Calls for compulsory Relationship Education set to be taught in all secondary schools (including academies) has been put forward by David Burrowes MP and Maria Miller MP as part of an amendment to the Children and Social Work Bill due to be debated and voted on by the end of the month.
For too long the future of sex and relationships education in schools has been stalled due to heated debates between politicians and interest groups. As a result, guidance to help schools navigate these critical issues has not been touched for more than 17 years. With mobile phones and internet access now a normal part of British childhood, the guidance appears out of date – we are letting down an entire generation.
The epidemic of family breakdown that we see in our society demands a response from schools and they have an important part to play in educating the next generation about relationships to lay the foundations for understanding the importance of safe, stable, and nurturing relationships for their (and society’s) wellbeing. A recent Women and Equalities report uncovered the extraordinary scale and impact of sexual harassment and sexual violence in schools today. Nearly two thirds of young women aged 13-21 said in 2014 that they had faced some form of sexual harassment at school or college that year, while 60% of 13-18 years olds have reported being asked for a sexual image or video of themselves.
Currently, 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. Ofsted reported in 2013 that SRE was taught at an inadequate level and 86% of UK parents believe SRE should teach children about sexual consent and respectful relationships and should be taught in all secondary schools.
It is about time we recognise that significant numbers of children are not having any meaningful contact with healthy relationships but rather experience trauma and conflict and are exposed to harm which can be transferred to future generations. By the time they sit their GCSE’s, 46% of all children are not living with both parents and 1 in 4 see violence played out in intimate relationships in the home (CSJ, 2013). While parents have the primary role for educating children, the reality is a significant number of children are at risk without parents fulfilling that role.
The latest amendment put forward by David Burrowes MP cold see a change to what teenagers are being taught to include what consent means in sexual relationships and how to protect themselves from sexting and online exploitation as a compulsory module.
The changes – the biggest overhaul of sex education for almost 20 years – are proposed in an amendment to the Children and Social Work Bill which was published in the House of Commons this week. Pupils will be taught ‘how to recognise and handle bullying and peer pressure, such as sexting, the meaning of consent, signs of an exploitative relationship, including physical, mental and sexual harassment, conflict management and safety online, such as exposure to pornography. New Government guidance will ensure pupils ‘learn the importance of respect, tolerance, and commitment in all types of healthy relationships’. Schools will also have to protect children ‘from teaching and materials which are inappropriate having regard to the age and religious background of the pupils concerned.’
David Burrowes MP, leading the reform, told the Daily Telegraph, ‘We are looking forward to the Government positively responding to this. It ensures that sex education when it comes in a child’s life has a relationship basis. This would mean that it deals with what is at the heart of people’s concerns which is people’s resilience, strong relationships and how to handle issues around pornography and sexual harassment.’
Maria Miller MP, Chairwoman of the Women and Equalities Committee, also supporting the amendment commented, ‘Children are having to deal with a highly sexualised online world without the support they need to tackle the problems it creates. Schools and parents need to work together to give children the support they need – this change in law will make it compulsory for schools to play their part’.
Based on the work done by children and relationship charities, including Barnardos and The Children Society, the amendment has cross party and cross interest support (including six select committee chairs, seven former ministers and one former education secretary). Parents need to be fully involved in how Rel Ed is taught, and when it involves sex education, would have the right to withdraw their child.
The new proposed compulsory aspect to PSHE, to be named Rel Ed (as RE is already part of the national curriculum) is a significant step towards the Government recognising the importance of commitment and stability in family life to help young people build respectful and non-abusive relationships, and modelled by a supportive school culture.