Today the UK Department of Education has published new guidance for sex and health education in English schools from September 2020. The new curriculum will include health education including mental health for all ages, relationship education for primary schools and sex and relationship education for secondary schools. For the first time, information about female genital mutilation (FGM) and how to access support will be included for pupils at secondary school.
There has been a long campaign to improve relationship and sex education and make it compulsory in all schools. These new guidelines are a step forward but whilst making some progress for England, sadly for me these guidelines are something of a missed opportunity. A key concern is that despite the Government claiming that this new curriculum is compulsory, parents can withdraw their child from sex education up to the age of 16.
There are more than 137,000 girls and women who have undergone FGM in England and Wales, and only last month a woman was found guilty of carrying out FGM on her 3-year-old daughter. Anti-FGM campaigners have fought long and hard for FGM to be included in school sex education but if parents can continue to withdraw children from these lessons, we will continue to fail some girls and arguably those most at risk. This important information should not be optional, and the safeguarding of vulnerable children should always be the priority. It worries me that not all secondary school age children will be included, and we know that most girls undergo FGM before the age of 11 so it makes no sense to exclude primary schools.
Time and time again I hear the argument that FGM is not appropriate content for younger children. Well it is not appropriate for girls aged 7 or 8 to be cut but that is what currently happens. I know because it happened to me. All girls deserve protection from FGM and all other forms of sexual abuse. Educating the children at primary schools and their parents should be an essential part of safeguarding if we are serious about protecting all children.
I know this can be done without upsetting younger children as it is already happening in some schools. For example, there is important work in the London Borough of Ealing where 16 primary schools are taking part in a ground-breaking project which involves parents and wider community as well as age appropriate lessons for the children. I visited this project last year and saw first-hand the high levels of engagement from all participants. Community Outreach Project Manager for Safeguarding Hoda Ali told me how the project is giving teachers, parents and children more confidence, “The participating schools are running lessons, community workshops and establishing parent safeguarding forums. There is important dialogue taking place in schools, in families and in the community which would not have happened before.”
Now is not the time to be cautious and we owe it to our children to do better. I urge politicians to listen to those like Hoda Ali who working on the front-line and hear from them how to improve and extend the reach of these guidelines as quickly as possible.