Response to the government’s new Guidance on Relationships Education, Relationships and Sex Education, and Health Education.
The Women’s Equality Party welcomes the Guidance published by the Department for Education early this week as a positive step forward, but warns that it does not go far enough.
The Guidance, published on the 25th February, will provide a framework for all schools on how to teach relationships and sex education (RSE) from 2020. It follows a consultation launched last year, aimed at restructuring the way RSE is taught in primary and secondary schools in England.
Schools will now receive better guidance on teaching sexism, misogyny and homophobia, which WE believe is crucial to ensuring children learn from an early age about the importance of equality and respect. The new guidance also includes clear information on FGM, forced marriage, domestic violence and sexual violence, which will contribute to a culture where violence against women and girls is no longer tolerated or enabled.
There is also progress around teaching consent and a shift away from victim-blaming, as well as a renewed focus on online activities. This will help support children and young people as they navigate the complexities of first relationships, sexual pressure from peers, sexting, online sexual content and the risk of revenge porn.
This is hugely important given the level of sexual harassment and sexual violence that children are currently exposed to at school, as revealed by a 2016 report by the Women and Equalities Committee. The committee found “the sexual harassment and abuse of girls being accepted as part of daily life” in schools across the country. Therefore, although WE believe more could have done in this area, the new guidance nonetheless represents a positive step toward instilling a robust understanding of consent and mutual respect at an early age.
However, the government’s guidance is not bold enough in several key areas. The fact that primary age students will receive relationships education but not relationships and sex education will leave children, and especially girls, without the information they need at a crucial stage in their development. More and more girls are starting their periods before the age of 11 and yet they currently have to wait until secondary school to learn about menstruation and reproductive health. Moreover, without this education children will source information from other sources. The same report found “children of primary school age learning about sex and relationships through exposure to hard-core pornography.” It is therefore vital that age-appropriate sex education should be compulsory in both primary and secondary schools.
As such, WE believe that parents should not have the right to withdraw their children from RSE. All children should have the right to learn about their bodies, healthy relationships and how to relate to others. In addition, these topics should be taught by specialist teachers and providers. Education around relationships, sex and health are central for their development and should not be an after-thought in the curriculum.
Finally, WE are extremely concerned by the flexibility left to all schools under the new guidance to teach (or omit) ‘LGBT’ content. The Secretary of State for Education, Damian Hinds, has commented that 5-year olds won’t be taught about gay and trans relationships. This is sending the wrong message to the LGBT community and to children more generally. There are many children whose parents are Lesbian, Gay, Bi or Trans and many others who are questioning their own sexual orientation and/ or gender. These children need to feel supported and safe, not unseen or excluded. WE urge the government to make Relationship and Sex Education LGBT inclusive from the start of primary school, and to provide clear guidance for schools on how this should be taught.
Guilene Marco and Dianna Moylan
Equal Education Movement Builder and Spokesperson