Keep marriage on the ‘sex ed’ curriculum

A new review of the controversial relationship and sex education curriculum will get underway soon in response to revelations by a group of Conservative MPs who produced a dirty dossier of disgusting sexual content masquerading as educational material. The content contained in this dossier would appal most parents and a review is underway to stamp out highly sexualised lessons taught as part of the RSE curriculum.

‘Sex Ed’ has come a long way in recent decades and would leave most parents utterly bewildered. The biggest change in recent years has been to add ‘relationships’ onto ‘sex’ so educators can talk about more than just putting a condom on a cucumber.

The last time Tory ministers looked at this subject they came under immense pressure to remove any references to certain types of relationships, with marriage the biggest target. Under no circumstances were schools to talk about marriage,according to some groups. Ministers resisted and, little known to the rest of the world, actually increased references to marriage.

Children are now expected to learn why marriage is really about making a commitment to another person and understand why this matters. One of the reasons they did this was because children themselves said they wanted it, with polling at the time showing almost 80 per cent of teenagers wanted to get married later on in life and three quarters wanted new relationships and sex ed to cover longterm, lasting relationships – a not very secret code for marriage.

Where young people fell down was understanding the difference between marriage and any other type of relationship and why married couples are much more likely to stay together than couples who don’t marry.

When ministers look again at this part of the school curriculum they need to double down on marriage messaging,not run away from it. Despite the pressure they will come under. The Prime Minister did, after all, promise not to shy away from talking about the family.

There is little doubt this is needed with marriage rates in terminal decline. New figures from the census show that British adults are almost 50 per cent more likely to never marry than they were 30 years ago, and cohabitation is up by a quarter since the last census. This leads to separation; as the Children’s Commissioner recently discovered, almost half of British children will grow up watching their parents split up.

There will be plenty to remove from the sex bit of the RSE curriculum, appalling imagery and explicit content peddling to children needs to go, but the building blocks of long-term,lasting relationships need to stay. If the government really is serious about the family, then this is the time to show it and keep marriage on the curriculum.

The most recent guidance on what schools should teach encourages schools to help children understand what makes for a successful marriage.’ In the past, children were expected to learn the nature of marriage and its importance for family life and the bringing up of children. It would be a welcome return to common sense if we returned to this language.

Modern social science has gone a long way in helping us understand the building blocks of long-lasting relationships and the commitment that underpins marriage.

These researchers split commitment into two parts, ‘dedication’ and ‘constraint.

Dedication is a bond that makes a couple want to be with each other, and constraint refers to the increased costs (both emotional and financial) of leaving a relationship. Highly constrained relationships with little dedication are extremely unhealthy.

Couples who ‘slide’ through transitions tend to increase constraints without necessarily increasing dedication. Couples who ‘decide’ through transitions are increasing dedication before adding constraints. So ‘sliding vs deciding’ was born as a concept we should teach in schools. It isn’t that marriage is about ‘love,’ as Hollywood would tell us, it is about clearly expressed commitment, ‘deciding, not sliding.

The concept of sliding versus deciding was originally set out by American academic Professor Scott Stanley, who defines deciding as making a clear mutual decision before taking any big step forward in a relationship. “Sliding” into a relationship through inertia creates a potentially vulnerable situation where a relationship is harder to get out of and increases the risk of high conflict separation. This is all linked to another social science concept of ‘asymmetric commitment, where couples misunderstand levels of commitment to a relationship and where one partner has a significantly higher commitment than the other. We will recognise this.

The reality is we haven’t found other forms of committed relationships – an odd phrase used in government guidance – marriage is how we express commitment despite the best efforts of some to undermine the institution. We’ve tried other forms such as ‘civil partnerships’ but they haven’t taken off. The census reveals couples in a civil partnership represent less than 0.2 per cent of the population. It just isn’t what people want and the polling shows it.

Instead, we need to talk about marriage and be bold enough to use the word and understand what it means, especially for older teenagers looking ahead to the rest of their lives. No one is advocating for vicars preaching to children, but we should set out the real meaning of marriage and why it still matters. There are all sorts of sensitive issues schools address but it is odd that marriage is the issue that can’t be discussed when other – much more peculiar issues – are.

When we get round to re-writing what must be taught in relationships education there will be all sorts of lobby groups pushing their ideas, but the oldest relationship of them all shouldn’t be forgotten.


Frank Young works for a Westminster think tank and is writing in a personal capacity.


Frank Young

Frank Young works for a leading Westminster think tank and is writing in a personal capacity