I RECENTLY read Professor Alexis Jay’s report on the child exploitation scandal in Rotherham. Like all MPs, I was shocked at what had happened to so many young people in the town, although we know that this was not an isolated incident.
There are cases throughout the country of children being groomed and abused in towns and cities from Rochdale to Oxford. One particular instance in Professor Jay’s report caught my eye: “The young people we met in the course of the inquiry were scathing about the sex education they received at school. They complained that it only focused on contraception… They thought the sex education was out of touch and needed to be updated.”
What also caught my eye was that, according to the report, those young people had said that when a local organisation called Risky Business had arranged awareness-raising about child sexual exploitation, they had thought that it was very good, particularly when a survivor had spoken to them about their experience.
A clear recommendation in a recent report by the Children’s Commissioner on a national approach to safeguarding and protecting children was that, as part of the national strategy to tackle abuse, we need relationship education which explains what healthy relationships look like – answering questions such as “What is sexual exploitation?” and covering issues of consent and domestic abuse.
The widespread publicity and information around the cases resulted in further victims coming forward. But we need to ensure that there is a better understanding of abuse so that children and young people are kept safe. It is for this reason we need a long-lasting approach based on a guarantee that all schools teach children good quality sex and relationship education (SRE) which includes learning to recognise and be able to talk about inappropriate sexual contact by others. Learning about what is and isn’t abusive behaviour is essential. We must respond to these cases with a legacy of education for all children.
For many years I have been convinced of the need to reform and overhaul the sex education that we provide for our young people, and to focus more widely on relationships and emotions. It is clear that the sex education that currently exists in schools is inadequate, just as the children in Rotherham said. It focuses on biology and what fits where, on sexual diseases, and on how not to get pregnant. We know that young people are often very savvy about the mechanics of sex, but lack any understanding of the potential dangers that they face.
Ofsted has stated in recent reports that SRE requires improvements in nearly 50 per cent of secondary schools. Now is the time to create a broad alliance of support for statutory sex and relationship education. A Mumsnet survey found that 92 per cent parents wanted SRE to be compulsory at secondary school and that 69 per cent wanted it to be compulsory at primary school.
Of course we want parents and families to be part of the discussions with youngsters about relationships and keeping safe, but we cannot stand back and hope that all families will have those conversations when we know that it is often the most vulnerable children who do not have family support in this area.
If we equip all our children with the tools to help them to keep safe, we will know that they have been taught how to identify abusive behaviour and the tactics of perpetrators and groomers, and that they will have learned what sexual consent actually means and what a loving and respectful relationship looks like.
We also know that there is huge support out there. End Violence Against Women, the teaching unions, Brook, the Family Planning Association, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, the Terence Higgins Trust and many others are all calling for statutory SRE.
Protecting children is everyone’s business, and schools and education have a vital part to play. This is about reinforcing good parenting, not replacing it. However, leaving it all to parents is not working.
In our free, open digital technology society, we cannot protect youngsters totally from every conceivable danger. However, a modern education can equip young people with skills that can tilt the odds in their favour and firmly against those seeking to harm or exploit them.
Diana Johnson is the Hull North MP who has introduced a Bill to Parliament broadening the scope of sex and relationship education in schools. This is an edited version.