Andrew Selous is a former prisons minister, and is MP for South West Bedfordshire.
Only moments before the general election was called, the Children and Social Work Act 2017 received Royal Assent. This Act introduces mandatory Relationships and Sex Education into our schools, mandating discussions around relationships to be taught at primary school, before issues around both relationships and sex are introduced at secondary school.
The Education Secretary will come forward later this year with an updated curriculum, which will recognise that, in our hyper-connected world, today’s teenagers are struggling with sexual pressures that those of us who went to school in the last century never experienced (and would struggle to imagine).
The epidemic of family breakdown, which now sees a child in the UK more likely to experience family break-up than any other country, demands a response from schools. Relationship education not only helps young people face up to the challenges they face today, but it normalises discussion about relationships, making it more likely that they will ask for help in the future if and when their adult relationships falter. Tackling Britain’s family breakdown crisis needs to starts in our schools.
Switching the ‘S’ and the ‘R’ in ‘Sex and Relationships Education’, now officially, ‘Relationships and Sex Education’ was an important change that goes well beyond semantics. This was a recommendation made by the Centre for Social Justice in its Fully Committed report, which uncovered that almost half (43 per cent) of young people received no information about building healthy relationships whilst at school, just at the time they arguably need it most. This is set within a worrying context of a rise in school age sexual violence: one in three girls experience sexual violence in schools (along with one in six boys). Despite all this, a third of all schools are failing to provide good quality ‘sex and relationship education’. Internet pornography and casual attitudes to sex cast a long shadow in our classrooms.
Justine Greening deserves credit for making this a priority for her time at the Department for Education. However, simply mandating high-quality relationships and sex education on the statute book is not enough on its own. Relationship education should promote a culture that supports stronger families, which is one part of the Strengthening Families Manifesto that I am launching with other MPs this week.
The Government needs to ensure we enable young people to build successful relationships and to deliver support online, and not just in the classroom. We haven’t just got a skills gap when it comes to industry. Politicians constantly talk about developing workplace skills to support a future economy; we should take the same approach to supporting the families of the future.
If we really want to tackle family breakdown in the years ahead, new guidance on Relationships Education shouldn’t shy away from helping young people build successful long-term relationships. In a recent survey by the Family Stability Network 87 per cent of young men aged 16-19 said they wanted to be in a long term relationship. Every relationship has its ups and downs, it’s successfully managing the downs that is critical to long-term success. Enabling our young people to develop long-term relationships and equipping them with the skills to make relationships last is an important part of reversing the long term trend of family breakdown in the UK.
There is now a body of academic literature which recognises the importance of ‘deciding, not sliding’ within a relationship. That sliding into ever more serious situations eventually leads to relationship breakdown and successful relationships are built on couples consciously ‘deciding’ to commit to their relationship. Relationships Education should empower young people to make positive relationships choices – ‘deciding’ – and enable both boys and girls to reflect on their actions. Young people should be encouraged to understand their responsibilities within a relationship to the other person and how to build a long lasting relationship.
In the same survey, 93 per cent of teenage boys said they expect to get married at some point. Polls of young people constantly show overwhelming support for getting married, yet too often as politicians we are afraid to utter the ‘M’ word. The Government shouldn’t be silent on this, or ignore the aspirations of young people just because of some strange political omerta. The evidence-based importance of marriage should also feature in updated relationship education guidance to ensure that as a society we become more confident about why marriage matters.
To use the jargon, a ‘relationally capable’ young person will also be better able to discriminate between healthy and unhealthy or exploitative relationships. The internet age demands a different approach which recognises healthy relationships as a bulwark against the overwhelming sexual pressures of the twenty first century. Introducing the changes to Parliament, Greening criticised existing guidance for failing to “address risks to children that have grown in prevalence over the last 17 years, including cyber bullying, ‘sexting’ and staying safe online.” The only requirement currently placed on schools is to teach the mechanics of sex as an add-on to the biology curriculum.
Relationships Education will flop if it is just a series lessons appended onto the already stretched school timetable. In an era when the average eight year old has an internet connected mobile phone, Relationships Education has to go beyond the classroom. In reviewing her Department’s approach to Relationships Education in schools, especially amongst older teenagers, the Government should look to the recently launched Status campaign, which seeks to engage young people online to reflect on their own relationships. This campaign was launched last year and is already having an impact in changing attitudes amongst young people. This is the sort of soft, culture change campaign that the Education Secretary should introduce alongside a new curriculum.
None of this should undermine the role of parents. Schools can only do so much. Children learn how to behave at home just as much as they do inside the classroom, indeed Government research now recognises that the quality of the relationship between parents has a direct impact on children. The Government should mirror Greening’s determination with an equally determined approach to rolling out fully-funded parenting support and help for parents with their own relationships. Relationships Education in schools and online are an important part of the mix in helping tackling Britain’s long-term family breakdown crisis, it isn’t a solution on its own but it’s an important place to start. Some years ago we got serious about reducing teenage pregnancy. Schools worked with local authorities and charities to turn around some of the most shocking levels of teenage parenthood in Europe. We can do the same with family breakdown by starting to address the issue in our classrooms, rather than simply picking up the pieces years down the line.