The consensus on the need for compulsory sex education has never been stronger, but it’s understandable that campaigners are impatient, says Freddie Whittaker
As pressure mounts on the government to make personal, social, health and economic education (PSHE) and sex education compulsory in all schools, speculation is building over the form such a move could take.
Behind closed doors in Whitehall, ministers and civil servants are drawing up a plan to include something on this subject in the new children and social work bill, but campaigners are understandably impatient.
The Labour MP Stella Creasy has been critical of the government’s decision to quash her attempt to change the law earlier this week, and Green Party MP Caroline Lucas will continue to push her own PSHE bill next week.
We can only hope ministers don’t miss this huge opportunity to right an historic wrong
But the government has asked MPs to sit tight while it makes its own plan, which means we may hear something sooner rather than later. The question is, will it be enough?
The background to all this is that we currently have an inconsistant approach to sex education in England, which has become more trouble than it’s worth. The government is acting because it has to.
As more and more schools become academies, which do not have to follow the national curriculum, the less certain we can be about the quality and scope of sex education in classrooms, or indeed whether it is happening at all.
This problem has been growing for a while, but in recent years consensus has grown around increased awareness and prevalence of issues like sexual harassment in schools, sexting, revenge porn and the availability of pornography more generally.
Ministers now seem to agree with the growing consensus in parliament and in the schools community that there should be a move to widen the scope of compulsory sex ed, but are grappling with the question of how to force academies to do it.
One option available to the government is to beef up the safeguarding responsibilities of councils to include sex ed within a wider compulsory PSHE framework.
Councils are already responsible for safeguarding in all schools, both maintained and academies, so adding a compulsory PSHE element to their duties, on which they would be rated by Ofsted, would mean they would have to be proactive in making schools teach it.
This is what Creasy and co proposed last month, but their bid to amend the children and social work bill to include new rules for councils failed earlier this week.
Edward Timpson, the children’s minister, got his MPs to vote down the amendment in the name of consensus – he says he wants to bring “more people” with him, and claims the government is still working on its own plan, which it plans to introduce later on in the bill’s passage.
Another option would be to include in the bill a straightforward statutory duty for schools themselves (or rather their ‘proprietors’ – academy trusts, governors, etc.) to provide PSHE.
Schools Week understands the government could also amend its statutory guidance on keeping children safe in education to include some PSHE provision, but that would not need primary legislation, and as such is unlikely to be included in the bill.
Although the devil is in the detail, the rhetoric from ministers now makes some kind of universal duty to provide sex education and PSHE look almost inevitable.
In six months, the government’s position has moved from Justine Greening’s pledge to “look at” the issue to the following statement from Timpson on Tuesday:
“Now is the time to make sure that every child has access to effective, factually accurate, age-appropriate sex and relationships education and PSHE. That is why we are responding positively and strongly to calls for further action.”
However you read that, it’s pretty clear that the government wants change, and wants it soon. We can only hope ministers don’t miss this huge opportunity to right an historic wrong.