For too long the future of sex and relationships education in our schools has been mired in a heated debate between politicians and interest groups. As a result, guidance to help schools navigate these critical issues has not been updated for more than 17 years. With mobile phones and 24-hour internet access now a normal part of British childhood, that guidance looks very out of date.
Competing interest groups can’t agree on a way forward and the result is that we are letting down a generation of children who are not being taught how to keep themselves safe in this digital world. It is compulsory to teach the biology of sex at secondary school, but not compulsory to teach that online pornography isn’t representative of a typical relationship. Schools don’t have to teach that digital sexting images are illegal and could be distributed to child abuse websites, or how to identify the signs of grooming for sexual exploitation.
The evidence shows that we have every right to be concerned. The women and equalities committee uncovered the scale and impact of sexual harassment and sexual violence in schools today. Fifty-nine per cent of girls and young women face some form of sexual harassment from their peers at school or college. Most children have seen online pornography by the time they leave primary school and two thirds will have been asked for a sexual digital image of themselves before they leave secondary school.
Parents have the primary responsibility when it comes to a child’s education about relationships, but too many vulnerable children are growing up without any meaningful contact or understanding of what a healthy relationship is. They know about trauma and not trust; conflict and not commitment. We need to build their resilience for their sakes and those of future generations.
Schools should have a crucial role to play but a survey last year of more than 2,000 pupils found that 46 per cent had not learnt about healthy relationships, 44 per cent had failed to learn about when a relationship was abusive and, shockingly, 43 per cent had never been taught about the responsibility for obtaining consent, nor their choice in giving consent.
Children’s charities have issued warnings about these gaps in education. Barnardos found that nine out of 10 children believed it was important for them to understand the dangers of being online, especially when sharing images, and eight out of 10 parents said that such education would help their child understand sexual behaviour and keep them safer.
Overwhelmingly parents and children feel they need help and want compulsory lessons in school.
Based on the work done by children’s and relationships charities we are leading an amendment to the Children and Social Work Bill that has cross party and cross interests support (including six select committee chairs, seven former ministers and one former education secretary). It would make relationship education a compulsory part of the national curriculum, taught at all schools. It will focus attention on the root causes of relationship based problems: harassment, violence and sexism. It will teach the basic relational knowledge, skills and values that all young people need for adolescent and adult life. The detailed programme will be evidence-based, focussing on the tools young people need today to navigate the world today.
Teaching materials need to be age appropriate, respectful of religious backgrounds and all types of healthy relationships, in line with existing sex education and equality laws. Parents need to be fully involved in how relationships education is taught, and when it involves sex education, would retain the right to withdraw their child.
This amendment represents the first time that politicians across parties and different sides of past debates about sex education have come together to ensure a solution is found.
There will be loud voices who think parliament should not interfere with the school curriculum, that we should not retain parents right to withdraw their children from sex education, or not to retain age and religious protections. For us the voices we are listening to are those children and parents who are being let down. As Matthew Reed, chief executive of The Children’s Society, said in support of our amendment: “Children and young people urgently need high quality sex and relationships education to give them the skills they need to stay safe in everyday situations and online. Without this knowledge, children are left at risk of grooming, exploitation and abuse.”
It’s time to act and put compulsory relationships education alongside existing sex education to give our children the relational tools they need to stay safe.