That sex and relationships education (SRE) needs to become statutory in ALL schools was the headline recommendation from the all-party Education Select Committee last year. This very clear conclusion to their inquiry into SRE and personal, social, health and economic (PSHE) education was music to our ears at the Sex Education Forum. But almost 12 months on, the silence from government is deafening.
During this quiet spell we asked young people about their experiences of SRE, and the gaps we have uncovered are alarming. We obtained the views of over 2000 young people and half (50%) had not learnt from their primary school about how to get help if you experience unwanted touching or sexual abuse. In addition, 16% had not learnt the correct names for genitalia and (17%) had not learnt that their genitals are private, all key to recognising and reporting abuse. In fact, young people were more likely to have learnt about the difference between safe and unwanted touch from discussions at home than at school, but even so, less than half of young people (45%) said they had learnt about this with a parent or carer.
Three years ago Ofsted highlighted that the failure to teach correct terms for sexual parts of the body in primary school is a safeguarding issue, and we know from conversations with teachers that there is genuine anxiety about what terms to use for genitalia and whether or not to include them when naming body parts. Yet there is still no Government guidance to clarify either way.
There is no shortage of evidence that SRE is needed and that it protects children: a Cochrane review found that 'Children who are taught about preventing sexual abuse at school are more likely than others to tell an adult if they had, or were actually experiencing sexual abuse' (2015) and a Children's Commissioner inquiry revealed that as few as one in eight victims of sexual abuse are reported to authorities.
Sadly, the odds of young people learning about safe, equal and enjoyable relationships through school SRE are no different to the toss of a coin. Over half (53%) of the young people we surveyed did not learn how to recognise grooming for sexual exploitation and more than four in ten had not learned about healthy or abusive relationships. Young people are even less likely to have learnt about sexual pleasure - 60% had not. Surely we want the next generation of young people to grow up and have relationships and sex that are enjoyable and safe? What we know from the evidence is that when young people have good quality SRE they are more likely to have sex for the first time at an older age, contraception and condoms are more likely to be used, and first sex is less likely to be against their will.
Nicky Morgan has talked positively about the importance of SRE, and described PSHE as a priority, but there is no indication of how this will be delivered for all children. The failure to act on the evidence that SRE protects children and young people from abuse and harm is shameful and the only excuse given by Government for their apparent disinterest in statutory status is that teachers know best and can determine what their pupils need. But no child chooses to be abused and every child has a right to information about their body, sexual development and consent. Furthermore teachers back the call for statutory SRE and the possibility of proper training in the subject that is beckoned by a change in legislation.
So what next? Together with our members, the Sex Education Forum will keep the pressure up and demand an answer from Government. A growing list of politicians are helping to turn up the heat; a letter signed by four Chairs of Select Committees has called for the Secretary of State to take action on SRE and PSHE in 2016. And on Friday (22 January) Caroline Lucas' PSHE Bill is due to be presented in the Commons for Second Reading. If you agree that there is no excuse for inaction, please ask your MP to support the Bill on Friday.
Full details about the survey can be found in: 'Heads or Tails: What young people tell us about sex and relationships education' at sexeducationforum.org.uk