Today Lucy Powell MP has committed Labour to making Personal Social Health and Economic education (PSHE), including age-appropriate Sex and Relationships education (SRE), a statutory subject in all state-funded schools. Labour has published a dossier revealing a ticking time-bomb of issues that young people must try to navigate today, without the support that they need.
This is a long read of an article first published in the Thunderer column of the Times newspaper today.
David Cameron is failing to protect the next generation
Some adults find it hard to imagine what the lives of children and young people are like today. The next generation are growing up with very different pressures than we faced when we were children. The world around them is fast-paced and frenetic. The advance of new media and the access young people have to technology and information has evolved in ways that we could not have possibly imagined 30, 20 or even 10 years ago.
Whilst this access brings vast opportunities – I imagine my young children will far outskill me on a computer before long – it creates new and unprecedented risks. On a daily basis, young people now have to navigate their way through the downsides of new media. Youngsters are being pushed into adult territory well before they are ready. And there is evidence that new media is helping to fuel a premature sexualisation of young people.
Most children are now carrying around some sort of access to the online world in the pockets, with a portable camera on them at all times. The ‘selfie generation’ are able to take photo after photo of themselves before picking one to edit and upload to the internet. They regularly see stars they admire share scantily-clad photos online, which feeds into a growing sense among children that this behaviour is normal. We hear reports of 14-year-old girls setting their profile pictures on social media websites to them in a bra.
Worse still, teenagers are coming under pressure to share nude photos of themselves. New figures from Freedom of Information requests to police forces show the number of reported incidents of children under 16 ‘sexting’ has skyrocketed by 1,200 per-cent over the past two years. Many young people just don't understand the implications of sharing photos or personal information, and that they have absolutely no control about what happens to a picture after they pass it on.
Unbelievably, a recent survey has revealed that around one in six children are now accessing the app ‘Tinder’ every day. Almost half of these children are aged 15 and under. I find it hard to comprehend that an app that is essentially aimed at hook-ups and dating, and that shares location-based information, is being accessed by 13-year-olds – potentially making them vulnerable to grooming and abuse.
It is hard to shake the feeling that this is all storing up trouble for young people - a ticking time-bomb of issue after issue that the next generation have to try to navigate unsupported and on their own. Every week we hear more news about the growing crisis in child mental health. Around three children in every classroom now has a diagnosable mental health disorder, with a surge in the number being admitted to A and E for this reason.
To me, it is evident that far more needs to be done to equip young people with the resilience and knowledge they need to stay safe in relationships both off and online, and to spot the signs and feel confident to report when they feel that they may be being manipulated and exploited. Delivering this is particularly important for those children who are vulnerable, such as looked after children, young carers and those with special educational needs.
Schools, working closely with parents, have a key role to play here. With evidence of a link between health education and emotional wellbeing and academic achievement, if we fail to take action and support our young people with these issues, there is a real chance we could see this played out in their school work later down the line. So it is only right that there has to be dedicated time in the curriculum for providing young people with the information and knowledge that will help to keep them healthy and safe.
Yet, time and time again the Tories have refused to make Personal Social Health and Economic education, the subject that could act as the vehicle for this information, compulsory in all state-funded schools. They have ignored call after call from four select committee chairs, businesses, parents, school leaders and leading children’s charities. This has seen the subject squeezed out of schools and the quality of any lessons that do take place nose-dive. The most recent guidance on Sex and Relationships Education has been left unchanged since 2000. In a world that has rapidly changed since then, this is both absurd and alarming.
So today I’m announcing Labour’s commitment to making PSHE, including age-appropriate SRE, statutory in all state schools. Improving its status as a subject would help to reverse the downwards trend in lesson quality that has taken place over the past few years. It would ensure there is a new broad and balanced framework of standards for the subject, with up-to-date guidance that reflects the world we live in now. It would give schools the freedom and flexibility to deal with local issues so that they can properly address the concerns most relevant to their pupils. Alongside this, we want a new generation of PSHE leaders in every school, to share best practice and lead on ensuring that all children in their school have the information and knowledge they need to stay healthy and safe.
It is not possible to fully stop children from experiencing the pressure of trying to keep up with friends as they grow up. But we can and should put systems in place where we can that support the development of health and wellbeing among children. Dedicated time in the school day that supports the next generation to navigate the pressures they are coming under is the earliest of early interventions. It is time we delivered this for our young people, rather than watch them struggle later down the line. If David Cameron refuses to act, it will be the first thing Labour does in government.