It’s our responsibility to educate children about relationships and gender – not just the mechanics of sex

I wrote this column a couple of weeks ago for The East Anglian Daily Times, but given what’s happened today with the return of the Page 3 in The Sun, I felt it’s worth a share again. The issue of Page 3 isn’t about ‘yogurt knitting’ lefties raging against ‘harmless tabloid fun’ or as the more dim-witted have suggested, jealous ‘ugly birds’, it’s an issue of continuing a harmful gender stereotype in a so-called family newspaper.    

To be honest, the idea that there should have to be a campaign to ensure there is a commitment in schools to the compulsory teaching of sex and relationships, beggars belief.

In an age where young people are bombarded with negative and conflicting messages about sex and gender roles, where Page 3 and pornography regularly dehumanise and sexualise women – while modern culture caricatures men as sexual aggressors and normalises misogyny and abusive behaviour – it should be an absolute given.

Yet following a drive by the Everyday Sexism Project and the End Violence Against Women Coalition to achieve this very commitment, David Cameron has said he does not support making such education compulsory.

Cameron, who is the only political leader not to back the campaign, claimed that “while it is important that all schools provide high quality PSHE (Personal, Social and Health Education) to their pupils” he believes schools should be left to tailor their education according to their own specific needs and plan curriculum content accordingly.

In short, he wants to maintain a status quo – a status quo that has so far proved to be patchy and inadequate at best.

When the UK Youth Parliament surveyed almost 22,000 young people about Sex and Relationships Education (SRE), 40% said theirs was either poor or very poor, and 43% said they hadn’t received any at all.

Inspectors from education watchdog OFSTED, writing in the “Time For Change? Personal, Social and Health Education” report in 2007, said that: “Many young people say that parents and some teachers are not very good at talking about the more sensitive issues in PSHE, such as sex and relationships … In the

case of SRE, young people do not want just the biological facts but want to talk about feelings and relationships.”

And according to a 2010 YouGov survey for End Violence Against Women, almost one third of 16-18-year-olds in the UK had been subjected to unwanted touching at school. 
The same survey found that a total of 71% of 16-18-year-olds reported being called sexual names at least a few times a week.

These official accounts are backed up by a quick look at the Twitter feed of the Everyday Sexism Project – an initiative to catalogue instances of sexism experienced by women on a day-to-day basis. It doesn’t take long to find an account of a child talking about harassment at school, more often than not arising from confusion about what and what is not acceptable.

Of course, it’s not just girls that are being left wanting by this educational black hole.

The volume of sexist material that is directed at boys and young men through both mainstream and social media can only have a harmful affect on how they view relationships, while leaving them with numerous unanswered questions about their role in society.

As a result it seems vital that in the lead in to the General Election pressure is brought to bear on David Cameron to make sure that all primary and secondary schools in England are required to educate pupils about a whole range of issues that extend far beyond the mechanics of sex.

Issues such as consent, respectful relationships and gender stereotypes need to be handled comprehensively and sensitively while online porn (however uncomfortable or embarrassing it is to admit) is now part of our everyday environment and needs to be discussed openly.

Obviously, it goes without saying that this needs to be done in an age appropriate manner (I don’t think anyone would back a class on pornography to five-year-olds) and, as both End Violence Against Women and the Everyday Sexism Project point out, backed up by statutory guidance and training for teachers.

But furthermore these messages of equality and healthy attitudes towards sex and gender need to be fully supported by parents and grandparents.

As the father of a six-year-old boy and a four-year-old girl, I’ve thankfully no experience of either of them being exposed to the worst cases of sexism; of name-calling or physical harassment.

But even with them I’ve had to grit my teeth with frustration and anger when my son has been told he can’t have something pink, as my daughter is called a tom-boy for choosing Hulk over Frozen costumes or when Mrs Christmas thanked Santa for bringing her a washing machine in a school play.

We must remember that to rail against the uncritical acceptance of gendered roles and to refuse to accept excuses based on class or generational differences is not ‘political correctness gone mad’ – it is ensuring the long term health and happiness of our children.

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