Sex and relationships education is to become compulsory for all school children in England, the education secretary announced on Wednesday.
In a much-anticipated statement, Justine Greening declared that all primary schools will be required to teach students from the age of four about safe and healthy relationships from September 2019.
Secondary pupils will also be given “age appropriate” sex and relationships education (SRE), though parents will retain the right to withdraw their children from sex ed lessons.
Religious schools will be allowed to teach these subjects “in accordance with the tenets of their faith,” the Tory MP said.
The amendments to the Children and Social Work Bill set to be tabled by the government represent a huge shake up of the national curriculum.
Present SRE guidelines - last updated in 2000 - leave thousands of pupils at academies and independent schools in the dark, with only state schools required to teach students about the biological aspects of intercourse.
However, they are not currently compelled to give lessons about the social and emotional aspects of relationships such as consent, and LGBT sex and relationships are not on the curriculum at all.
It is expected that under new guidelines, students will be given lessons about pornography, grooming and online exploitation.
Greening said in a statement: “The statutory guidance for Sex and Relationships Education was introduced in 2000 and is becoming increasingly outdated.
“It fails to address risks to children that have grown in prevalence over the last 17 years, including cyber bullying, ‘sexting’ and staying safe online.”
The announcement has been celebrated by a number of MPs and charities who have campaigned for the changes to be brought in:
Barnardo’s chief executive Javed Khan said the children’s charity was “thrilled” by the news.
“Barnardo’s has long campaigned for this vital education so children can better understand the dangers in the real world and online. We believe this will give children the knowledge and skills they need to help prevent them being groomed and sexually exploited .”
The Church of England has also come out in support of the amendment, with the Rt Rev Stephen Conway saying parents can no longer shield children from issues as they have in the past.
Conway said in a statement: “If we want children to build resilience it is important to start young, teaching them about strong and healthy relationships.”
But sexual health charity the Terrence Higgins Trust said that the changes must be inclusive of LGBT sex and relationships to be effective.
Chief executive Ian Green said: “With one in seven young people not receiving any sex and relationships education at all, this landmark decision could potentially change young lives for generations to come.
“However, in order to fully address the sexual and mental health crisis among young people, we will need to ensure that any legislation around SRE has a strong emphasis on neglected topics such as sexual health and on LGBT relationships, in order to tackle high rates of STIs among young people and ongoing homophobia in our school corridors.”
The news has been met with outrage from some parents’ organisations.
The Safe at School Campaign called the announcement a “tragedy”.
National co-ordinator Antonia Tully told the BBC: “Parents will be absolutely powerless to protect their children from presentations of sexual activity, which we know is part of many sex education teaching resources for primary school children.
“The state simply cannot safeguard children in the same way that parents can. This proposal is sending a huge message to parents that they are unfit to teach their own children about sex.