Posted: Monday 30th January 2017
What is the purpose of schools? An odd question, you might think, for a Police and Crime Commissioner to be posing. Schools, many people would say, are there to teach our children English, maths and science and prepare them for exams. But is that all?
How about preparing our young people for life in the wider sense? Helping them to make wise choices and to keep them safe?
I am talking here of personal, social, health and economic (PSHE) education. And, more particularly, about sex and relationships education (SRE) which is delivered as part of PSHE.
Reports in the mainstream and specialist education media last week suggested that too little focus on sex education in Ofsted inspections was risking pupils’ health and wellbeing.
Analysis by the British Humanist Association (BHA) suggests that SRE gets fewer mentions in Ofsted reports than any other subject.
BHA researchers checked every Ofsted inspection report for 2015-16, some 2,200 across both primary and secondary levels, for mentions of SRE and PSHE.
They found SRE specifically mentioned in less than one per cent of reports and PSHE in 14 per cent.
By contrast art and music were mentioned in 31 per cent, PE in 59 per cent and religious education in 22 per cent.
The Department for Education said ministers were "actively considering what further steps we could take to improve the quality and accessibility of sex and relationships education".
A spokesperson said: "High-quality education on sex and relationships is a vital part of preparing young people for success in adult life - helping them make informed choices, stay safe and learn to respect themselves and others.”
And yet the Government has once again stopped short of saying that SRE is to be made compulsory in our schools.
My concern, as your Police and Crime Commissioner, is that, with the rapid increase in school academies and free schools, many of our young children run the risk of being left in the dark about this vitally important aspect of education.
Freed of local authority influence, and in the absence of a National Curriculum requirement for PSHE, heads and governors could decide (perhaps because of the religious nature of their school) that PSHE and SRE are not suitable subjects.
That is why I, and my fellow PCCs, feel strongly that the Government should make PSHE compulsory, with a mandatory SRE element, in all our schools. And that the delivery of such lessons should be taken into account within school assessments, alongside exam results.
A recent report by MPs on the women and equalities committee spoke of “the shocking scale” of sexual harassment in schools. The campaigning group Stonewall has spoken of widespread bullying of gay pupils in secondary schools.
Then there is child sexual exploitation. We are all aware of the scandals in Rotherham and Oxford. Those young girls who were befriended, made to feel special, and then horribly abused, were victims who were preyed upon. Did they have the benefit of PSHE lessons? I somehow doubt it.
And how about, further down the line, the risk of entering a controlling and coercive relationship? It can happen as soon as university.
Then there are the awful risks associated with drugs misuse and alcohol.
I could go on.
My office has sought to help young people locally to be equipped for some of the issues they will face, but surely this is a national issue which calls for national standards.
Teaching PSHE is no doubt challenging and sometimes embarrassing. It touches on sensitive areas and there will be parents who feel their children should be excused on religious grounds.
Nonetheless, the Government has an important duty to protect our children. I hope that the MPs who represent the people of Wiltshire and Swindon will do all they can to ensure that PSHE has a compulsory place, and time, in the curriculum.
Useful information can be found on the PSHE Association website.