Justine Greening, make sex education compulsory – it’s ridiculous it’s not already

By Kitty Knowles 14 February 2017
MP Justine Greening petition to make sex education compulsory in schools. Pic: CC/Flikr/Simon Davis/DFID

Every day sex education isn't in schools we're letting our children down.

Justine Greening is the Secretary of State for Education and a Minister for Women and Equalities.

She’s met with Nobel Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai, she’s called for action on girls rights at Youth For Change, and she helped launch Girl Summit.

“I want every girl to have the chance to reach her full potential,” she once said.

But if Greening doesn’t act today, she won’t only be failing generations of British girls.

She won’t only be failing the 10m plus children in Britain’s schools.

She will be failing us all.

We must be smarter about sex education

Today the Conservative MP will receive an open letter co-signed by the directors of the End Violence Against Women Coalition, cross-party MPs, and charities including Women’s Aid, Refuge, and Rape Crisis.

It demands that the government make Sex and Relationships Education (SRE) compulsory in all schools.

“Burying our heads in the sand is not an option,” this states.

The policy has repeatedly been raised over recent years and blocked by a group of backbench Conservative MPs. But we cannot let the few stand in the way of progress.

MP Justine Greening with education campaigner Malala Yousafzai. Pic:CC/Simon Davis/DFID
MP Justine Greening with education campaigner Malala Yousafzai. Pic:CC/Simon Davis/DFID

Make sex education compulsory

It is completely natural for children to be curious about sex.

What’s more, we don’t just have a duty to keep them informed – and we are hurting them if we don’t.

Today, we still need to curb the prevalence of unwanted pregnancies (thousands of under-16s still fall pregnant every year giving us the highest teenage birth and abortion rates in Western Europe).

We still need to stem the spread of STDs (those aged under 25 years experience the highest rates of STIs in the UK).

We still need to support youngsters as they accept their sexuality, and teach them to respect their peers (55% of lesbian, gay and bi pupils have been bullied because of their sexuality).

And especially now, in our digital world, we cannot pretend sex doesn’t exist.

New digital worlds

Make no mistake, unless we teach our children about the realities of healthy sexual relationships, their only reference point will be online porn. This fake, often misogynistic, often aggressive, version of sex hardly teaches young minds about respect and consent.

And porn is just one of a host of potential hazards children must now traverse: there are the pitfalls of social media, the pressures of sexting.

Girlguiding found in 2014 that 59% of girls and young women aged 13–21 had faced some form of sexual harassment at school or college.

One in five were sent unwanted pornographic images.

The signatories of today’s open letter want to help young people prepare for this, and so should you.

Girlguides. Pic: The Girlguiding blog.
Girlguides. Pic: The Girlguiding blog.

Justine must act

Yes, wise parents can try to bring up these topics at home, but without training, parents may feel ill-equipped.

Then, there’s the fact that not every child has ‘wise parents’.

We don’t think that any child should be allowed to slip through the cracks because a simple lesson is missing from the curriculum.

We cannot ignore the reality children live in today.

Justine Greening must make sex education compulsory – it’s ridiculous it’s not already.

Today’s open letter in full…

Dear Justine,

Ensuring young people develop the knowledge and skills to form healthy relationships

We are writing to you on Valentine’s Day to ask the government to bring forward legislation that will help give young people the knowledge and skills to have respectful, healthy loving relationships throughout their lives.

Cupid started with a bow and arrow. More recently a sealed-with-a-kiss-card was the Valentine’s Day communication of choice. Today the smartphone rules supreme and, as well as some cute messages, children will be receiving snap shots of private parts, links to porn sites and material that most parents would rather not contemplate.

Children and young people today are subjected to pressures in and outside school that are seriously affecting their mental health and changing their perceptions of what is normal in relationships. Girlguiding found in 2014 that 59% of girls and young women aged 13–21 had faced some form of sexual harassment at school or college. Another study found almost all (96%) of gay pupils hear homophobic language such as ‘poof’ or ‘lezza’ in school (Stonewall, 2012). More recent statistics show one in five girls are sent unwanted pornographic images (Girlguiding, 2016). School leaders report that sexting is endemic, and research by Ofsted in March 2015 found less than half of schools had implemented an acceptable policy for technology in school and that training for teachers in this area was inconsistent.

Parents, teachers and health experts understand that burying our heads in the sand is not an option. The Chairs of five cross-party select committees agree and have recommended that schools should be required to deliver age appropriate sex and relationships education to every child and young person. Most recent of these was the Women and Equalities Select Committee after it heard alarming reports of endemic sexual harassment of girls in schools – behaviour that adult women in decent workplaces would not have to put up with.

You have an opportunity to better protect children by bringing forward new legislation in the Children and Social Work Bill to ensure children are taught at school about what makes a healthy loving relationship.

This teaching needs to be age appropriate and evidence based, it should refer to the law on sexual consent and abuse, it should be informed by new technologies and it should be surrounded by specific teacher training. This training will build confidence in staff to run schools which do not tolerate harassment and instead, nurture equality. It must be part of a whole school approach whereby safeguarding and bullying policies are updated and staff able to refer cases of concern for specialist support.

We recognise that discussion about the role of schools in educating children and young people on matters related to morality and relationships is fraught, but repeated opinion polls show a very large majority of British parents and British adults believe every young person should receive this type of teaching at school. Parents want to offer support to their children but many don’t know their Snapchat from their Instagram. They are first to recognise that trained teachers would help keep their children safe.

We hope the Government will show our children and young people some love this Valentine’s Day by giving them access to the support they need to navigate the modern world, protect themselves from abuse and develop healthy relationships.

Yours sincerely,

Sarah Green and Rachel Krys, Co-Directors, End Violence Against Women Coalition
Rt Hon Maria Miller MP
Sarah Champion MP
Caroline Lucas MP
Baroness Lorely Burt
Dame Vera Baird QC, Chair of the Association of Police and Crime Commissioners
Kate Williams, Editor, Mumsnet
Girlguiding’s Advocate Panel
Laura Bates, Founder, Everyday Sexism Project
Jane Lees, Chair, Sex Education Forum
Polly Neate, CEO, Women’s Aid
Joanna Sharpen, Policy Manager, AVA (Against Violence and Abuse)
Sandra Horley CBE, Chief Executive, Refuge
Yvonne Traynor, CEO, Rape Crisis South London
Sheila Coates MBE, Director, South Essex Rape and Incest Crisis Centre & Essex Rape Crisis Partnership
Diane Whitfield and Dawn Thomas, Co- Chairwomen, Rape Crisis England and Wales