Sex education should be compulsory in all primary and secondary schools, with sufficient curriculum time devoted to the subject and specialist training for teachers, MPs have urged.
In a hard-hitting report published on Tuesday, the Commons education select committee comes down firmly on the side of campaigners who have long fought for sex and relationships education (SRE) to be made mandatory.
It urges the Department for Education to come up with a strategy to deliver age-appropriate personal, social and health education (PSHE) and SRE as a statutory provision across all schools.
Graham Stuart, the committee chair, said there was “an overwhelming demand for statutory sex and relationship education – from teachers, parents and young people.
“It’s important that school leaders and governors take PSHE seriously and improve their provision by investing in training for teachers and putting PSHE lessons on the school timetable. Statutory status will help ensure all of this happens.
“Young people have a right to information that will keep them healthy and safe,” he said. “SRE forms an important part of any school’s efforts to safeguard young people from abuse, and is particularly needed to protect the most vulnerable children.”
A damning 2013 Ofsted report found that the PSHE and SRE was inadequate in 40% of schools, and the situation was worsening, the cross-party committee said.
MPs condemned ministers’ attempts to address these shortcomings as weak and insufficient and said there was a mismatch between the priority ministers claim they give PSHE and steps taken to address the problem.
As one of its recommendations, the report calls on the DfE to clarify that children in primary schools should be taught the proper names for genitalia as part of the national curriculum. Ofsted said young children’s inability to name body parts represented a weakness in safeguarding.
The committee also concluded that parents should retain the right to withdraw their children from sex education. “Parents have rights, too.” said Stuart. “They must be consulted by schools on the provision of SRE and must keep the right to withdraw their children if they are unhappy with what the school provides.”
The latest official government advice on SRE is 14 years old. The committee heard evidence during its nine-month inquiry that the world had changed radically in that time, with the rise of social media, easy access to pornography and cyberbullying.
The committee was told that sexting had become “normative behaviour” among older teenagers – 14-year-old girls routinely pose in their bras for profile pictures – and youngsters needed help to understand when it was abusive, harmful or linked to exploitation. It also heard that understanding of sexual consent and abusive relationships among young people was insufficient.
A DfE spokesperson acknowledged that more was needed to be done to improve the teaching of PSHE. “We want to see all young people leave school prepared for life in modern Britain.
“High-quality PSHE teaching has a vital role to play in this. That’s why we are working with schools and experts to ensure the PSHE and relationships education that young people receive is appropriate and of a high standard.
“We have already set up a new expert subject group on PSHE to identify key areas where teachers need further support. However, we are aware that more needs to be done to raise the quality of teaching in this area and we will consider the findings of this report carefully.”
The shadow education secretary, Tristram Hunt, said: “Children and young people should be taught the importance of respect and healthy relationships and to understand the role of the family – in all its forms. That is why Labour will make age-appropriate sex and relationship education compulsory in all state schools.”
The report was widely welcomed by campaigners. Lucy Emmerson, coordinator of the Sex Education Forum, said: “It is clear that many children and young people go through school without getting vital age-appropriate information about their bodies, what is right and wrong in relationships, consent and sexual health.
“Support for statutory SRE has never been clearer: nine out of 10 students back legislative change, and more than three-quarters of parents want primary schools to teach about the difference between safe and unwanted touch and how to speak up if someone treats them inappropriately.”
Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL), said: “The report acknowledges the widespread support for PSHE and SRE and recognises our request for investment in high-quality training for teachers and putting the subject on the timetable.”
The National Union of Teachers (NUT) said the report was “another blow to the government’s laissez-faire approach to educational provision”.
Joe Hayman, chief executive of the PSHE Association said: “Ministers must urgently review their position. Four recent inquiries into child sexual exploitation have also called for this learning to be compulsory in schools to keep children safe, while the office of the children’s commissioner has today expressed concern [in its report looking into child sexual exploitation] that its recommendation that PSHE is made statutory has not been adopted by government.”