Updated: Mar 14
Miriam Cates, Conservative MP for Penistone and Stocksbridge, made the following statement in Prime Minister's Questions on Wednesday 8th March 2023
Q6. Graphic lessons on oral sex, how to choke your partner safely and 72 genders—this is what passes for relationships and sex education in British schools. Across the country, children are being subjected to lessons that are age-inappropriate, extreme, sexualising and inaccurate, often using resources from unregulated organisations that are actively campaigning to undermine parents. This is not a victory for equality; it is a catastrophe for childhood. Will my right hon. Friend honour his commitment to end inappropriate sex education by commissioning an independent inquiry into the nature and extent of this safeguarding scandal? (904004) Response by the Prime Minister I share my hon. Friend’s concerns and thank her for her work in this area. That is why I have asked the Department for Education to ensure that schools are not teaching inappropriate or contested content in relationships, sex and health education. Our priority should always be the safety and wellbeing of children. Schools should also make curriculum content and materials available to parents. As a result of all this, we are bringing forward a review of RSHE statutory guidance and will start our consultation as soon as possible.
This incredible exchange was watched by many educators who were no doubt aghast at the concerning claims made by Miriam Cates. Since this exchange in PMQs, social media has been polarised by opponents of RSE demanding a full investigation and even suspension of RSE, against supporters of RSE concerned that there is no basis to the claims and that it is being used as a means to an end; to reduce diversity and inclusion in schools.
In this article, I will look at each of the claims made, and my opinion on what the truth behind them may be.
ANALYSIS OF THE CLAIMS
Claim: Schools are delivering ‘graphic’ lessons on oral sex
English RSHE Guidance: how to recognise the characteristics and positive aspects of healthy one-to-one intimate relationships, which include mutual respect, consent, loyalty, trust, shared interests and outlook, sex and friendship.
Analysis: Oral sex is not specifically mentioned in the England RSE or RSHE guidance. However, oral sex is part of many sexual relationships. The ‘graphic’ nature of the oral sex is unclear as the dossier of evidence has not been made public. Resources available educate that oral sex exists, but also the implications for sexual health, including the use of contraception to prevent the spread of sexually transmitted diseases through oral sex.
Claim: Schools are teaching how to choke your partner safely.
Analysis: The resource that includes choking are from the website Clitterally the Best. This is a resource that is designed for adults and is not aimed at children, young people or schools. The organisation has released a statement disputing its inclusion in the evidence as it comprises RSE for adults only. The press release is as follows:
Claim: 72 Genders.
English RSHE Guidance: 75. Pupils should be taught the facts and the law about sex, sexuality, sexual health and gender identity in an age-appropriate and inclusive way. All pupils should feel that the content is relevant to them and their developing sexuality. Sexual orientation and gender identity should be explored at a timely point and in a clear, sensitive and respectful manner. When teaching about these topics, it must be recognised that young people may be discovering or understanding their sexual orientation or gender identity. There should be an equal opportunity to explore the features of stable and healthy same sex relationships. This should be integrated appropriately into the RSE programme, rather than addressed separately or in only one lesson.
Analysis: This claim likely refers to a claim by a parent in a school in the Isle of Man that their child was taught that there are 72 genders. The pupil was subsequently removed from the classroom as they argued with the drag queen that was delivering the session. As part of RSE frameworks in England and Wales, pupils are required to learn about different viewpoints to gender and sexuality. To not teach about differing opinions on gender would not prepare our young people for the world they are entering. However, discussions about gender with Secondary school pupils should acknowledge that this is an area where there is significant disagreement in society. Teachers are required to present impartial opinions on all areas of the curriculum. In order for our young people to have a balanced view, they need to explore all sides of gender arguments. However, there is little evidence that schools are teaching that there are 72 genders.
Claim: Actively campaigning to undermine parents
Analysis: It is unclear what this specifically refers to, but it is likely to refer to policies that outline the confidentiality of pupils coming out. Supported by the NSPCC, schools are not required to inform parents if their child discloses that are LGBT+, unless there is a safeguarding risk to not informing them. Disclosing without the pupil’s consent undermines the relationship between pupil and school and could potentially put them in a safeguarding risk in the home or community. This could also refer to claims that some schools are not sending home resources to parents that they are using in the school. Generally, copyrighted resources cannot be shared in this way, but schools are able to and should if asked, show any resources to parents within the school.
