– and the women in his Cabinet are furious
by Cathy Newman, channel 4 news presenter
11 FEBRUARY 2016 • 1:35PM
It was a proposal which achieved the extraordinary feat of uniting three parliamentary select committees, a teaching Union, the Children’s commissioner, the Chief Medical Officer, the Association of Police and Crime Commissioners, two royal societies and no less than six medical royal colleges.
But yesterday the Education Secretary Nicky Morgan ruled out making sex education compulsory for all schools. This was a very strange decision, not just because so many wise and knowledgable people wanted mandatory sex education, but also because Mrs Morgan herself did.
In fact I can reveal she waged a valiant battle to persuade the Prime Minister to back her – but to no avail. What’s worse is David Cameron decided to ignore the entreaties not only of his Education Secretary – and the aforementioned assembled ranks of supporters and experts – but also several other senior women in the Cabinet.
I’m told the Home Secretary Theresa May weighed in, and it’s thought the International Development Secretary Justine Greening also backs a change of policy, as does the Business Minister Anna Soubry. One government member told me: “There’s a divide…For me it gets to the heart of why we need more women in politics. It’s not just because it should be fair, it’s just these are the sort of issues which they understand and the men don’t.”
The proposal was to support age-appropriate sex and relationships education and compulsory personal, social, health and economic education (PSHE), to discuss challenges like internet safety and drugs. At the moment it’s mandatory from the age of 11, but parents have to be informed and some refuse to let their children participate, something which can be a particular issue in faith schools.
But being open and honest with our children about sex is a no-brainer.
Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, points out that “report after report” into the sex abuse cases in Rotherham and Oxford suggests decent PSHE “keeps children safe”. The campaign group End Violence Against Women links the absence of standardised sex education with a failure to prevent violence against women and girls. You can see why. From an increasingly young age, children are accessing disturbing and abusive sexual imagery online. However hard parents try to put the right controls in place, they need a helping hand from schools. No wonder numerous polls have found there’s overwhelming parental support for compulsory sex education.
So why did the Prime Minister – a hands-on parent himself – dig his heels in?
Several in government are rather baffled. One official did offer the following explanation though: “It’s largely to do with this notion that if we start focusing on PSHE we’re moving away from the rigour agenda.” This is the somewhat obsessive attention to “core” subjects, instigated by Mrs Morgan’s predecessor Michael Gove. In other words, sex education is what the Prime Minister’s election supremo Lynton Crosby might have described as a “barnacle” to be scraped off the boat – a distraction the government could do without.
An aide to Ms Morgan wouldn’t comment on the behind-the-scenes tussle, saying only: “Both Nicky and the Prime Minister believe it’s important that young people are properly prepared to succeed in modern Britain and schools have a key role to prepare them to do that. High quality PSHE is one way schools should be doing that.”
It’s a blow to all those who campaigned, and it’s an embarrassing put-down for Nicky Morgan and the other women in the cabinet who hoped they had more clout. All they can cling to now is that the policy is being kept “ under review”. Better luck next time, Mrs Morgan.