Here are some of the things that, according to the current version of the National Curriculum, it is compulsory to teach our children in English schools:
- The history of the Romans, Anglo-Saxons, and Vikings
- The way of life, beliefs and achievements of Ancient Greece
- The study of rivers and water, and their effect on landscapes and people
- The characteristic chemical properties of elements and compounds
- At least one play by Shakespeare
- Pythagoras’ theorem
None of these are unreasonable or ridiculous inclusions in Key Stages 1 to 4, but all of them have one thing in common: they are unlikely to be of use (in later life) to every child that learns them. And so it seems strange to me that last week, our Parliament decided that the one subject every child is likely to be confronted with at some stage in his or her life should not be made compulsory in our classrooms.
On Tuesday night, 303 MPs voted against an amendment to the Children and Families Bill – known as New Clause 20 – which would have made it compulsory for sex and relationships education (SRE) to be taught in all schools.
SRE is already compulsory in state secondary schools, but the focus at the moment is on the biological side of the birds and the bees. What New Clause 20 would have done was enshrine in law that SRE should be taught in every school and crucially, include information about same-sex relationships, sexual violence, domestic violence, and sexual consent. The amendment, tabled by Labour and supported by a whole host of campaign groups, came with the proviso that all lessons would be age-appropriate and take account of pupils’ religious and cultural backgrounds, but with the central and laudable aim of ensuring our children are taught what healthy relationships look like.
Because here’s some of the evidence to suggest they may currently have some difficulty getting a handle on this:
- 29% of girls aged 16-18 say they have been subjected to unwanted sexual touching at school.
- Research by the NSPCC has found a third of girls aged 13-17 have experienced physical or sexual violence in relationships.
- 75 per cent of teenage girls and 50 per cent of boys say they’ve experienced emotional abuse in relationships.
- 18% of 16-18 year olds don’t believe slapping counts as domestic violence, and 50% wouldn’t know where to go for support if affected by domestic abuse themselves.
- One in three 10-year-olds have seen pornography online, and this number increases with age. Children and young people’s access to porn has been linked to unrealistic attitudes towards sex and relationships, more sexually permissive attitudes, and beliefs that women are sex objects.
All pretty worrying stuff, and yet New Clause 20 – designed to tackle these very issues – was defeated. Critics of the amendment argued that it “disempowered parents”, removing their ability to control when and what their children are taught about sex and relationships. And children’s minister Edward Timpson said: “We strongly believe that teachers need the flexibility to use their professional judgment to decide when and how best to provide PSHE in their local circumstances.”
But in too many cases, children are being taught only “this is how babies are made”, with the internet or popular culture left to fill in the gaps. We’re doing them a huge disservice by pretending that’s all there is to it, and treating issues that should be confronted openly as taboo subjects.
We can keep hand-wringing about how and why we got here, but domestic violence, explicit porn, and sexual abuse are, sadly, issues many of today’s children will encounter to a greater or lesser degree. More hopefully, they’ll also get to experience healthy, loving and supportive relationships, whether they be heterosexual or same sex. Isn’t it vital they understand the difference? In the words of shadow children’s minister Lisa Nandy, this it too important to leave to chance. The three r’s of reading, writing, and arithmetic have always been central to our children’s education. If we’re to encourage them to become fully-rounded individuals, “relationships” should be added to that dictum too.
Dr Audrey Simpson of the Family Planning Association put it simply when she said: “It’s bizarre that the emphasis of preparing children and young people for adulthood is often on knowledge and skills that they will never use as adults, to the detriment of those that they will definitely need and use. The potential outcome is sexual ill health including dysfunctional relationships. Our young people deserve more.”
New Clause 20 is expected to be tabled again when the Children and Families Bill is read in the Lords. You can add your support to the #Yes2NC20 campaign here.
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