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Hull MP launches Relationships Education Bill to help fight child sex abuse

Hull North MP Diana Johnson gave the speech below in the House of Commons today to launch her Sex and Relationships Education (Curriculum) Bill.

Diana Johnson (Kingston upon Hull North) (Lab):
I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require the Secretary of State to make provision to include education about sex and relationships, resilience against bullying and sexual abuse and ending violence against women and girls in the national curriculum; and for connected purposes.

I am very pleased to have the opportunity to present this Bill. I do so in view of the many disturbing cases of child abuse and exploitation that have come to light around the country recently. They include abuse in Derby, Telford, Peterborough and Rotherham and in north Wales care homes, and high-profile cases such as those of Jimmy Savile and Rolf Harris. There is also an ever-growing online threat. There are more opportunities for those who wish to harm our children to have unfettered online access to them. Tens of thousands of people are known to access child abuse images online, and I believe that we have reached a point at which we must think afresh about what more can be done to keep our children and young people as safe as possible from child sexual exploitation and abuse. One part of that will be ensuring that all children have access to effective, high-quality, evidence-based relationship and sex education in all schools.

I recently read Professor Jay’s report on the child exploitation scandal in Rotherham. Like all Members, I was shocked at what had happened to so many young people in the town, although we know that that 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. Paragraph 8.13 states:

“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—and which is delivered in all schools by people with specialist expertise and knowledge.

Jane Lees, chair of the Sex Education Forum, has said:

“The details of the Harris and Savile cases have been shocking, in particular, the long periods of time during which victims suffered in silence and the wide range of ages of children and adults that were abused. The widespread publicity and information around the cases helpfully 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 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 to help keep children safe from harm. We must respond to these cases by creating a legacy of guaranteed 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 and threats that they face.

Ofsted has stated in recent reports that SRE requires improvements in nearly 50% of secondary schools. Students felt that there was too little teaching about relationships and too much emphasis on the mechanics of reproduction, and that lessons in personal, social, health and economic education had avoided discussions of sexual and emotional feelings and controversial issues such as abuse, homosexuality and pornography. Other recent evidence from Ofsted shows that, in some instances, SRE was limited to as little as two hours taught in the last year of primary school. Ofsted also found that younger pupils did not always learn the correct names for the sexual parts of their bodies. This can leave children muddled about their bodies and hampered by a lack of language to report sexual abuse. Plus, when the Sex Education Forum surveyed more than 800 young people, it found that one in three either did not know or were unsure about where to get help if they were sexually assaulted.

Now is the time to create a broad alliance of support for statutory sex and relationship education. A Mumsnet survey found that 92% parents wanted SRE to be compulsory at secondary school and that 69% wanted it to be compulsory at primary school, while 82% wanted it specifically to address sexual violence and bullying.

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 from charities and voluntary organisations. 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.

At Hull’s recent Freedom festival in September, I came across a grooming prevention initiative that was being run by the Hull domestic abuse partnership team and the Soroptimists. It highlighted for young people the behaviours involved in acceptable and unacceptable relationships. It had cards with questions such as “If he really loves you, how does he treat you?” and answers “He respects and trusts you for what you are”; He is kind and makes you feel comfortable”; “He listens to you and tells you the truth”. Similarly, it asked what an abusive relationship might look like. The answers included “He frightens me”, “He gets violent”, “He bullies me”, “He teases me in public” and “He always blames me”. That is the type of work that needs to be done in all schools and taught to all children and young people.

The time has now come for the Government to act. They have been woeful in looking at new ways of ensuring that we keep our children safe in the light of what has happened in recent times. The previous Education Secretary agreed to make financial education part of the national curriculum as he was concerned about students’ financial literacy. We now need to be concerned about keeping our children safe, and that means that we need compulsory relationship and sex education in all our schools. We want to build up our children’s self-esteem and confidence so that they are clear about what good healthy relationships look like and what is acceptable, and so that they know who to go to, and when, if they are concerned about unwanted or unacceptable behaviour towards them.

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, which is the current approach and the approach of decades past, is not working. That approach is failing, and it is not fit to deal with the challenges of the future. In our free, open digital technology society, we cannot protect youngsters totally from every conceivable danger or from the increasing opportunities available to potential abusers. 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. Why would we not want to give them those skills? Why would we not introduce compulsory relationship and sex education to keep all our children as safe as possible?

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