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As schools are being told to teach that porn is harmless fun, what’s happened to RSE?

Sex Ed classes needed bringing up-to-date but facts have been ditched for fashionable opinions, says Kim Thomas.

When children started back at school in September, the new rules on social distancing and use of face masks won’t have been the only difference they noticed…

This school year also sees the introduction of a new compulsory Relationships and Sex Education (RSE) curriculum. It recognises that the world children inhabit in 2020, with online dating, easily available pornography and wide social acceptance of same-sex relationships, is very different from the world of 2000, when the curriculum was last updated.

The new curriculum has provided external providers with an opportunity to sell RSE resources (books, learning materials and staff training) to time-pressed schools. But a new document ­– the Parents’ guide to external PSHE /RSE providers – from Safe Schools Alliance UK (SSAUK), a campaign group, has found troubling features in those resources. Many contravene guidance from the Department for Education (DfE), which states that pupils “should be taught about “the facts and the law about sex, sexuality, sexual health and gender identity in an age-appropriate and inclusive way.” Yet four of the 12 providers featured are charities that receive substantial funding from government.

Some of the problems SSAUK has identified relate to inappropriate sexual content, and the presentation of opinion as fact. Take Diversity Role Models, which provides workshops for pupils in schools as well as teacher training, and last year received £109,176 from three government grants. Its social media includes links to drag queens with highly sexualised or porn-inspired names (Crystal Lubrikunt and Vinegar Strokes, for example) and accompanying images.

Or take Bish, which offers an online guide to sex and relationships for over-14s. (The guide’s author, Justin Hancock, also provides teacher training on RSE.) Some of the information is simply inaccurate, such as the statement that “sometimes there are more similarities between a penis and a clitoris than two penises or two clitorises” or “vaginas are often not long enough or stretchy enough to be penetrated.” Other content is disturbing. In a section on masturbation, Bish suggests parents use playdough made into the shape of genitals for children to practise touching themselves. The SSAUK guide comments: “Telling children to practise masturbating on a plasticine model is child sexual abuse.”

Bish also takes a relatively upbeat view of porn and prostitution. Acknowledging that prostitution can be dangerous, it calls for decriminalisation and says that some sex workers “earn a good living” and that some like it because “clients pay them well and are nice to them.” Its section on “teen porn” does not explain that many participants in pornography have been trafficked or coerced into taking part. This contravenes DfE’s guidelines on pornography, which state that pupils should know that that it “presents a distorted picture of sexual behaviours, can damage the way people see themselves in relation to others and negatively affect how they behave towards sexual partners.”

Further difficulties are to be found in the materials relating to gender identity. The government’s concern about external providers became plain in September when it issued guidelines stating that schools should not work with organisations that produce material suggesting that non-conformity to gender stereotypes is “synonymous with having a different gender identity.” 

Nonetheless, many of the providers identified by SSAUK continue to use content that does just that. Educate and Celebrate, which received £22,500 from one government grant, and Diversity Role Models, both use a twee but confusing image of a “gender unicorn” alongside text stating wrongly that intersex people are neither male nor female, that there is an additional biological sex category called “other”, and that sex is “assigned” (rather than observed) at birth. Educate and Celebrate wrongly defines intersex, a disorder of sexual development, as a type of gender identity. The Proud Trust, which works with more than 500 schools, and has received 21 government grants totalling £436,326, uses the image of a “Genderbread person”, which inaccurately portrays biological sex as a spectrum and suggests that children might be a different gender based on their interests or the clothes they prefer. (The image is also used by EqualiTeach and Do…RSE.) Resources from Stonewall, which claims to have trained “thousands” of schools, and last year received £702,295 from nine government grants, also use stories that suggest that a girl who is good at stereotypically male pursuits is a boy inside.

Some resources also misrepresent the law. Diversity Role Models and EqualiTeach wrongly state that under the Equality Act (2010), children are able to use the toilets and changing rooms of the gender they identify with, whereas in fact the Act protects single-sex spaces.

How does the DfE feel about the proliferation of resources that flout its advice? In a written response, a DfE spokesperson said: “We know that some organisations have unfortunately produced unsuitable material and this is why we have provided guidance, to support teachers and headteachers in teaching this important subject appropriately.” It is the job of schools, the spokesperson added, to assess RSE materials and “ensure they are balanced, impartial and age-appropriate.” Compliance with the guidance the DfE has issued “will be enforced by Ofsted”, and schools should consult parents and share examples of the RSE resource they intend to use. Parents who are concerned can make a complaint through the school’s complaint process, the spokesperson said. 

Yet at the same time as the DfE is distancing itself from these resources, other government departments are handing out grants of hundreds of thousands of pounds, often for specific projects. One of Diversity Role Models’s grants, for example, was from the Government Equalities Office and was used to help 100 schools “embed LGBT+ inclusion into their school’s policies, practices, curriculum and culture”. The Proud Trust’s funding has come from the Home Office and the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), as well as local authorities, NHS trusts and Children in Need. The £33k DCMS grant came from the tampon tax fund and was intended to “support disadvantaged women and girls”, although £500 of it went towards a trans youth conference.

Some parents will want to ask questions about why organisations that are breaching guidelines issued by one part of government are receiving funding from other parts of government. Very many schools have been trained by, or used resources from, the organisations mentioned here. We will have to see how many continue to use these providers – and parents will do well to maintain a watchful eye.

Photo by Markus Winkler on Unsplash

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Kim Thomas

Kim Thomas has been a freelance journalist for more than 20 years, writing for national newspapers and magazines on topics such as technology, education and health care.

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