Monday, 12 January 2015

Guest Blog: Laura Bates writes for OCOS on the importance of Sex and Relationship Education

The OCOS Charter for Education calls for a rounded education for all children as well as for schools to be safe places where our children are free from bullying and sexual harassment. We at OCOS believe that unbiased, fact based, SRE (sex and relationship education) is crucial if we are to achieve that aim. We believe that SRE shouldn't just be about the mechanics of where babies come from. We believe it should also address issues such as the importance of consent in sexual relationships, what abusive relationships are, and it should challenge sexist and homophobic stereotypes and bullying.

Our Community Our Schools welcomes the Our Bodies, Our Future conference at Frederick Bremer school on 24th January and we would encourage the many local parents who support our campaign to attend. In advance of the conference, we are delighted to welcome the keynote speaker, Laura Bates, as a guest blogger for OCOS on the campaign for compulsory SRE. 

Laura is founder of the Everyday Sexism Project, a collection of over 80,000 women and girls' daily experiences of gender inequality. She writes regularly for the Guardian, Independent, Red magazine, Grazia etc. She is Patron of SARSAS (Somerset and Avon Rape and Sexual Abuse Support, formerly Bristol Rape Crisis). She works regularly with schools, universities and businesses and collaborated closely with the British Transport Police on Project Guardian, which has increased the reporting of sexual offences on public transport in London by 25% and the detection of offenders by 32%.

When the UK Youth Parliament 
surveyed almost 22,000 young people about SRE, 40% said theirs was either poor or very poor, and 43% said they hadn’t received any at all. When Brook surveyed over 2,000 14-18-year-olds throughout the UK, nearly half said that SRE “doesn’t really cover what they need to know about sex”. An ICM poll for the End Violence Against Women Coalition (EVAW) found that 77% of young people feel they do not have enough information or support to deal with physical or sexual violence. And a recent Ofsted report found that schools were failing young people on SRE.

Wherever you look there are ample indications that our current system is not fit for purpose. In a world in which they are bombarded with sexist media, gender stereotypes and online porn (which frequently gives a biased and misogynistic portrayal of sex), young people desperately need support and information about issues such as consent and healthy relationships. And in a world in which 85,000 women are raped annually in England and Wales and 400,000 sexually assaulted, how can we fail to tackle vital issues such as consent and healthy relationships in the classroom? 

Meanwhile, the NSPCC warns that “thousands of teenage girls who are sexually assaulted by boys suffer in silence because they often accept the abuse as part of a relationship or don’t know how to stop it”. Given that many young people also experience or witness abuse at home, (750,000 children witness domestic violence each year), the government has an urgent responsibility to provide information in schools about what constitutes abuse, and to let young people know that help and support is available. 

Perhaps most pertinently of all, we know that these problems are also happening in schools (where 300 rapes have been reported to police in the past three years and almost one in three girls experiences unwanted sexual touching). So education needs to start early and must cover issues surrounding rape and consent, where there is currently a huge amount of myth and misinformation, particularly among young people.
The idea that children should be given guidance and information on these issues seems so sensible that many people are shocked to hear it isn’t already on the curriculum. But it’s currently not compulsory for schools to teach young people about sexual consent, healthy relationships, or issues such as online pornography or abuse.

Nearly 40,000 people have signed a petition from Everyday Sexism and the End Violence Against Women Coalition, calling on party leaders to make sex and relationships compulsory in all schools if they are elected at the General Election, including issues such as consent, healthy relationships and online porn. With the responses in from all the major political parties, all but the Conservatives say they would support such a move.
It’s great that some parents discuss these issues with their children, but we can’t guarantee they all will. Some parents describe feeling unable to discuss them, or find it difficult to know where to start. Schools provide young people with guidance about plenty of other important life lessons, such as healthy eating, so why not give them similar support on the universal topic of human relationships? Giving young people the tools they need to safely and happily navigate relationships is simply essential. It’s too important to leave to chance.