Sometimes there’s so much casualised sexism – at home, at work, in the media, in the street – that you either feel completely overwhelmed by it, or (maybe even worse) just let it wash over you.  That’s why I was thrilled to present Laura Bates with an award recently for the fantastic work she is doing to highlight the sexism that creeps in everywhere.  One way to address the issue would be to have more effective sex & relationship education at school.  In the Lords this week I raised the fact that one-third of British 16-18 year old girls experience unwanted sexual touching at school.

You can click here to read the full debate during Oral Questions, or click here to read Laura’s excellent article in the Huffington Post.   I’m pleased the minister has agreed to meet with me and Laura, so that we can impress on him the urgency required to tackle this issue.  Girls need to be taught that they deserve respect in relationships, and that unwanted and abusive relationships are unacceptable.  Boys need to be encouraged to bring out the best in themselves – this is particularly true in an age of social media and widely available online pornography, which distorts the real value of relationships.  When 80,000 British women are raped every year, we know something’s gone very wrong… and we need to take proactive steps to tackle it.

Asked by Baroness Jones of Whitchurch

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are taking to ensure that all children have access to sex and relationship education, focusing particularly on the responsible use of the internet and social media.

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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Schools (Lord Nash): My Lords, sex and relationship education is compulsory in maintained secondary schools. As part of that education, we expect that pupils will learn to develop positive values and a moral framework that will guide their decisions, judgments and behaviours in all areas of life. The Government agree that responsible use of the internet is very important. We are introducing e-safety as part of the national curriculum in primary schools and this will be reflected in the new computing programmes of study at both primary and secondary levels.

Baroness Jones of Whitchurch: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. I am sure that we all share the growing alarm at the evidence of young people using illegal internet pornography sites to learn about sex and then attempting to replicate it, including using social media, to put pressure on young girls to act out those roles, sometimes with absolutely devastating consequences. Obviously, this needs a cross-departmental approach in, for example, persuading the internet providers to behave more responsibly. However, does the Minister accept that the department needs to give more urgent leadership to schools on this matter? Does he, for example, accept that sensitive and personal issues around internet safety cannot be taught effectively in IT classes and that it needs specifically trained teachers? Does he also accept the need for all young people, from an early age, to learn about peer pressure and how to resist it, as well as how to have a positive body image, and to understand what makes a healthy relationship so that they can avoid exploitation and abuse in the future?

Lord Nash: I certainly share the concern of the noble Baroness. Young people should not be using pornography to learn about sex. Pornography does not place sex in the context of relationships. I can assure her that the Government are taking a very firm stance on this issue.

We have been working across the department since 2010 with internet businesses, charities and other experts through the UK Council for Child Internet Safety to find the best ways to minimise children’s access to potentially harmful online content and very good progress is being made. Trained teachers should be able to teach issues of internet safety effectively in computing classes, and there will be resources to support them in this. There are also organisations—such as CEOP, the PSHE Association and Teen Boundaries—that can provide resources and advice. However, I agree that we need to improve the focus on this area through teaching, schools and ITT providers, and I agree with her last point that the statutory guidance on sex and relationship education makes absolutely clear that schools must focus on these areas.

Baroness Walmsley: My Lords, is my noble friend aware of the link that Ofsted identified in its report last year between bullying—in particular, internet bullying—and the success of a school’s PSHE programme? Given that link, and given the duties that schools, as public bodies, have in relation to the Equality Act,

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does not my noble friend think that PSHE should be compulsory in the national curriculum and not just advised?

Lord Nash: I know that the noble Baroness and I appreciate the importance of PSHE, but it is not this Government’s intention to make it compulsory. This Government trust schools and teachers to tailor their PSHE support to the particular circumstances in a school, which vary enormously. There are plenty of resources to enable them to do this, and all good school have an excellent PSHE programme.

Baroness Massey of Darwen: Does the Minister agree that giving advice about where to get help is important in health and relationship education? What support is being given for access to school counselling and to organisations such as Brook and the FPA, which give advice to young people? I declare an interest as president of Brook.

Lord Nash: SRE guidance makes clear that pupils should know how to access support, counselling and advice, and we will expect all schools to ensure that pupils are aware of the available health services and expert organisations, such as Brook and the FPA. We acknowledge the value that these organisations contribute.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, will the Minister go a little further in explaining why the Government believe that, in terms of the curriculum, a very heavy top-down approach is okay in teaching history, but PSHE is seen as optional? Surely the Minister could talk to, for example, the Lords spiritual about the way that church schools in counties such as Lancashire view PSHE as being even more important than the bits of detail in history education?

Lord Nash: I am aware that church schools are very good at pastoral care. However, this Government take the position that being a child in the modern world is a very complicated situation. For some children in some schools, gang issues are very important. In other schools it may be forced marriages. We trust our teachers to tailor their advice to the particular circumstances of their pupils.

Baroness King of Bow: I understand the Minister to be saying that he wants to put trust in schools, and I agree with that. Will he also trust the experience of young girls? One third of British girls between 16 and 18 experience unwanted sexual touching at school, and 80,000 British women a year are raped. Will the Minister not agree, therefore, with the view that this subject should not be optional and that it must be studied at school? At the very least, will he agree to meet with me and members of the Everyday Sexism Project, which has documented the scale of this terrible problem?

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Lord Nash: Nobody wishes to deny the importance of the points that the noble Baroness makes. I will be delighted to meet her, and I would like to understand more about this issue.

Baroness Brinton: My Lords, given that, it seems, everyone who has asked a question today agrees that teachers are the best people to deliver specific sex and relationship advice to their pupils, when were the guidance notes on best practice in schools updated?

Lord Nash: The most recent guidance is from Ofsted, which recently introduced a very good report. Part B of that report contains some excellent recommendations on best practice. They flag up a number of very useful resources available to teachers, including the Sex Education Forum.