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Sex and relationships education is finally on the curriculum. What should it teach?

Justine Greening's announcement should start a conversation and what - and when - we should teach children about boundaries, consent and healthy relationships. 

There are rare occasions when new legislation comes forward which can be greeted with the satisfying response: “Well, that just makes sense.” The announcement that sex and relationships education will be compulsory in English schools is one such occasion.

Justine Greening’s statement is the culmination of a long campaign to bring the curriculum into the 21st century.

The naysayers are wrong: this law will help keep children safe. It will not expose them to harmful material. Your four-year-old child will not be learning about pornography.

What this legislation does is recognise the reality of children’s lives in 2017: lives where exposure to sexually explicit material can be a daily reality, and in which girls can be pressured into sending sexualised images of themselves to their peers. The old curriculum – we’ve all put condoms on cucumbers – is simply no longer fit to deal with the challenges of the age of the internet, smartphone and social media.

What’s so important today is that the government has recognised the clamour from around the country for this to change. Children – girls especially – have been telling us at Plan International UK that they want to see improved sex and relationships education. Just one in five recent school leavers (aged 18-24) we surveyed felt what they learned about relationships was of any use.

What about parents? Might they be nervous about their children learning about sensitive topics such as sexting and the impact of pornography in the classroom? Certainly, parents have a crucial role to play in ensuring their children are equipped to deal with the challenges that they have to deal with around sex and relationships. Again, don’t believe those who tell you that this is a ‘nanny state’ law designed to cut parents out. Good sex and relationships education means conversations both in the home and at school.

When we asked parents what they thought about teaching in this area, they were fairly unequivocal. No less than 77 per cent of parents felt that children should be taught about the impact of pornography at school.  73 per cent wanted the curriculum to address sexting.

A critical question, of course, is the age at which some of these difficult concepts should be introduced. Justine Greening has confirmed that the education will be age-appropriate. Rightly so. With younger children, the focus will be on relationships – what friendship means, or whether it is OK for your friend to hold your hand without asking, for instance. As children grow up, more difficult concepts can be introduced – in line with the age that they are likely to first be exposed to sexual material online.

Crucially, guidance will be published which will be subject to public consultation. This is a national conversation that we need to have – teachers, policy experts, parents and most importantly children need to have their say on what the new curriculum looks like. Once decided, training needs to be put in place for those who will deliver it.

Some questions remain. Faith schools will be allowed the freedom to teach in line with their religious beliefs. We respect that – but also note that the internet, and some of the harmful material it contains, makes no distinction based on a viewer’s faith. As the guidance comes forward, we will be making the case that the new curriculum must be evidence-based, fully inclusive of issues including LGBTIQ (seven out of ten parents backed education about different sexual orientations in our research). We would encourage the faith community to engage in these discussions in the hope that all children can receive the basic support they need.

So, we applaud Justine Greening’s leadership on this issue. Her vision for a better world for women and girls while at the Department for International Development is in evidence here. Girls – and boys – will thank her. Now, the work to design a curriculum that meets their expectations begins. 

Tanya Barron is chief executive of Plan International UK, which has been campaigning for statutory sex and relationships education. Find out more at plan-uk.org/itsmyright

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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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