Photo: Caiaimage/Sam Edwards
Statutory sex and relationships education: About time
The announcement this week by Justine Greening that the teaching of sex and relationships education will soon be statutory in all schools across the UK is truly welcome, so I apologise if my first response was “About time.”
This is something we have been campaigning for over decades and it is great to see the persistent, painstaking, hard work of so many people and groups finally bear fruit. This really should be a high-five moment…
And yet, I can’t help but survey the depressing landscape we now occupy after decades of piecemeal or paltry provision on this subject. Surveys by groups as diverse as End Violence Against Women and Girl Guiding have produced the following, horrifying, findings:
- Endemic levels of sexual violence and harassment in schools with 5,500 sexual offences reported to police over a three year period including 600 alleged rapes;
- 29% of 16-18 year-old girls experience ‘groping’ or other unwanted sexual touching at school;
- 71% of 16-18-year-olds hearing sexual name-calling such as “slut” or “slag” towards girls at school daily or a few times per week;
- 59% of girls experiencing some form of sexual harassment in school or college;
- 40% of 16-18-year-olds not receiving lessons or information on sexual consent, or not knowing if they did;
Most shockingly, a 2016 Office for National Statistics report showed that nearly a third of all female rape victims recorded by the police are girls aged under 16.
Hopefully, Greening’s proposed change in the law will enable schools to start grappling with these problems. But once again, we are looking to schools to solve problems created, and perpetuated, in wider society and that requires a serious investment of money, curriculum time and training. As the TUC’s Just a Bit of Banter report last year showed, the harassment and sexism that girls are facing in schools is not unrelated to the harassment and sexism that women are facing in the world of work.
So far, the details are pretty sketchy. There’s no mention of the need to include the experiences and needs of our LGBT+ young people; how the work will be funded or resourced; what training will be available and who will be involved in producing the resources: it is key that teachers and experts are properly engaged in this process.
And the ‘opt-out’ clause for faith schools and for parents is a mistake. Any curriculum should be developed sensitively and openly but the rights of our young people to be fully informed of the facts and their legal rights should prevail over the wishes of adult individuals or groups. As long as the curriculum follows the law and is transparent, parents and faith groups should make a case for their beliefs outside of schools.
Note, too, the commitment to sex education is missing for the primary phase – a phase in which increasing numbers of girls start the onset of puberty, often without any information about what is happening to them. This can’t be right.
This is a government inflicting horrendous funding cuts to 98% schools across the UK so I’d like to know what money will available for implementation. This is also a government that has pushed schools into an increasingly narrowed curriculum. I hope Greening means it when she says she wants to bring PSHE back into schools because this subject has largely been reduced to the assembly schedule and a few drop-down days.
We have collectively presided over a complete failure to empower and protect our young people or to provide them with the necessary skills and knowledge to build healthy relationships. We will not be starting from scratch; we will be starting from a depressing deficit.
So well done Justine Greening but, honestly, we have a mountain to climb. In the meantime, schools would do well to read the excellent legal briefing produced by End Violence Against Women which outlines the legal obligations schools already have to protect girls from sexual abuse and violence.
We owe them that at least.