Sex education reforms: can someone in the DfE give us a straight answer?

In Blackadder: Back and forth, our eponymous antihero runs into Shakespeare after an experiment with a time machine goes awry.

“This is for every schoolboy and schoolgirl for the next four hundred years!” Blackadder cries, as he punches the Bard in the face.

If I had a time machine, I should like to go back to 1854 and punch Stafford H Northcote and CE Trevelyan for the damage they would do to language by inventing the civil service.

Before then, government reports about education were reasonably zappy reads. But once the civil service arrived, the language became thick as treacle. Not, by the way, because I think the civil servants are trying to be evasive, but because they are constantly trying to interpret what ministers want, and so are forever hesitant in what they are saying.

If I had a time machine, I should like to go back to 1854 and punch Stafford H Northcote and CE Trevelyan

Take for example, a paragraph from the Taunton Report from in 1864, to figure out if any improvements were needed in English education. (Can you imagine if it had said no?)

“When we come down to the second grade of education, that which is to stop at about 16, the desire to substitute a different system for the classical becomes stronger, and though most of these parents would probably consent to give a high place to Latin, though they would only do so on condition that it did not exclude a very thorough knowledge.”

And so on, and so on! All that endless hedging (“about 16”, “most parents”, “probably consent”)! All the extra small words! What’s wrong with “most parents would allow their child do lots of Latin until they are 16, but only if they also learned other things”?

Teachers face the sharp end of this linguistic nonsense to this day.

Over the years, primary teachers were fed an alphabet soup of labels given for pupils’ attainment. Headteachers tear their hair out trying to understand if “statutory guidance” means they must legally do what it says or not? And these days there’s the spectacle of watching the Department for Education use “in due course” to mean “tomorrow”, “as planned” and “we have no idea, please leave us alone”.

This week, the Department for Education said plans for compulsory sex and relationship education would emerge “in due course”. Under the workload protocol the government has to give schools 12 months’ notice of any major curriculum change. The protocol was pushed in the last election as a promise.

“See,” the Tories practically shouted, “you can trust us to stop messing about now.” Unfortunately, we can’t.

Several aspects of sex education policy are a problem for the Conservatives: marriage, religious allowances, the right of parents to withdraw their child from lessons they disagree with. PSHE teachers deal with the thorns of the subjects every day, and they find ways to manage conflict among the 11-year-olds they teach.

Politicians, however, can’t seem to do the same. And so there is a back and forwards on what to write in the document outlining the new sex and relationship curriculum. All of which is adding up to time running out. If things don’t shift quickly, either the workload protocol will be broken, or the policy will be delayed.

Except one expects ministers won’t use the word “delay”.

Instead we’ll hear about “taking time”, or a “fresh look”, or “a change in the timetable to reflect this momentous decision taken by the party to reflect a new, more modern, form of education”. None of which will be any comfort to the 14-year-olds left with outdated, sexist and sometimes homophobic schemes of learning, because teachers are still working under rules designed before these pupils were even born.

The saddest thing is that most people in schools understand how this works. It takes time to get policies right. No one expects every timetable to always go to plan. They do expect a bit of straightforwardness about it.

How about this: “We are still working on plans for sex and relationship education. We have not yet decided when they will be published. This may cause some delays”?

There we go, folks. We can all rest easy. No time machines or punches needed.

Laura McInerney is contributing editor of Schools Week

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