Sexual health to be taught in KS4 science

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Caving to pressure from campaigners for better sex education, the new curriculum for GCSE science will include lessons on sexual health and STIs. As rates of infection rise among Britain’s young people, we ask: will the new curriculum go any way to reducing risky behaviour?

The new curriculum for Key Stage 4 science is to include the teaching of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) which will inform students about the causes and symptoms of Chlamydia, Herpes, HIV, AIDS, Gonorrhoea, Genital Warts, Thrush, Hepatitis and Syphilis, with the goal of both educating about and dispelling the preconceptions surrounding these diseases.

The move follows a government consultation, which raised the concern that pupils were not being properly taught sex education, especially health issues, such as sexually transmitted diseases.

As a result, the programme of study has now been amended to include STIs to mirror what is included in the new science GCSE content.

Why will students be taught about sexual health?
The amendment to the curriculum is important because official statistics on the numbers of young people catching sexually transmitted infections is still going up. This year, STIs have risen to almost half a million in England, with people aged under 25 experiencing the highest rates of infection.

Public Health England (PHE), who released the latest figures, said last year there were 448,422 diagnoses, which was a rise of five per cent from 2011. Almost half of all infections were Chlamydia, 54 per cent were of genital warts, while new gonorrhoea diagnoses rose 21 per cent – which is an added cause for concern because of the global threat of increasing antibiotic resistance.

In light of these latest figures, the Department for Education’s inclusion of sexually transmitted infections to the proposed programme of study for science at Key Stage 4 has been welcomed by the majority of respondents involved in the consultation phase – only 24 per cent thought that the proposals would have a negative impact upon particular groups.

Up to now, one of the main issues when progressing from Key Stage 3 was the lack of content about sex education. One reason for this was that some people felt it was inappropriate to talk to children about sexually sensitive subjects in school, as doing so will encourage them to indulge in risky behaviours. But such thinking is often based on moral or religious grounds rather than evidence.

Furthermore, without any appropriate education in place at Key Stage 4, the result was that too many young people were continuing to have unsafe sex, putting themselves at risk of STIs and the serious consequences associated with infection, including infertility.

This is backed up by research by LloydsPharmacy, which showed that there is a degree of reluctance and embarrassment among young people when seeking advice about STIs later in life – over 21 per cent of people aged 18-24 said they have ignored possible STI symptoms because they were too embarrassed to go to their GP about them.

This has hopefully been remedied by the new programme of study, which commences from September 2016. By the end of Key Stage 4, every pupil should have acquired the essential scientific knowledge and understanding they need to understand the world they live in.

What do the campaigners think?
The Sex Education Forum and the National Children's Bureau has welcomed the addition of sexually transmitted infections to the National Curriculum for Key Stage 4 science, because it will help make it clear to schools that every pupil must leave secondary school equipped with knowledge about STIs and specifically about HIV and AIDS.

The Chair of the Sex Education Forum, Jane Lees, said of the amendment: ‘The curriculum for Key Stage 4 science proposed earlier this year had no reference to sexual health, HIV or AIDS. It is very encouraging that calls from the Sex Education Forum and others have been heeded and the Department for Education has made this important change.

‘Our survey with young people showed that one in four had not learnt anything about this topic at school. There is an urgent need to remedy this situation and this move by the Department for Education will help.’

This is all good news, but at the same time, learning about STIs should ideally not be left to the final years of secondary school. To be most effective, the knowledge needs to build on earlier learning about how our bodies work, and crucially about relationships.

Children need to build up the understanding needed for good sexual health, in order to learn about stigma and challenging prejudice as well as the biological aspects of the transmission, prevention and treatment of STIs.

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