Caroline Lucas is co-leader of the Green Party and MP for Brighton Pavilion. This piece was originally published in the Huffington Post.
This week something revolutionary happened. After years of effort from young people, students, parents, teachers and campaigners the Government announced its intentions to make sex and relationships education (SRE) statutory in an amendment to the Children and Social Work Bill while also paving the way for further action on PSHE education in its entirety. From the age of four all children will have access to lessons that have the power to change their lives.
If you need proof of why compulsory PSHE is needed, take a glance across the Atlantic. The most powerful man in the world has repeatedly and deliberately demeaned women. “When you’re a star” he said, “they let you do it. You can do anything …Grab them by the p***y … You can do anything.” He has gloated about sexual assault and argued that objectifying 50% of the human race is exactly what the other 50% do privately, even if they pretend otherwise in public.
It’s not just Trump letting down young people; we are too. When I first started campaigning on PSHE, I came across NSPCC research showing that almost half of teenage girls believe it is acceptable for a boyfriend to be aggressive towards a female partner, while one in two boys and one in three girls believe there are some circumstances in which it is okay to hit a woman or force her to have sex.
One schoolgirl wrote to the Everyday Sexism project saying that the boys in her school held up Page Three images, and marked girls out of 10 as they walked past. Children are subjected to advertising which suggests they’re too thin, too fat, too promiscuous, not having enough sex. The media exploit and encourage children’s insecurities – leaving many desperately insecure and constantly worried.
In 2010, 40% of 16 to 18-year-olds said they either didn’t receive lessons or information on sexual consent or didn’t know whether they did. This year a survey of more than 1,300 teachers by the National Association of Schoolmasters and Union of Women Teachers (NASUWT) revealed that 53% of teachers were aware of pupils as young as seven sharing sexual messages and pictures. In 2015 there were 141,000 new STI diagnoses for 20- to 24-year-olds and 78,000 for those aged 15-19.
Being young has never been easy. Things are always changing quickly – your body, your mind, your surroundings. But the modern world offers new challenges in addition to the ones that today’s adults faced when growing up.
Good quality, age-appropriate PSHE, including SRE is vital to help children and young people address all of these challenges. It will help tackle gender inequality and gender stereotypes too, including those prevalent in much of our media and advertising. It will teach children at an appropriate age about safe sex, and consent. And it will equip the next generation with the life skills and confidence they need to thrive in a complex, interconnected world.
That’s why Justine Greening’s announcement this week is such wonderful news, and why what happens next matters so much. PSHE must now be delivered properly – and much will depend on the regulations and guidance to follow. There are some thorny questions, including around the parental ‘right’ to withdraw their children and around how faith schools will be covered. Crucially, ministers must urgently set out how they are going to provide for teacher training to make sure all children get high quality, age-appropriate sex and relationships education as part of a whole school approach to PSHE.
In the meantime PSHE campaigners should celebrate this moment. After presenting my PSHE Bill to Parliament earlier this year – and seeing the resistance of some Tory backbenchers, I’m certainly pleased. This victory shows that persistent, heartfelt campaigning from people who really care can make a difference to people’s lives. In these difficult times – where populism dominates our politics – there are shards of light piercing the darkness.