Last night, a harrowing BBC Panorama documentary revealed the scale of child-on-child abuse in the UK. It was a powerful reminder of the importance of something we still shy away from: the need to make sex and consent education compulsory in primary schools.
The prevalence of the problem is horrifying – there have been almost 30,000 reports of child-on-child sexual abuse since 2013, 2,625 of which took place on school premises. And things are getting worse. There was a 71 per cent increase in reports of “peer on peer” abuse between 2013 and 2016.
The individual examples are particularly distressing. Panorama told the story of Emily (a pseudonym), who was assaulted at the age of 15 during a class at school without her teacher noticing. Then there was the case of the six-year-old girl abused by her classmates – the child and mother would sit in their living room with the curtains shut, unable to stop the boys from cycling outside their house.
This abhorrent lack of protection is a responsibility that lies on many shoulders – the school, the police, the local authority and the social services – and the documentary exposes a lack of process around dealing with abuse in young children committed by other young children.
The growth in cases may be driven by the rise of social media and a greater exposure to technology, but the fact is that our curriculum is simply not keeping up.
In March 2017, the government agreed to introduce “relationships and sex education” in all secondary schools and bring “relationships education” into primary schools. While primary schools will emphasise safe and healthy relationships, secondary school SRE lessons will focus on healthy relationships, pornography, sexting and consent. While primary schools can choose to teach sex education in an age-appropriate way, they are also allowed to withdraw from it.
These measures aren’t enough. Children in primary school should be entitled to good quality relationship and sex education, exploring areas such as consent, control and choice. The treatment of the six-year-old girl, who had been sexually assaulted by her classmates for over a month, shows the necessity of giving children the concepts and the language to understand and describe their experiences.
Rather than attempting to ban pornography, we need to focus on teaching children what consent means in the digital age – and we need to start young. When we neglect children at this age, we’re laying down the framework for how they should expect to be treated in the rest of their lives; abused, ignored and neglected.
Not only do children need sex and relationship education, but teachers in primary school also need adequate training in how to respond to incidents like this, and to review their own child protection procedures. It’s incredibly dangerous to fail children at such a young age, and we need to ensure that enough resources are being funnelled into education around this area, both for children and for teachers.
We need to foster a culture that encourages children to find the language to assert their boundaries, both to adults and to their peers. We need to foster a culture that listens to children and believes them, and we need the adequate processes in place that will look after those who do come forward.
It’s time to stop being prudish and worrying about protecting our children’s “innocence” and start looking at their experiences. Whether we like it or not, that innocence is being snatched from them daily across the UK, and our lack of sex education means we can’t protect them.