Poor provision of relationships and sex education in schools is failing young people
In March 2017, Parliament made it law for all secondary schools in England to teach relationships and sex education, and relationships education in primary schools.
Schools rightly asked for time to properly implement this important new area of teaching, and the pressures of Covid-19 have understandably delayed full implementation by a further year.
The pandemic has significantly disrupted all facets of school life and education, creating extraordinary challenges for young people, teachers, and parents alike. All have worked in impossible circumstances throughout, but that has had a considerable impact on the delivery of relationships and sex education to a whole generation of school-aged children.
Relationships and sex education has deteriorated since the new law was put on the statue books
The campaign ‘Everyone’s Invited’ revealed not only the nature and prevalence of sexual harassment and abuse experienced and perpetrated by young people, it also indicated the inadequacy of relationships and sex education in the vast majority of school curriculums up and down the country. This was a problem identified by Ofsted’s resulting 2021 report which identified the importance of well-sequenced, mandatory relationships and sex education as a solution to mitigate the risks of toxic cultures of sexual abuse and harassment in schools.
Yet sadly, an important new report from the Sex Education Forum, reveals that, far from seeing relationships and sex education strengthened in schools, the teaching of this subject has deteriorated since the new law was put on the statue books. Even more concerning is that specific recommendations made by the 2021 Ofsted report, have gone largely ignored.
This report shows that far too many young people are still missing out on learning the basics around what a healthy relationship looks like, despite this being a mandatory part of the curriculum for primary and secondary schools across the country and a specific recommendation from Ofsted.
It also identifies some worrying omissions: despite clear evidence that pornography plays a destructive role in young people's understanding of healthy relationships, more than one in three young people report they still learn nothing about this topic in school, despite being a specific recommendation by Ofsted’s 2021 report.
Drawing on the direct experiences and insights of young people, this report emphasises the urgency with which schools and government must act in order to mitigate the risks and harms posed by a lack of quality relationships and sex education.
This report also acknowledges the difficulty parents have experienced tackling the issues of relationships and sex education at home, in the absence of face-to-face teaching in schools during the pandemic, with around half of young people reporting no input from their parents or carers during lockdown.
We know getting RSE right isn’t easy, yet children are clear that they want their parents and carers to have more, open discussions with them. These conversations should go hand in hand with learning the basic building blocks of healthy relationships and respect for others at primary school, with seamless progression to secondary school.
It was the voices of young people in 2017 that highlighted the failure of RSE in our schools and it was cross-party support that led to a change in the law. We must work together again to ensure it is implemented as intended.
The past two years have presented extraordinary challenges for children, and negotiating the online world, bullying, sexual harassment, and abusive relationships have only become more acute, not less.
More than ever, children need schools to play their part in delivering high-quality relationships and sex education, with the funding and resources to deliver an inclusive and comprehensive curriculum that Parliament has already put into law.
Maria Miller is the Conservative MP for Basingstoke. Sarah Champion is the Labour MP for Rotherham.
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