Children's desire for Sex and Relationship Education is a 'cry for help'
Current sex education curriculum is outdated and does not address the dramatic impact the internet has on young people's relationships says Maria Miller MP.
Today I have called a debate in the House of Commons, supported by leading charities Barnardo’s, Terrance Higgins Trust, The Children’s Society, National Children’s Bureau and Plan International UK, to ask the Government to make Sex and Relationship Education Compulsory.
Many people might be surprised by the latest Barnardo’s research that 7 in 10 secondary school children in this country want Sex and Relationship Education (SRE) to be a compulsory part of their school week. This revealing new research is less surprising if we look hard at the reality of children’s lives today. Whilst at Primary school most children will have their first mobile phone; most will have seen pornography online; and 1 in 5 will have experienced cyberbullying. By the time teenagers leave secondary school 6 in 10 will have been asked for a digital sexual image of themselves, usually by a friend. Many will have discovered that private digital images of themselves can be passed on to thousands of people at the touch of a button. Removing these images from the worldwide web is all but impossible leaving difficult conversations with family, future employers and friends.
The internet has changed everyone’s lives. For children growing up, life is more complex than ever and Barnardo’s research should be seen as a cry for help. Compulsory Sex and Relationship education can help more children understand what a good relationship is and to make better decisions in this early part of their life.
In the Women and Equalities Select Committee Report on Sexual Harassment in Schools we concluded that compulsory SRE would help children deal with and challenge the tide of abuse at school that young girls now see as part of their daily life. Increased abuse which could well be the online world seeping into the offline world too.
And its not just children asking for help. New research today published by Plan International UK shows 8 in 10 adults think that compulsory SRE should be taught in all schools regardless of the school’s status.
There is a real sense that the tide is turning. We should all applaud work David Cameron did in outlawing child abuse images online. He showed that the internet industry can act. And we can welcome the work now being done by Government to put effective age restrictions in place for online pornography websites. Important work has been done by the mobile phone industry making parental controls standard.
With children spending up to 27 hours a week online parents cant always be on hand and many confess to feeling out of their depth. We need children to be able to make informed choices. We need children to understand that sexting is illegal, that it could affect their own mental health, leave them open to extortion and limit their future career choices; that pornography doesn't reflect a normal loving relationship; and that bullying behaviour online is just as unacceptable as bullying behaviour offline.
At the moment schools are relaying guidance that was agreed 17 years ago when the internet was still out of reach of most children. Little wonder OFSTED recently judged 40% of schools inadequate in their teaching of SRE.
Who are we to ignore children calling for change? Children have but one chance of a childhood. We know the damage done by cyberbullying, sexting and underage viewing of extreme pornography can last a lifetime - we have an obligation to act now.
Government cannot allow the challenges brought on by the UKs decision to leave the EU to delay or eclipse the need to act.
Maria Miller is the Conservative Member of Parliament for Basingstoke, South East, and is the Chair of the Select Committee on Women and Equalities
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