Senior Tory ‘disappointed’ as Government refuses to back sex education strategy

A Government refusal to commit to a new sex education strategy targeted at boys to tackle harassment has been branded “disappointing” by a senior Conservative.

Women and Equalities Committee Chair Caroline Nokes criticised ministers after the Government declined to back a key recommendation from MPs on addressing sexual harassment and sexual violence in schools.

The committee recommended that Government should focus on engaging boys in relationships and sex education lessons at school, while also suggesting that relationships, sex and health education (RSHE) should be made compulsory in sixth forms and colleges.

Caroline Nokes
Caroline Nokes criticised ministers, saying there was a ‘lack of urgency’ (Dominic Lipinski/PA)

It warned engagement with boys and young men was “crucial” for tackling sexual harassment and sexual violence.

While the Government said it was “considering” the call to make sex education compulsory at post-16 level, it offered little indication that it would take some of the MPs’ recommendations into the ongoing and long-awaited review of sex education.

In its official response to the committee, the Government said: “The RSHE curriculum became statutory in schools in September 2020.

“A review of the statutory guidance is underway. This includes input from an expert panel, and there will be a full public consultation on the revised Guidance.

“Following publication of the updated RSHE statutory guidance, the Department will update teacher training modules and assess further support needed.”

Ms Nokes said the response was a sign of a “lack of urgency”.

A review into RSHE was announced in March following concerns that children are being exposed to “inappropriate” content.

Schools are still awaiting updated RSHE guidance, which the Government has said will go out “for full public consultation later this year”.

Tory MP Miriam Cates, from the right of the party, has long railed against what children are currently being taught in sex education lessons, labelling some content “age inappropriate” and “extreme”.

But ministers have also been accused of intentionally inflaming controversy over the issue, as teachers await clarity on the guidance.

The Women and Equalities Committee said that the Government response fails to offer any indication of what to expect on efforts to tackle violence against women and girls when the updated guidance is finally published.

Ms Nokes said: “Education is a powerful and necessary tool in preventing violence against women and girls.

“Relationships, sex and health education that continues past secondary school and that engages proactively with boys and young men is crucial to combat harmful attitudes in both educational settings and society at large.

“It is disappointing the Government is refusing to take a position on many of the issues raised in our report until it publishes its long-awaited RSHE review.

“What we see today is a lack of urgency and frankly women and girls have already waited long enough for those in positions of authority to stand up for them.”

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “All women and girls deserve a safe environment, and we expect schools, colleges and universities to take immediate action against sexual misconduct or harassment.

“We are currently reviewing the statutory guidance on relationships, sex and health education, and as a part of this we will consider how our guidance and support to schools on this issue can be strengthened.”

Sophie Francis-Cansfield, head of external affairs at charity Women’s Aid, said: “We know sexism and misogyny are at the heart of violence against women and girls and RSHE must go further to reach boys and young men to change this, with the Government working with organisations like Women’s Aid to strengthen the delivery of and the guidance for RSHE.”