After many years of campaigning on this issue, I am pleased that the government has confirmed that it will finally make sex and relationships education (SRE) compulsory in schools in England.
The Education Secretary Justine Greening has heeded Labour's calls to amend the Children and Social Work Bill so that all schools in England will have to teach children about safe and healthy relationships from the age of 4 upwards.
This is an important and overdue step, and it represents a huge victory for Labour, the police, children’s charities and domestic violence organisations who have campaigned for this change.
As part of my duties as a whip, I have been putting pressure on the government to accept amendments to this bill that would require schools to teach SRE. I am proud that the government has listened to the arguments that my Labour colleagues put forward in the long Bill Committee meetings where the bill was scrutinised and refined. Such work rarely makes the headlines or the news bulletins, but ensuring that our arguments are heard by the government is a vital part of my job. I’m in no doubt that the eloquent contributions of my Labour colleagues have been instrumental in changing the government’s mind on this issue.
The Labour Manifesto I campaigned on in 2015 included a promise to introduce compulsory SRE. That’s because we recognise that our education system has to equip young people with the tools they need to learn about healthy relationships. This is especially the case in an era where harmful and pornographic depictions of sexuality and relationships are so readily accessible through the internet and social media.
However, there are details in the government's statement which give me cause for concern. First, the government has stipulated that "parents will continue to have a right to withdraw their children from sex education." All children should receive good quality sex and relationship education in schools, and teachers should be able to deliver this without the frustrating of parents opting their children out.
Second, Justine Greening stipulated that faith schools will continue to be able to teach according to their faith. I believe firmly that the need to respect different religious views on sexuality should be balanced against the need to ensure all children, regardless of which school they attend, receive information about healthy sexual relationships, contraception and preventing unwanted pregnancy. If SRE is to be made compulsory in schools, then there should be no opt-outs, and clear guidelines to stipulate what schools must teach. I will continue to scrutinise the legislation and push the government to truly make SRE a compulsory part of every child's education.
Good quality education about sex and relationships can change lives, and it is vital in tackling domestic and sexual violence in our society. In 26 years of experience in domestic violence prevention, I can confidently say that every single abuser I worked with would have benefited from compulsory SRE lessons in school. I’m delighted that my plea for this measure to be introduced in our schools has finally been heard by the government.