Parliament are set to debate a parent’s right to withdraw their child from Relationships and Sex Education on the 25th of February. I fear parents are out of touch with what their children are already aware of before Relationships and Sex Education, the debate in Parliament being a direct result of this.  Parents, in my opinion, underestimate how aware their child is and overestimate how much they understand. As an older person I think it is sometimes easy to assume that the length of life equates to what someone knows. Actually I believe the young people I meet in schools are aware of so much more than generations above them give them credit for, they just need the space to understand this awareness.

 I will use the concept of ‘consent’ to illustrate what I mean by a high level of awareness but a low level of understanding.

 Parents (and older generations in general) underestimate the levels of awareness in our young people today. I mean this in the least patronising way I can, the internet has taught them so much more than I think parents or guardians can be aware of. Whether you ask a Year 8 or Year 10 class if they are aware of the concept of consent they all sigh as if you’re asking them to repeat something that they hear every day. Changes in wider society such as the #MeToo movement and high profile cases of sexual assault and rape perpetrators such as R.Kelly have made consent a buzzword in the language of many young people. In fact the Fawcett Society found that 44% of 18-24 year olds were aware of the #MeToo movement as compared to 36% of 55-64 year olds and only 30% of 65+. Young people are aware of mass movements in wider society – their use of tech and social media may mean they are moving. It is unfair to think that young people do not take in what they consume from the mass media, they do and it shows. 

#MeToo one year on - what’s changed? Fawcett Society October 2018 (Click on the image for link)

#MeToo one year on - what’s changed? Fawcett Society October 2018 (Click on the image for link)

Where they may underestimate how much their children are aware of, I believe that parents overestimate the level of understanding their young people have. They assume that if young people are aware of something they will, by definition, understand it. If we take the example of consent again, where someone may be aware of the word consent they may not understand the intricacies of consent. No one has allowed them the space to talk it through. For example, I remember a student being totally aware of what the word consent ‘meant’ but arguing that consent could not be removed once ‘sex’ had started. They were aware that before ‘sex’ began there had to be the word ‘yes’ but they did not view consent as ongoing because asking for consent during ‘sex’ would be “too awkward”. They did not have the knowledge of the word consent to think about how conversations should happen but he was aware of the concept. The Mix (a young person’s service for those under 25) found that 35% of 16-24 year olds had felt pressured into having sex with someone. So while a young person may hear the word consent it is clear that for some they do not understand consent. What I have unfortunately seen is that while young people may have heard certain words or ideas they have often not been given the chance to discuss, explore and thus have an understanding and knowledge of those words and ideas. In practice this leaves young people vulnerable to violating others or being violated because they were aware but they didn’t understand.

If parents remove their children from that sex education they allow their child to continue through their education with this low level of awareness but they do not allow them to be included in conversation which lead to knowledge and understanding. Being aware is a good starting place but knowledge is what changes lives. Giving parents the chance to remove their young person from Relationships and Sex Education is taking away their right to become knowledgeable and empowered adults.