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