This month, the government finally published new guidelines for teaching children about health, sex and relationships.
Relationships education will be taught in primary schools, sex education will be added at secondary school and health education will be introduced for all, covering vital topics such as staying safe online, the dangers of sexting and the link between physical and mental health.
I know that some parents feel confident covering these topics at home, but not all do, so if we don’t use the classroom to teach children about the dangers, diversity and complexity of the world around them, where will they learn? Yet we want all children to have the knowledge and skills to stay safe, showing respect and understanding for those who might be different from them.
The guidance on sex and relationship lessons hasn’t been updated since 2000, and in the past 19 years the world has been changing faster than ever before. It’s crucial that schools help children prepare for modern challenges and, although the internet offers incredible opportunities to learn and play, it also carries new risks, ranging from cyber bullying to gaming addiction and online grooming.
Like all parents, my instinct is to protect my children, and I know some people worry about exposing children to these topics before they are ready. But it’s really important that we face up to the reality of young people’s experiences. Many are exposed to harmful content, including violent pornography, at a young age, whether we like it or not. Research suggests one in 25 primary school children has been sent a naked or semi-naked image by an adult, and one in three child abuse images is now taken by the child themself.
Barnardo’s works with thousands of children as young as eight who have been sexually abused and exploited. Two-thirds of these children were first groomed online, so we know how important it is to teach young people about consent, healthy relationships, how to spot the signs of abuse and how to ask for help. They need to know the difference between a healthy relationship and abuse.
It’s also right that schools address another huge challenge: the crisis in mental health. According to NHS figures, one in eight schoolchildren has a diagnosable mental health condition. Schools play a key role, alongside health services and parents, in promoting wellbeing, intervening early and making sure children get the support they need to recover.
Overall, the guidance is a huge step forwards, but I do have two important concerns. The first is that primary schools will not be obliged to raise awareness of female genital mutilation, although secondary schools will. Most girls who suffer this terrible form of abuse are very young when it happens, and Barnardo’s, which hosts the National FGM Centre in partnership with the Local Government Association, believes this is a missed opportunity to help keep girls safe.
Our second concern is that primary schools will not be required to include same-sex relationships in their curricula. It’s really important that children with LGBT parents, or who are LGBT themselves, do not feel excluded or marginalised and that all young people learn about the values of equality, diversity and inclusion that we hold in modern Britain.
I know there are parents and communities who don’t feel comfortable with their children learning about these topics at school, and we need to take this seriously. I would expect schools and local authorities to respond sensitively to concerns and work closely with parents so that no child misses out on learning how to stay safe and understand the world around them. This might mean reasonable adjustments, such as covering some topics in an all-girls or all-boys environment, for example.
History has shown that education and knowledge don’t threaten our beliefs or morality – instead, they encourage mutual respect and understanding.
I’m confident that this new guidance will help to keep children safe, happy and healthy. The challenge now is to make sure schools and teachers receive the right training and resources to deliver effective, high-quality lessons.
Javed Khan is chief executive of Barnardo’s