Mumsnet vs the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child on sex education

What is it about the SPUC that makes it more worthy of ministerial attention than the Mumsnetters?

You can tell a lot about someone by the company they keep. So what does it mean when the minister of state for schools appears to be courting the pro-life idealogues of the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child, while ignoring a hugely popular network like Mumsnet? Both SPUC and Mumsnet wrote letters to the Department of Education regarding sex education. Both letters were received. But only one got a reply. Nick Gibb MP took time to write back to SPUC; Mumsnet got nothing.

This is curious. Of course, a minister can’t respond personally to every query, but when it comes from a website that gets five million visits a month, you might imagine a politician could see the argument for answering: that’s a lot of potential voters you could reach for the price of some Basildon Bond and a stamp. SPUC claims 45,000 members in the UK. So what is it about those 45,000 that makes them more worthy of ministerial attention than the Mumsnetters?

The answer is that Gibb seems to be following the path of his anti-choice appeasing colleague, secretary of state for Health Andrew Lansley, and cosying up to the most reactionary elements he can find. And SPUC is pretty reactionary. The organisation is ostensibly a campaign against abortion. However, it has expanded its remit to oppose contraception, same-sex marriage – and now, sex education through the Safe at School campaign. The Safe at School campaign relies on one sinister question: “Do you know if your child is safe at school?” From that seed of uncertainty, it seeks to convince parents that schools are practising a sort of institutionalised child abuse by teaching children anything to do with reproduction. “Sex education in school […] is priming children from the age of five to become sexually active,” it says, marking the exact point where enforced ignorance and victim-blaming meet.

The SPUC attitude is inadvertently a paedophile’s dream. Not only does it falsely suggest that pre-pubescent children can be coaxed into sexual activity (Humberts rejoice! SPUC says your victims have been taught to want it), but it also seeks to deprive children of a vocabulary with which they can discuss, and so have control over, their own bodies. It’s this base level of knowledge – the simple naming of parts – that SPUC seeks to deprive children of.

In his letter to SPUC, Gibb writes: “I can confirm that neither the National Curriculum nor the new draft programme of study requires the naming of internal or external body parts with regard to reproduction.” For SPUC, this opens the way for them to resist schools providing any information to children about reproduction, and the organisation’s website is already celebrating the withdrawal of schools from sex ed under pressure from SPUC campaigners.

But SPUC does not represent the majority of parents. Mumsnet’s letter to the DoE – the one that Nick Gibb didn’t reply to – highlighted the results of a survey of its members’ attitude to sex and relationships education. These findings obviously can’t be extrapolated to the whole population, but they are strikingly positive: 92 per cent were happy for their children to attend SRE classes, and 69 per cent thought the subject should be compulsory at primary school.

“It seems odd for the government to ignore parents' views when it comes to sex education, and you have to wonder why," says Justine Roberts, Mumsnet co-founder and CEO. To a suspicious mindset, it might appear to be that ministers are on a mission of appeasement to the social conservative tendency, regardless of what parents really want or what is right for children.

 

Why didn't Mumsnet get a response on sex education?

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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