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Since Labour Tried To Improve School Sex Education In 2010, Arguments In Favour Have Only Become Stronger

31/01/2017 08:27 | Updated 31 January 2017
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When I served as schools minister during the final months of the last Labour Government, I had the honour of working on our plans to dramatically improve the way young people were taught sex and relationships education (SRE) in schools.
 
By this time, it had become apparent that SRE in our schools was in urgent need of improvement. Ofsted was telling us that SRE was poor or required improvement in over a third of schools. Young people themselves were saying the same thing. Nearly 15% said they did not get any SRE at all in their schools. Another three-quarters said they were learning nothing about consent during lessons.
 
Once we asked parents and students whether they wanted to see this improved, we discovered that the overwhelming majority - 88% of parents; and 99% of young people - said yes. They too wanted to see more investment in such a vital subject.
 
To address this, we tried to introduce a new duty on all schools to teach a broader subject in the national curriculum: Personal Social Health and Economic Education (PSHE). Whilst under the current law only council-controlled secondary schools were required to teach SRE, this new requirement would extend to primary schools and academies.
 
The guidance issued to schools on the teaching of SRE, which dated from 2000, also needed to be updated for the challenges of the modern age. It needed to cover issues such as internet abuse, violence against women and girls, same-sex relationships and transsexuality.
 
We tried to introduce these changes in our Children, Schools and Families Act 2010.  Unfortunately, all our efforts came to nothing. Because of opposition from Conservative Parliamentarians, these proposals were dropped from the final text of the Act.
 
In the seven years since, a number of MPs have been trying, without success, to get the Government to change their minds. Over this same period, the requirements on schools to teach SRE have become weaker. With the academisation of our schools, now more and more are not required to teach SRE - just 40% of secondary schools are now subject to this legal requirement.
 
When we first tried to change the law in 2010, we already knew that some appalling attitudes to women were endemic in certain parts of our society. Some shocking cases, such as the murders of Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman, had also convinced many that young primary school children needed to be taught in an age appropriate way about keeping safe and what to do if they felt worried.
 
It would be an understatement to say that since then, the arguments for changing the law have only become stronger.
 
The appalling child abuse revelations following the death of Jimmy Savile have shown us that child sexual exploitation is much more widespread than previously thought - it is now estimated that 5,000 young people are being sexually exploited at any one time. With police cuts and the limited powers of the Disclosure and Barring Service we now worry that some children are much more vulnerable than previously thought.
 
We also know more than ever about the unacceptable attitudes to women, and consent, which are still held by many. Half of all female students say are sexually harassed every single time they go to a nightclub; half of all women in the workplace say they have been harassed; and one quarter of the female population has experienced domestic abuse, many on more than one occasion. On top of this, now have an American President who himself has boasted that he can "do anything" to any woman he wants.
 
If there was ever a time for the Government to reconsider their opposition to statutory SRE, it is now. That is why, later today, I will lead a Parliamentary debate calling on the Government to finally make SRE a statutory requirement in all state-funded schools - including academies, free schools and any new grammar schools which they set up. They have the opportunity to finally do this by accepting amendments to the Children and Social Work Bill currently going through Parliament.
 
They need to come as close as possible to the proposals Labour originally drew up by guaranteeing young people broader teaching on consent; updating the current seventeen-year-old guidance on the teaching of SRE; and educating them for modern-day dangers like keeping safe online and being aware of grooming.
 
I do not claim that statutory SRE is the whole answer to all these problems. We must also, for example, increase legal safeguards for children and toughen the laws around domestic abuse. But unless we combat these attitudes in our schools, it will prove impossible to address these issues later. Now more than ever, the Government needs to change their minds on this issue.

Diana Johnson is the Labour MP for Hull North

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