In the latest instalment of Britain: The Culture Wars, the Prime Minister has promised an urgent “review” into the teaching of relationships and sex education (RSE) after concerns were raised about children being taught “inappropriate” content.
Miriam Cates, a Conservative MP and Christian, has claimed in the Commons that children are being given “graphic lessons on oral sex, how to choke your partner safely and 72 genders”. Cates has called these “age-inappropriate, extreme, sexualising and inaccurate” lessons a “catastrophe for childhood”. Katharine Birbalsingh, Britain’s strictest headmistress and controversial content creator, took things one step further by tweeting, albeit rhetorically, “Should we normalise sex with kids? Should we allow chaos in the toilets so that 11 year olds can have anal sex with each other?”
But in the 100-page NCSU (New Social Covenant Unit) report that Cates commissioned, the number 72 only appears as page numbers and footnotes, while the only reference to choking is from an online blog that has nothing to do with schools’ curriculum. This discourse around sex education feels like a distraction – sermonising about small boats and sex education is a sure way to appeal to socially authoritarian voters. But the real problem is that these puritanical, feverish imaginings may potentially jeopardise the important progress made in the curriculum.
[See also: The sex lives of medieval women]
Before 2017, the last time the government reviewed RSE was in 2000 (because not much happened between those years…). When I was at school, sex education was anatomical and perfunctory, reminiscent of Coach Carr’s lecture in Mean Girls: “Don’t have sex… because you will get pregnant… and die.” Today, students are taught vital lessons around consent, pornography, sexting, healthy relationships and boundaries – all of which help to negate the potentially harmful impacts of the content they see online.
It’s much easier for the government to clamp down on things that aren’t happening than things that actually are. If it really wants to protect young people, then surely it should be focusing on improving online safety, rather than perpetuating the same predictable, performative outcries? For example, France recently announced it would introduce digital passports for porn websites, and is also bringing in age-verification measures on social media.
Schools should (and do) adhere to strict safeguarding requirements when hiring external organisations, and it is true that outsourcing should enhance the curriculum rather than replace it. A good teacher knows their class and knows where to pitch the material. Of course there will be a small minority of organisations who want to push a certain agenda, and schools should be mindful of this. But primarily, teachers need training and funding. The government has reportedly only spent half the sex education training money it promised, and its online resources are few and far between, and generally poor quality. If teachers don’t feel confident delivering the material, they are more likely to look to external sources, and this reinforces the narrative that schools are suffering from some sort of ideological takeover.
Some may still argue that it is the role of parents to teach young people about relationships and values, not schools. Perhaps. But what of the fact that according to the NHS nine out of ten children who are sexually abused know or are related to their abuser? Home may not be a safe space for everyone.
There is also often a yawning gap between what parents think is happening and the reality: one report suggests that only 22 per cent of parents think their teenager has watched pornography, a gross underestimate. Even with the best intentions, most parents continue to give smartphones to pre-pubescent teens, and that poses a far greater danger than anything they are learning at school. Those wishing to make a culture war out of sex education ought to spend five minutes on the streaming site Pornhub – then they can decide if RSE is really such a problem.