School lessons to cover sexting, FGM and mental health

Department for Education unveils fresh guidelines for sex and health lessons in England

The Department for Education (DfE) has unveiled fresh guidelines for sex and health education across England, with relationships, cyber safety and mental health all set to be included as part of the new curriculum.

Three new subjects have been created – relationships education from primary school, relationships and sex education at secondary school, and health education for all ages in which students will learn about the importance of getting enough sleep, the dangers of sexting and how to spot anxiety in their friends.

Children as young as four will be taught about relationships, staying safe online and the link between physical and mental health.

The long-awaited package of proposed changes to relationship and sex education (RSE) are the first since 2000, after the government recognised that the current guidance was outdated.

“Almost twenty years on from the last time guidance on sex education was updated, there is a lot to catch up on,” said the education secretary, Damian Hinds.

“Although sex education is only mandatory to teach at secondary, it must be grounded in a firm understanding and valuing of positive relationships, and respect for others, from primary age.”

“In turn positive relationships are connected with good mental health, which itself is linked with physical wellbeing. So it is appropriate to make health education universal alongside relationships and sex education.”

According to the guidelines, secondary school pupils will be taught about female genital mutilation (FGM) with a focus on awareness over its illegality and the availability of support networks.

Students aged 11 and older should also be taught about other forms of “honour-based” abuse, as well as grooming, forced marriage and domestic abuse, the DfE said.

But the government’s announcement comes amid a backlash from parent groups who do not want sex education to be a mandatory part of the curriculum.

MPs are to debate a petition on Monday demanding parents retain the right to opt their child out of sex education classes in schools after more than 100,000 people stressed parents’ “fundamental right” to decide when their children are taught RSE topics. Attendance is set to become compulsory at secondary schools from September 2020.

“We have grave concerns about the physical, psychological and spiritual implications of teaching children about certain sexual and relational concepts proposed in RSE and believe that they have no place within a mandatory school curriculum,” Dr Katherine Sarah Godfrey-Faussett, the petitioner, stated.

A protest organised by the lobby group Stop RSE to “protect childhood innocence” will take place outside parliament on Monday during the debate. They plan to urge MPs to offer parents the ability to withdraw their children from sex education classes.

Former education secretary Justine Greening first proposed the reforms for secondary schools in 2017, but she had said parents would retain the right to withdraw their children from sex education.

The row over whether children should be taught about LGBT rights has been brought into focus in Birmingham where a primary teacher has been the target of protests from concerned parents at Parkfield Community school, which serves a predominantly Muslim community.

It prompted an intervention from the head of Ofsted, Amanda Spielman, who backed the teaching of same-sex relationships in primary schools, as well as secondaries.

Campaign groups welcomed sex education being made compulsory, but there has been concern that the reforms may not go far enough and could be diluted to appease conservative interest groups.

Rachel Krys, the co-director of the End Violence Against Women coalition, urged the government to make clear that the new guidance would include mandatory teaching on sex and sexuality, stereotypes about men and women, the law on consent and LGBT equality.

“Reports of sexual violence and harassment in schools are increasing, but the DfE’s previous plans included worrying references to ‘virtues’, and suggested children be taught about resisting or managing peer pressure,” she said.

“That is a message which can easily be interpreted as teaching girls that it is their sole responsibility to keep themselves safe, ignoring the realities of harassment and abuse.”

She added: “Teaching young people about the different forms of abuse of women and girls, and how they are connected to women’s inequality and stereotypical roles, is essential if children are really to learn how to have safe, healthy and respectful relationships.”

On Saturday, teachers attending a National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers (NASUWT) conference in Birmingham were concerned that many schools were failing to tackle prejudice and promote LGBTI equality.

About two-thirds of its members at the conference said that their school was not teaching children about same-sex relationships, with more than half saying there had been backlash when their school tried to teach pupils about LGBTI relationships.

Chris Keates, the general secretary of the NASUWT, said schools needed greater support, calling for action where schools did not promote inclusiveness.

“Schools should be safe environments where staff and students of all sexual and gender identities feel included and respected,” she said. “Where LGBTI equality is not mainstreamed into the work of a school this is unlikely be to the case.”


Mattha Busby

The GuardianTramp

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