is an extract, giving a short history of the Forum and the changing face of sex and relationships education from 1986 to 2009. The publication can be ordered from the NCB website.


1986 - 'The Moral Panic'

In 1986 there was a moral panic in the tabloid press centred on AIDS, young people's sexuality and sexual orientation. On the one hand the public were exposed to hard-hitting campaigns such as 'Don't die of ignorance' and on the other there was press outrage around some sex education materials being used in schools.

One example is the Danish book Jenny Lives with Eric and Martin(Bosche 1983), a story about a gay couple who bring up a five-year-old girl, the daughter of Martin, that caused headlines such as 'Vile book in schools' and 'Scandal of gay porn in books read in schools' (Clyde 2001). Not unsurprisingly, this climate affected rational discussions about sex education. And in the eye of this storm, the Sex Education Forum (SEF) was conceived.

The founder eight members already reflected a diversity that continues to characterise SEF's over 50 members today, and consisted of the Health Visitors Association, the Catholic Marriage Advisory Council (Marriage Care), the Health Education Authority, the National Marriage Guidance Council (RELATE), SPOD (a sexual health charity for people with disability), fpa (formerly the Family Planning Association), Brook and NCB.

1988 - Building consensus

In 1988 the Local Government Act introduced a new clause, which commonly became known as Section 28. This stated that a local authority should not promote homosexuality or promote the teaching of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship. Although it did not apply to schools, it served to cause confusion and anxiety amongst the teaching profession and undermined the confidence of those delivering sex education.

Throughout the early years, SEF worked on developing a common set of values for sex education that all members could sign up to. These have, over time, evolved but still remain at the heart of all the work SEF undertakes.

SEF's first publication was a simple list of resources, which proved so popular that the huge demand from professionals for support in this area could no longer be ignored. By the summer of 1990 funding was secured from the Department of Education and work with the public could really begin.

1992 - Understanding local provision of sex education

In 1992 the government launched its Health of the Nation strategy, with the reduction of teenage pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases (STIs) being two of its targets.

At the same time SEF carried out a ground breaking survey of 87 local authorities; the report concluded that there existed

  • an inconsistency in terms of the numbers of schools with sex education policies,
  • confusion concerning the place of sex education in the National Curriculum and
  • anxiety at all levels which had resulted in young people not receiving the sex education they needed (Thomson and Scott 1992).


1993 - Building a values framework for SRE

The 1993 Education Act included some new challenges for sex education. It stated that only the biological aspects of HIV, AIDS, STIs and human sexual behaviour could be included in the National Curriculum. Parents were also given the right to withdraw their children from sex education and were not required to give a reason.

The Act was followed by a long awaited circular on sex education for schools that was greeted by SEF with some optimism. SEF welcomed the government's commitment to the view that all pupils should be offered the opportunity to receive a comprehensive, well-planned programme of sex education during their school careers. The notion of a moral framework was also further developed in this circular.

"The Secretary of State believes that schools programme for sex education should therefore aim to present the facts in an objective, balanced and sensitive manner, set within a clear framework of values, an awareness of the law on sexual behaviour. Pupils should be encouraged to appreciate the value of stable family life, marriage and the responsibilities of parenthood. They should also be helped to consider the importance of self-restraint, dignity, respect for themselves and others, acceptance of responsibility, sensitivity towards the needs of others, loyalty and fidelity " (DfEE 1993).

SEF responded to this new focus by exploring values and morals from a range of perspectives, in consultation with numerous organisations including religious organisations. As a result it published its pioneering document Religion, Ethnicity and Sex Education (Thomson 1993).

1994 - Sex and the nation

The following year the first ever survey on National Survey on Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles (NATSAL) was published. This found that a massive 70 per cent of respondents felt that they had insufficient information available to them when they first had sex. (Johnson and others 1994)

1996 - Education Act

Two years later there was another Education Act, which consolidated all previous legislation and now expected that the biological aspects of sex education should be taught both in primary and secondary.

