Ministers need to “get serious” about recruiting more school nurses if they want to introduce compulsory sex education for all schoolchildren, the Royal College of Nursing has warned.
On 1 March, the government tabled amendments to the Children and Social Work Bill that will make it a requirement for all secondary schools in England to teach relationships and sex education.
“We need the staff to put this positive theory into practice”
Currently only pupils attending local-authority run secondary schools – around a third of secondary schools – are guaranteed to be offered sex and relationships education, and it is not required to be taught in academies.
The government is proposing the introduction of the new subject of “relationships education” in primary school and renaming the secondary school subject “relationships and sex education” to emphasise the central importance of healthy relationships.
The focus in primary school will be on building healthy relationships and staying safe, said the government, noting that it was important for children to start developing their understanding of healthy adult relationships in more depth, with sex education delivered in that context.
It added that “now is the right time” to update policy, as current guidance for the subject was introduced in 2000 and was becoming “increasingly outdated”, in that it failed to cover online pornography, sexting and staying safe online.
The Department for Education said the new regulations and statutory guidance would be subject to full public consultation later this year, with the expectation that the new curriculum would be introduced as soon as September 2019.
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Responding to the announcement, RCN professional lead for children and young people’s nursing Fiona Smith said: “This long-awaited move could make a huge difference to children and young people across the country.
“Children today are exposed to sexual issues at an earlier and earlier age,” she said. “Sex and relationships education can equip children and young people with the tools to interpret what are often conflicting messages, and make them aware of the help and support available.
“However, we need the staff to put this positive theory into practice. With comprehensive training and expertise, school nurses are primed to lead this type of education – but as more and more of these roles are cut, this just doesn’t seem feasible,” added Ms Smith.
“If the government is serious about improving not only sex education but the overall health of our young population, they need to get serious about building the school nursing workforce,” she stated.
As recently revealed by Nursing Times, the latest official data has revealed NHS school nurse numbers have also dropped by 6% in the space of a year.
The reduction in staffing levels has taken place in the 12 months since the commissioning of public health services fully transferred over to cash-strapped local authorities, in October 2015.
According to latest NHS Digital data, there was a 6% reduction in whole-time equivalent school nurses working in the NHS between October 2015 and October 2016, from 2,725 to 2,561.
Javed Khan, chief executive of charity Barnardo’s, said: “We are thrilled the government has listened to our campaign to provide all school children with age-appropriate school lessons on sex and healthy relationships to help keep them safe.
“We believe this will give children the knowledge and skills they need to help prevent them being groomed and sexually exploited,” he added.