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Maggie JonesMaggie Jones on why it’s time for compulsory sex and relationship education in our schools

Today, the One Billion Rising Campaign will be coming to Parliament to sing and dance in support of our amendments in the Lords on compulsory sex and relationship education (SRE) in schools. It is a massive global campaign to end the violence to women and girls that an estimated one billion will suffer in their lifetime. It brings women together through art, dance, marches, song and testimonies to demand justice.

Here in the UK, the campaign has identified the need for compulsory SRE in schools as a major step in tackling abuse, harassment and violence against young women. The founder, Eve Ensler is working with Yvette Cooper to promote an online petition in support of this cause.

Our amendments to the Children and Families Bill address the growing and worrying evidence of the sexualisation of children, with associated patterns of abuse. The widespread access to the internet, social media and smart phones is fundamentally changing the way young people relate to each other and girls, in particular, are suffering as a result.

A recent Cardiff University study showed that even primary school children were becoming obsessed with body image and appearance;  many of the girls had boyfriends and they used the language of ‘fancying’,’ dating’ and ‘dumping’. However, many also experienced being passed around among boys and were subject to coercive or controlling behaviours. Other studies of teenagers showed sexual abuse and physical harassment becoming commonplace in schools.

When these issues were debated at Committee stage, Education Minister Lord Nash demonstrated enormous complacency, arguing that there was no need for any further guidance or legislation despite the torrent of evidence showing that girls continued to be abused. So we believe the time is right to address the failings of the Coalition’s piecemeal provision of SRE and put it on a proper footing to address 21st Century challenges.

Our amendments would ensure that the sex and relationship guidance issued to schools was updated to confront the impact of the internet and social media. More fundamentally, they would, for the first time, require SRE to be taught as a foundation subject in all key stages, in all state funded schools, in an accurate, balanced and age appropriate way. Pupils’ religious and cultural backgrounds would be taken into account, and there would be a parental opt out for pupils under 15. The emphasis of the teaching would be about the complex emotional rather than physical aspects of relationships, and would also include information on same sex relationships, sexual violence, domestic violence and active consent. 

We are joining with One Billion Rising to break the cycle of harassment and violence against women by educating children and young people to view relationships in a different way. And we’re pleased to have the backing of Mumsnet, Women’s Aid and many, many others. Good quality, compulsory SRE has a vital role to play and on this basis we hope to win support from across the House of Lords.

Baroness Maggie Jones of Whitchurch is a member of the Shadow Education team in the House of Lords. She tweets @WhitchurchGirl

Published 27th January 2014