It’s a long time since Theresa May and most of her cabinet were at school. When she was doing her O-levels, no one was sexting and teenage boys weren’t goggling at violent porn on smartphones. I think it’s unlikely that the future prime minister had to wear shorts under her school skirt to protect herself from being groped, as some teenage girls have taken to doing. But that doesn’t mean May and her colleagues have any excuse for ignoring what’s going on in schools today, from sexual harassment to homophobic bullying.
They’ve been warned by MPs on the women and equalities committee, in an excoriating report that revealed the “shocking scale” of sexual harassment in schools. They’ve been told by the campaigning organisation Stonewall, which published a survey three years ago in which 86% of secondary teachers said they had encountered bullying of gay pupils. They follow the news, like the rest of us, and they must know about dreadful cases in which girls and boys have been tricked into meeting paedophiles who disguised themselves as teenagers online.
They have also been told by just about everyone that the best way to keep children safe is to insist that every school in the country teaches high-quality sex and relationships education (SRE) and the broader subject of personal, social, health and economic (PSHE) education – no ifs, no buts, and no exemptions for faith schools. Teachers’ or parents’ embarrassment is not a reason to deny children absolutely essential information about how to avoid sexual predators, online or in real life.
After the “grooming” scandals in Rotherham, Rochdale, Oxford and other cities, you might think this was a no-brainer. Yet ministers have done everything but stand on their heads to avoid it. Last week Conservatives in the House of Commons were accused of filibustering a bill sponsored by Green co-leader Caroline Lucas, calling for PSHE to be made compulsory in all state-funded schools, by making lengthy speeches about the bill that preceded it. A change in the law isn’t necessary, ministers have claimed, because Ofsted is checking that the subject is being covered and will pick up any inadequacies during inspections. Just over a year ago a Home Office minister, Lord Bates, said: “We expect sex and relationships education to be taught in all schools. In fact, it is inspected by Ofsted as such.” A similar point was made last year by Lady Evans, then a government whip and now leader of the House of Lords.
Presumably they had in mind Ofsted’s latest inspection framework, introduced in 2015, which made considering the effectiveness of PSHE “more crucial than ever” to the judgments made by inspectors. Now, though, that argument (like all previous ones) has been blown out of the water. It turns out that Ofsted is barely looking at SRE when it inspects schools, according to a detailed analysis by the British Humanist Association.
The headline finding, from a study of more than 2,000 primary and secondary school inspection reports for 2015-16, is that sexual health, safe sex and related subjects were almost entirely absent. Sexual harassment and sexual violence were not mentioned at all, while sexting appeared in just 17 reports, despite having been identified as an area of major concern by the government. Porn was mentioned in a single report, as was HIV/Aids, which appeared in relation to “emerging economies” in a geography lesson. Only one in seven reports referred to LGBT issues.
Back in 2013, Ofsted said that the provision of PSHE was “not yet good enough” in 40% of schools. It is hard to believe there has been a massive improvement in the meantime, yet fewer than 1% of the inspection reports examined by the BHA made any criticism of schools’ coverage of the subject. To be fair to Ofsted, it should never have been given the job of making up for the government’s failure in this area. If SRE isn’t compulsory, some schools will say they don’t want to divert scarce resources from other subjects or that they can’t find room in the timetable. Others will use it as an excuse to avoid topics, such as homosexuality and safe sex, that they find uncomfortable for religious or ideological reasons.
What all this means, in blunt terms, is that the government is coming up with one excuse after another to avoid doing one of its most basic jobs: protecting the next generation. We know girls are being sexually harassed at school, pressured into posing for photos that may be used to threaten or humiliate them, and suffering abuse from boyfriends whose expectations have been warped by online porn. We know that gay kids are being bullied, and children of both sexes are vulnerable to predatory sex offenders.
For several years now, senior police officers in London have been telling me that compulsory sex education is vital to keep children safe. A few months ago, I heard a senior civil servant talk about the staggering number of crimes against children that are being facilitated by the internet. This is not the cosy world May grew up in, when sex and reproduction were covered in biology lessons and mobile phones didn’t exist.
It is not even the world of 17 years ago, when the government published its outdated official guidance on SRE. Children are encountering sex at a much younger age than in earlier generations, but a head-in-the-sand government is refusing to make sure they are well-informed and safe.