A leading Coalition of women’s organisations has written to Education Secretary Damian Hinds MP today (7 November) saying that the Government’s ‘Relationships and Sex Education’ proposals are poor and will fail girls unless significantly amended and joined up to other school policies (1).
The End Violence Against Women Coalition is extremely concerned about the Government’s proposals which:
- permit faith schools to teach marriage only;
- include repeated references to “self-control”, “managing peer pressure” and “resisting pressure to have sex”;
- lack clarity on teaching the law on abuse and on equality (and make FGM and forced marriage optional areas of teaching only);
- make only single references to pornography and menstruation;
- fail to make a strong enough link with the likelihood of young people disclosing abuse after lessons and being prepared for this in school;
- continue to permit parents to withdraw children (up to the age of 15) from ‘sex education’.
Women’s groups fear that if implemented the proposed ‘Relationships and Sex Education’ statutory guidance will be a missed opportunity to ensure schools are part of efforts to end and prevent abuse of women and girls. The proposals follow recent revelations that schools and local authorities are being sued for failing girls who have been raped at school (2).
In March 2017 a cross-party group of MPs worked together to change the law and make ‘Relationships and Sex Education’ compulsory in every school in England for the first time (3). The new statutory guidance sets out what schools should cover, and every primary and secondary school in England will be expected to use it to develop and implement their teaching in this area.
The 2017 change in the law followed multiple inquiries and reports on child sexual exploitation, high levels of abuse in teen relationships, and endemic sexual harassment and assaults on girls in and out of school, as well as the widespread exposure of children and young people to online pornography (4). It was clear in 2017 that the ensuing statutory guidance had to ensure these issues were covered in detail, with adequate teacher training, and joining up with school child protection policies.
EVAW Coalition Co-Director Sarah Green said:
“Damian Hinds’ proposed ‘relationships and sex education’ guidance for schools is a significant climbdown and not in the spirit of what was promised last year.
“The law was changed because of widespread recognition by cross-party MPs and a large majority of the public that the reality of abuse, not least that enabled by technology, meant compulsory relationships and sex education had become a necessity.
“But the DfE’s proposals give a green light to schools whose leaders choose to teach only very traditional notions of sexuality, relationships and gender norms, and is generally squeamish about sex and sexuality.
“In 2018 we cannot continue to allow schools to pick and choose whether they permit young people to have lessons and discussion on sex and sexuality, respect, stereotypes about men and women, the law on consent, and LGBT equality.
“There’s no seriousness in what is proposed about ensuring ‘RSE’ is really part of dealing with the widespread sexual harassment of and sexual assaults against girls, even though parents are taking schools and local authorities to court when they have failed to protect.
“We urge MPs, teachers, young people and parents to let the Government know – this is not what was promised and you ‘could do better’.”
An anonymous mother who is petitioning the DfE to radically improve its approach said:
“My daughter went through hell because her school failed to understand how to prevent sexual violence and how to deal with an allegation. If the Department for Education continues to abdicate responsibility for the safety of girls in schools, more and more girls will suffer. The RSE curriculum needs to be robust, comprehensive and for every child. Look me in the eye, the mother of a child rape survivor, and tell me that I could have kept her safe by educating her better. No, someone needed to educate the lad who raped her. It is negligent to pretend that we can rely on all parents doing this effectively. We need to stop being squeamish about sex and realise that sex education is about keeping children safe. It’s a health and safety issue, and there is no place for get out clauses here.”
The EVAW Coalition has made a detailed submission to the consultation on the draft guidance highlighting concern about the proposals’ considerable deference to faith schools who are permitted to teach only very traditional notions of sexuality, marriage and relationships, and are not clearly required to cover different forms of abuse of women and girls, and how they are connected to women’s inequality and stereotypical roles.
The Coalition is particularly alarmed to read repeated references to teaching “virtues” including “self-control” and resisting/managing peer (sexual) pressure, which read along the lines of abstinence ideas, while giving no thought to the ongoing coercion which is already a reality in many girls’ lives, and what it is like to live with ongoing abuse and harassment. It is appalling that FGM and forced marriage have been left as optional areas of teaching. The failure to include enough guidance and advice to enable schools to prepare for disclosures of abuse following RE/RSE lessons is indicative of the failure to truly appreciate the prevalence of abuse, the context many girls live in and their right to protection and safety.
- The full text of the letter to Damian Hinds, and the EVAW Coalition’s submission to the DfE consultation are available here.
- Ongoing legal challenges against schools and local authorities have been exposed in the Guardian and TES.
- A cross-party group of MPs amended the law in 2017, making Relationships and Sex Education compulsory in all schools in England.
- Evidence to the Women and Equalities Select Committee inquiry covered all these forms of abuse and more (2016).