1999 - Birth of SRE

Just before the millennium, the pace really started picking up and SEF was very busy indeed. Sex education became known as 'sex and relationships education', or SRE, to acknowledge that children and young people are entitled to more than just the biological basics.

The new Framework for Personal, Social and Health Education (PSHE) was published, which embedded SRE firmly within the broader programme of learning. This reflected the growing appreciation that young people do not compartmentalise their lives according to sex, drugs, alcohol and health, but rather that all of these elements are interwoven.

Further, the National Healthy Schools Standard was launched, and the pioneering Teenage Pregnancy Report published, SRE being a significant element within the prevention strand. SEF was a key partner in the development of these important government initiatives, which proved to be vital levers for change.

2000 - First SRE Guidance

As a result of the growing need for clarity and support, the 2000 SRE Guidance was published. Although non-statutory, this was the most comprehensive document the government had produced on the subject and it represented an important milestone in the history of SRE.

Other important events for 2000 were the equalisation of the age of consent and the launch of SEF's very first Charter for Young People.

2001 - Just say NO to abstinence education

In 2001 we saw the launch of the national programme for the Certification of PSHE(Personal, Social and Health Education) Teaching, which was a very important milestone in the history of this subject.

Also, after two study tours to the United States, SEF published its Just Say No to Abstinence education book (Blake and Frances, 2001), which confirmed that abstinence-only education was not a quick-fix solution to teenage pregnancy or a viable alternative to a broader, more comprehensive, programme of SRE.

2003 - Repeal of Section 28

In 2003, after a long campaign which SEF supported, we saw the repeal of Section 28, legislation that forbade the 'promoting of homosexuality'.

The Sexual Offences Act was also drafted in 2003, and aimed to clarify what constitutes a crime of a sexual nature against a child; SEF, along with other colleagues, worked hard to ensure that professionals could continue to provide information and advice without fear of criminalisation.

2006 - Beyond Biology Campaign

This year saw SEF launch its Beyond Biology Campaign. The campaign highlighted the consensus and commitment amongst its 50 member organisations to the call for PSHE, which includes SRE, to be made a statutory subject (Martinez 2006).

This truly set the ball rolling.

2007 - UK Youth Parliament's 'Are you getting it?' campaign

In 2007 the UK Youth Parliament (UKYP) launched their 'Are you Getting It?' survey and campaign, which also called for PSHE to be made statutory.

Other significant events in this year included the launch by the National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE) of a two-year programme to develop PSHE guidance with a focus on sex and relationships and alcohol education, and the introduction of a revised national curriculum for secondary schools, including a new programme of study, 'Personal well-being'. Of even greater importance was the introduction of a duty on schools to promote the well-being of their pupils.

2008 - Review of SRE

In 2008 following the increasing groundswell of professional support for statutory SRE, the concern that SRE is not meeting the needs of over a third of young people, as well as reports from Ofsted that PSHE, although improving, was still patchy, led the government to announce a review of SRE. SEF made a significant contribution to this review including a survey of the views of young people and a survey of the views of teachers.

On the 23rd October 2008 the government published their response to the recommendations made by the review group. The Minster for Schools and Learners Jim Knight announced, at the SEFs 21st Birthday conference, the government's intention, following a review of PSHE, to make PSHE statutory. The government also committed to re-writing the 2000 SRE guidance.

At the birthday conference SEF also launched its new Young People's Charter "We Want More!"

2009 - Where are we now....?

The drafting of the revised SRE Guidance is underway. Sir Alasdair MacDonald completed his review of PSHE and we are now waiting for the results of the public consultation on PSHE. This autumn we hope to see the introduction of legislation to make PSHE, which includes SRE statutory...

....these are exciting times so watch this space!

Extract From "Celebrating Sex and Relationships Education. Past, present and future". 2008. NCB: London