Pressure is mounting on the government to introduce compulsory sex and relationships education (SRE) in schools after five chairs of parliamentary select committees sent a strongly worded letter to the education secretary demanding a change in policy.
The letter criticises the government’s “lacklustre” response earlier this week to a new report by the women and equalities committee in parliament, which revealed that sexual abuse of girls had become “accepted as part of everyday life” in England’s schools.
One of the report’s key recommendations, which the government sidestepped, was that personal, social, health and economic education (PSHE), including up-to-date SRE, should be made a mandatory part of the school curriculum.
Wednesday’s letter expresses regret that the education secretary, Justine Greening, has failed to seize the opportunity provided by the report, and urges her to “engage constructively” with a private member’s bill currently before the house on the same subject or bring forward her own proposals. It also says that failing to act on PSHE will have consequences for the education and life chances of young people in schools.
Quoting the report, the letter says sexual harassment and sexual violence in schools is having an impact on young people and school life. Consequences include “physical and emotional harm, including teenage pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases; girls feeling unable to participate in educational and extra-curricular opportunities; teachers spending valuable time dealing with incidents of sexual harassment and bullying; and young people developing a sense that sexual harassment and sexual violence are acceptable behaviours and learning social norms that are carried through to adult life.”
Hopes were raised when Greening appeared before the cross-party education committee soon after her appointment in September, and told MPs she was looking into the question of statutory status for PSHE and ways to improve the teaching of it.
“We ask that you give serious thought to this proposal and the benefits that would arise from it,” the letter states. “We also ask you to consider the consequences of failing to act, not only on the quality of education in England but also for the lifelong consequences which can result from patchy or inadequate access to PSHE and SRE.”
The letter is signed by the Tory MP Neil Carmichael, chair of the education committee; Maria Miller, the Tory chair of the women and equalities committee; Labour’s Yvette Cooper, chair of the home affairs committee; the Tory Dr Sarah Wollaston, chair of the health committee; and the Labour MP Iain Wright, chair of the business, energy and industrial strategy committee. It is the second letter on this theme the joint chairs have sent to the secretary of state; the last was in January.
One of the key issues concerning campaigners who are calling for compulsory PSHE and SRE in schools is the impact of “sexting”, which can lead some pupils to feel so distressed if images of them are shared that they have to move schools.
On Tuesday, the health secretary, Jeremy Hunt, suggested under-18s should be prevented by social media companies from texting sexually explicit images. Giving evidence to the Commons health committee on suicide prevention efforts, Hunt said social media firms needed to do more to combat the culture of online intimidation and sexual imagery, which is having a negative impact on the mental health of young people.
“I think social media companies need to step up to the plate and show us how they can be the solution to the issue of mental ill health amongst teenagers, and not the cause of the problem,” he said. “There is a lot of evidence that the technology industry, if they put their mind to it, can do really smart things.”
Responding to the letter, the Department for Education said the government is looking at options to ensure that all children have access to high quality sex and relationship education. “High quality sex and relationship education is a vital part of preparing young people for success in adult life – helping them make informed choices, stay safe and learn to respect themselves and others.”
Meanwhile, teaching unions said the government should demand a “zero-tolerance approach” to sexual harassment and violence in schools, and give extra resources to teach pupils about sex and personal relationships.
“Yet again the government’s response is to do nothing,” said Russell Hobby, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, whose members have long campaigned for PSHE lessons to be included in the national curriculum.
“PSHE is crucial to provide time in the curriculum to discuss important and sensitive issues, and to protect teachers when grappling with these subjects. To tackle sexual harassment and sexual violence, education has to be the key, with good quality age-appropriate sex and relationship education, and PSHE for all pupils.”
Chris Keates, general secretary of the NASUWT teachers’ union, said schools had been forced to cut back on teaching about personal relationships because of budget cuts and pressures on timetables. “Schools should be places of safety, yet research undertaken by the NASUWT shows that all too often pupils, and also teachers, are being exposed to sexualised comments, threats and abuse,” Keates said.
“The government needs to set out how schools can secure a zero-tolerance approach to sexual harassment and bullying by providing clear guidance on how to deal with these issues and to ensure that all schools record, report and take effective action whenever incidents of sexual violence and harassment involving pupils occur.”
The report said 29% of 16- to 18-year-old girls had experienced unwanted sexual touching at school, while more than two-thirds of both boys and girls reported hearing words like “slut” or “slag” aimed at girls in school on a regular basis. In total, 59% of girls and young women aged between 13 and 21 said they had faced some form of sexual harassment at school or college within the past year.
In its response to the MPs, the government suggested a “holistic” school-based approach, with individual schools developing their own codes of practice. It also promised to establish a new advisory group to the Department for Education.
“Schools must also be supported in tackling the problem. It must be recognised that sexual harassment and violence is a societal problem which cannot be left to schools to tackle alone,” it said.
But the National Union of Teachers said the government needed to make appropriate PSHE compulsory to ensure that schools made time for it. “Parents understand that growing up is complicated and can be challenging. They expect schools to help teach students about relationships, safety and equality, but the exam factory culture – which is fuelled by government policy – limits the scope for these important parts of learning,” said Rosamund McNeil, the NUT’s head of education and equal opportunities.
Yvette Cooper MP, who chairs the home affairs select committee, added: “At a time when harassment and violence in teenage relationships is growing, and when young people are exposed to violent online pornography or bullying linked to sexting, the current patchy and inadequate approach to sex and relationships education just isn’t working.
“Leaving sex and relationships education to chance means leaving young people to think this sort of behaviour is normal – that it should be tolerated. Teenagers need to learn respect in relationships – for themselves and for each other – as well as how to cope with online challenges.”