‘Pupils aged 11 debate rape, pornography and prostitution’ – it’s certainly the sort of headline you can guarantee will have Middle England keeling over with rage.
This week, the Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph were reporting that ‘irresponsible’ and ‘controversial’ education packs produced by Rape Crisis in Buckinghamshire – dealing with issues such as female genital mutilation, rape and forced marriage – are now available for schools to purchase and use as teaching material with young people aged 11-18 in line with government efforts to combat violence against women.
One lesson plan suggests that boys and girls debate myths about rape, such as those that the way women dress or act means they are ‘asking for it’.
The pack is an updated version of one which has been successfully trialled in other areas of the country and has the support of the government’s Violence Against Women and Girls strategy.
Predictably this has prompted outcry from campaigners who think that the materials are far too explicit for schools - and that young people simply do not need to be taught about these issues at all.
The attitude taken by the Daily Mail and (of course) the majority of commenters who commented on the story, is that educating ‘children’ about such unpleasant things is ‘shocking’, ‘depraved’ and ‘sick’ – with some commenters recalling that happier, more innocent time before the 1960s where the fact that abuse and violence was hushed up meant it didn’t happen. ‘Let children be children for as long as possible!’ they cry.
It’s worth pointing out again that the educational packs are aimed at those aged 11-18 – young people attending secondary school - and that its author has advised that teachers ‘use discretion’ over what discussions they have with certain age groups.
So while the packs will not be used in lessons where very young children are present, as the papers practically suggested – and most of the ‘children’ discussing these sensitive issues would actually be teenagers well aware of sex – it’s still, for the press, a matter of ‘protecting’ young people by denying them the chance to explore important issues. Issues that could well be affecting them.
Many of us, particularly parents, might wince to think of teens having discussions about rape and FGM at school because at the end of the day, they’re not pleasant things to be talking about. We don’t want young peoples’ first experiences of relationships and sexuality to involve violence and abuse. One critic has claimed that although we know ‘these things’ exist, we simply don’t need to teach our children about them.
But you only have to look at the wealth of evidence which has come to light in recent years to see that young people are hardly unaware of it all in the first place.
We’ve got research from the NSPCC suggesting that a quarter of teenage girls have been in a relationship with a guy who has been violent towards them and a third have had a boyfriend pressure them sexually. We’ve got the government urging schools to look out for signs that teenage girls may be about to be a victim of forced marriage as cases rise every year. And a 2007 study by the Foundation for Women’s Health, Reasearch and Development estimated that 23,000 girls in England and Wales under the age of 15 are at risk of FGM.
So unpleasant as they are, these are issues that are definitely not alien to young people in Britain today. Sadly many thousands will have already had their lives affected by the abuse the packs deal with. Not talking about them isn’t going to make them disappear somehow – it’s education and openness that’s needed.
Some people feel it’s the responsibility of parents or guardians, not teachers, to have these discussions. Where then, does this leave teenagers whose families are simply uncomfortable talking about sex, or are involved in abusive practices? Talking with peers or a teacher might help a young person to speak up about something that is affecting them.
Laura Colclough, who authored the pack, pointed out that young people today are definitely not naïve when it comes to issues surrounding sex.
Gone are the days when young people are not sexualised. Most, if not all, see the music videos. They see the culture and they surf the internet,” she said.
“It's not from an angle of supporting sexuality or pornography but critically evaluating it.”
Other supporters have pointed out the importance of discussing and trying to combat sexual violence in a culture where a quarter of all women will experience it. Stopping discussion of issues and access to information doesn’t solve problems, as those who have grown up in the US and received abstinence-only sex education can testify. Unpleasant as the subject matter may be, it’s not the time to brush it under the carpet and pretend young people aren’t affected by it.