This week, I’ll be enjoying my first full day back at school in six months. As I start year 11, I am concerned about my GCSEs and how behind I am because of the pandemic.
Mostly though, I worry about the generation of children whose sex education will be incomplete because schools will prioritise exam results over students’ wellbeing.
This September, sex education becomes mandatory in all state-funded schools. This landmark change has taken years of cross-party campaigning by MPs and charities, and is a massive victory for school children.
Unfortunately, the deadline for implementation has already been pushed back to summer term 2021, in part because of the pandemic.
“Being harassed has certainly been a regular part of growing up for me. I have repeatedly faced sexual harassment while in my uniform.”
Schools up and down the country will be under immense pressure to make up for lost time caused by Covid-19.
Students who fail to achieve a grade 4 in maths, science and/or English are now required to retake their exams, so teachers will put these targets first. Such a move is understandable of course; we need our core GCSEs.
Yet, a decision to prioritise “academic” subjects over sex education could have enormous unintended consequences.
As a teenage girl, I think nothing is more important than being taught about topics like consent, periods, and violence against women and girls.
Take PSH – public sexual harassment, or “catcalling” as it is often referred to. This is the most common form of violence against women, and a sad part of the majority of schoolgirls’ lives.
Leading children’s charity Plan International UK found in 2016 that 66% of girls in the UK have faced sexual attention in a public place, with 38% being subject to this behaviour monthly. These figures rose amongst BAME and LGBTQ+ girls because of dual discrimination.
Being harassed has certainly been a regular part of growing up for me. I have repeatedly faced sexual harassment while in my uniform. From sexual comments about my body to being followed by cars, my journey to secondary school has never felt safe.
I was 11 the first time I faced harassment. I remember feeling confused and ashamed, wondering whether it was my fault for wearing shorts that day.
Looking back, I wish that I had been taught about consent and victim-blaming before this happened. Luckily, I decided to talk to someone about my experience. It was only after talking to my older sister that I began to understand that what those men had done was not my fault.
The combination of schools neither teaching about this violence nor responding
to it effectively sends out a dangerous message to children that PSH is normal. It leads girls to blame themselves, and is a crucial reason why 42% of girls tell no one about their experience (Plan UK, 2016).
This is why in April last year, my sister and I launched the Our Streets Now
campaign, calling on the UK government to make public sexual harassment
(PSH) a criminal offence.
We’ve also published a series of online resources for students and teachers to tackle this issue.
As I look towards my future beyond secondary school, I know very little of what’s in store. What I do know however is that unless sex education schemes like ours are successfully implemented across the UK, one thing I can (unfortunately) count on in the coming years is that I will continue to be a victim of public sexual harassment.
Gemma Tutton is a 15-year-old student and co-founder of the Our Streets Now campaign.