OTHER COMMON RSE CLAIMS ON SOCIAL MEDIA
Claim: BDSM is being taught in primary schools through a resource called Sex 101, in a Trans Youth Sexual Health booklet by Gendered Intelligence
Source: Safe Schools Alliance
Analysis: Gendered Intelligence work with young people up to the age of 25 and so some resources on their website are for young people and adults. However, the resource which is referenced, is not aimed at primary or secondary schools. Their school work focuses on diversity and forms of prejudice. The Trans Youth Sexual Health booklet, which contains the Sex 101 resource, is aimed at pupils over the age of consent and is not delivered in schools. Many organisations in sexual and relationship health work with both the education system and with adults, however, it does not mean that the same resources are delivered. It would be prudent for organisations such as this to consider separating the resources for adults and children into different sub-brands, so that this confusion is less likely to occur.
Claim: Children are told ‘What happens in the room, stays in the room’. This is the language of paedophiles.
England RSHE Guidance: 117. Good practice allows children an open forum to discuss potentially sensitive issues. Such discussions can lead to increased safeguarding reports. Children should be made aware of how to raise their concerns or make a report and how any report will be handled. This should include processes when they have a concern about a friend or peer.
Analysis: Guidance is clear that should any comments in an open forum be considered a safeguarding issue, that the teacher follows clear safeguarding processes. There is no evidence that this is not happening in schools. This is likely a confusion where young people are asked, as part of the open forum, to not share embarrassing disclosures from their peers as gossip outside of the room.
Claim: All RSE providers and materials should be approved
Analysis: No area of the curriculum has resources that are entirely created by the Government as this would create a ‘tick box’ approach for schools where they would not be able to tailor resources for their own school and community. As an experiment in this concept of Government created resources, the DfE commissioned Oak National Academy for £43 million to produce high quality resources for 6 areas of the curriculum. Seven of the original 11 trusts have now withdrawn from the academy, demonstrating that this model does not work on a large scale. Without significant legislation, it would be impossible to completely regulate the production of RSE resources as anyone is able to publish resources on the internet. Instead, schools should be trained and trusted to deliver age- appropriate materials and lessons and funding made available to develop training programs for RSE. A central library of approved resources could be created, however, this risks a narrow field of resources being selected which are not relevant to many schools and communities.
Claim: Only facts should be taught in schools
Analysis: Very few areas of the curriculum are entirely fact based. Interpreting information is a fundamental tenant of successful education. In literacy for example, texts are analysed and then different viewpoints are developed; it is not just about what is on the page. It is an educator’s job to ensure that pupils develop critical thinking skills where they understand that there are varying opinions, and then they can develop their own perspectives and ideas. When discussing topics such as sexuality, domestic violence, and period shame, the facts should be presented, but accompanied with discussion about the feelings that surround these issues. This ‘fact based’ narrative often accompanies LGBT+phobic dogma, from individuals who would rather that LGBT+ diversity is not referenced in schools.
It is plain to see that educators want to use age-appropriate resources and to educate our young people to help them lead healthy lives. Due to its sensitive nature, Relationships and Sex(uality) Education leads to emphatic discussions and debate. There have been on rare occasions, inappropriate teaching of RSE in UK schools, which are often widely reported in the press. However, these represent a minuscule proportion of schools and the schools have conducted reviews to establish the causes and to prevent the issue continuing. To label all schools in this way adds to a continued denigration of the education profession.
The review requested by Miriam Cates, comes at a time where the rights of many minority groups are seen as being eroded. Many are of the opinion that the review in RSE is a way of removing the inclusive nature of our curriculum, which many groups have fought to achieve. The review will need to be handled carefully to ensure that it is objective and that we are not dialling back progress in inclusion and diversity.
The misleading claims that surround RSE have led to a moral panic about the sexualisation of our children and the delivery of inappropriate materials. But despite this panic, there is no evidence of widespread sexualisation or inappropriate materials in schools. Sex Education is regarded by leading authorities as needed in order to reduce teenage pregnancies, lower rates of STI transmission and to reduce incidences of abusive relationships.
RSE curriculum documents across the UK outline the expected coverage for age phases and supporting policies and documentation make it clear that schools are responsible for ensuring that the content is age-appropriate. The difficulty with age-appropriate comes due to individual opinions on what young people should be taught within their age phase. For example, when teenagers learn about sexual intercourse, opinion differs on whether this should be delivered as a mere biological lesson about conception or include discussions on pleasure and more specific topics such as oral sex. The overwhelming number of sexual experiences that people have are for pleasure; to deny this piece of information to teenagers will result in a biology lesson, rather than an education into what constitutes a healthy sexual relationship. However, these lessons need to be sensitive to the age of the pupils and ensure that they are developmentally ready to understand the content.
RSE in England is due to be reviewed in 2023, in line with the policy document. I welcome regular reviews of curriculum documents, but it is important that this is done without misinformation, so that the review can be objective and based on the available evidence.