Parliament must not miss another opportunity to better equip our young people in understanding consent and relationships.
Talking with parents about sex and relationships education (SRE), they are almost always extremely surprised to hear how little schools are required to teach by law.
Studies show that there is overwhelming parental support for sex education in schools with 88 per cent wanting it to be a compulsory subject. However, many of these same studies find that parents mistakenly assume and hope that their children are getting a much better, broader education on sex, consent and relationships than they actually are.
The reality, I regret to say, is far more depressing. At present, under the Education Act 1996, only council-controlled maintained schools are legally required to teach SRE. Even these schools need only teach narrow, biology-focused SRE in science lessons in order to comply with the law. All other state-funded schools, including academies, primary schools and free schools, have no such obligation. With the shift towards academisation these legal requirements are even weaker. Now just 40 per cent of secondary schools are required to teach SRE.
Schools that are not subject to this requirement only expected to “have regard” to the Department for Education’s guidance on the teaching of SRE. This outdated guidance was drawn up in 2000, before we knew the full extent of child abuse revelations; before the explosion in online pornography, sexting and abuse; and before so many positive milestones in LGBTQ rights. It urgently needs updating.
In consequence, the vast majority of young people are being taught in schools which provide either inadequate SRE or none whatsoever. This unfortunate reality is borne out in successive Ofsted reports showing that SRE is inadequate or requires improvement in 40 per cent of schools. When asked, 99 per cent of young people thought that age-appropriate SRE should be taught in all schools but one in seven said they had not received any SRE at all.
Numerous bodies, from the equalities and education select committees to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, have recommended that we introduce age-appropriate statutory SRE in all schools. I agree and think all schools have a duty to provide age-appropriate SRE, that it should be broadened to include teaching about consent, LGBT relationships, online exploitation, violence and abuse and that the existing 17-year-old guidance on SRE needs to be modernised.
That is why on Tuesday, January 31, I will lead a parliamentary debate calling on the government to finally agree to improved SRE. I first attempted to achieve this when I was a schools minister in the final months of the last Labour government, but unfortunately this was thwarted due to Conservative opposition. Seven years later there are hopes that the government might finally change their minds by amending the Children and Social Work Bill and introducing a change that young people and their parents all want to see.
If we do not get this right the consequences are stark. With the Jimmy Savile revelations, the child abuse inquiry and the release of new data on attitudes to sex and relationships we are just now coming to terms with the true extent of the problem we are faced with. We now know, for example, that nearly four in ten men — and a similar proportion of women — agree that if a drunk woman goes out at night and wears a short skirt she is “totally or partly to blame” if she is the victim of sexual assault. We know that half of female students report being sexually harassed every time they go on a night out. We also know that one in four women experience domestic abuse, many on repeated occasions, and that half feel unable to report these to the police.
At the moment we are increasingly leaving young people ill-equipped to understand consent and relationships, to know how and when to say no and to approach someone whenever they are abused or exploited. We have left them with a vacuum that, unfortunately, is all too often filled with the wrong messages. Recent events such as the inauguration of a US president who has boasted of harassing women only serve to underline the need for us to redouble our efforts in combatting these attitudes.
If parliament once again misses this opportunity to change the law for the better we will let future generations down. We cannot guarantee that young people will be immune from every danger lurking in modern society.
We can, however, give them an education that equips them to look after themselves. Is this not the very purpose of education?