There’s a rumour going around Westminster that the Government is planning to make Sex and Relationships Education (SRE) compulsory in the New Year…
Of course, there are rumours going around Westminster all the time, and very few of them actually amount to anything. But I am particularly excited about this one, as I have been campaigning for compulsory SRE for years.
This possible announcement comes not only as a consequence of lobbying from myself and my Labour colleagues, but also from pressure from children’s charities, the police, and from domestic violence organisations. Two Select Committees and MPs from across the house recently called for compulsory SRE. More and more, there’s a consensus that a thorough education about consent, relationships, sexual violence and other issues like pornography and sexting could vastly improve the world we live in.
The reality is that there is a growing trend of sexual harassment in schools: a terrifying 59% of girls say they have been sexually harassed in school or college. I know that teachers want to have conversations about sex and relationships with their pupils, but many do not receive the training they need, or have to face the frustration of parents opting their children out. Young people deserve to know about the world they live in – what their rights are, what the law is, and how they should treat each other. On topics like consent, young people are often left to guess how they should behave – sometimes with tragic and disastrous consequences.
It is not enough just to teach young people the biological basics of reproduction. ‘How not to get pregnant and catch STIs’, although important, is such a small part of what young people need to know about sex. Young people need to know that they can leave an abusive relationship, or that they can seek help if they are being abused, or what the consequences of harassing their classmates are.
And this won’t just help reduce sexual harassment in schools. I strongly believe that early education about sex and relationships will have a wider impact on domestic violence. For example, it is widely believed that men are more likely to under-report being the victims of domestic violence and abuse. Conversations at a young age and in a safe environment could break down the stigma faced by men and raise a generation of men who feel able to seek help. Similarly, potential perpetrators of domestic violence will have had an insight into the impact of their actions before they ever come to hurt their partner. It may well be that SRE gives them the capacity to reflect so that they never offend.
This isn’t just speculation: for 26 years before I was elected I worked in domestic violence responses and prevention, and I can say with confidence that every domestic abuser I worked with would have benefitted from better SRE. When I worked with young people in schools, they always appreciated more information and more chances to discuss what a safe relationship looks like. Every young person should have this – which is why I want no opt outs, and every school to have to provide high quality SRE.
So I say to Justine Greening, Secretary of State for Education, please, please go ahead with this decision. It is the right thing to do – and teachers, charities, parents, and the police are saying so.