OPINION: Amnesty International responds to government’s “dangerous” ban on teaching sex education to children under the age of nine

May 17, 2024

The UK government has announced that Relationships, Sex and Health Education curriculum will not be taught to children until the age of nine, a move which Amnesty International has called “dangerous”.

The government’s new guidance proposes that children should not be taught sex education under the age of nine and even after this it should only be from a “scientific standpoint” (i.e. teaching anatomy among other topics).

Sex and relationships education has only been compulsory since September 2020. Currently primary schools in the UK are obliged to teach relationship and health education, not sex education, although many do because they believe it is necessary to keep children safe.

According to statutory safeguarding guidance teachers have a duty to report sexual harassment and violence. However, by prohibiting the teaching of sex education before age nine, the Government risks depriving children of the knowledge they need to understand what is inappropriate and how they can report it.

Amnesty welcomes a section within the proposals dedicated to sexual harassment and sexual violence. This includes harassment that was previously not covered, such as stalking as well as advice for teachers on how to address misogynistic online influencers. However, given the prevalence of harmful misogynistic behaviour and how early children are exposed to it, this knowledge must be delivered at the correct time for children to be equipped to keep themselves and others safe.

The upcoming consultation on this guidance will be open for just nine weeks and comes in the middle of exam season – with the deadline just before the summer holidays. This puts teachers in the difficult position of not knowing what curriculum they will be teaching in September. Even with scarce financial and human resources, teachers have worked hard to develop excellent curriculums to teach RSHE with parents (who can see the materials shared in the classroom).

The Government’s move to introduce the teaching of protected characteristics (this includes a persons’ disability, race, sex and sexual orientation) later in secondary school means younger children will not learn about the importance of equality in British law.

Teachers have reported that boys as young as 12 are espousing misogynistic views having been exposed to Andrew Tate or similar influencers. There is a concrete risk that discriminatory beliefs might set in early and will be more difficult for teachers to tackle as children grow up.

Many schools already deliver excellent education about protected characteristics. It is not clear whether they will have to stop.

Responding to the Government’s announcement that new age limits will be introduced into the Relationships, Sex and Health Education (RSHE) curriculum, Sacha Deshmukh, Amnesty International UK’s Chief Executive, said: “The Government’s new proposals for sex education are dangerous and put the safety and wellbeing of children at risk.

“While the Government fixates on so-called ‘gender ideology’, schools are trying to deal with peer sexual abuse and children as young as seven being exposed to pornography. This should be a call to strengthen inclusive sex and relationships education, not needlessly limit it.

“A whole generation of LGBTI children and young people were left scarred by Section 28 – we should strive not to make the same mistakes again.

“Women, girls and LGBTI people continue to face discrimination, bullying, intimate violence and a lack of access to the support they desperately need. There is strong and wide-ranging evidence that sex education does prevent abuse and violence.

“Children of all ages have the right to a well-rounded education and should not fear discrimination. Schools need more resources, more training, and more support for teachers to deliver inclusive relationship, health and sex education which responds to the challenges children face today.

“We live in the 21st century – LGBTI young people, equal marriage and diverse families are the norm. To ignore this puts an entire generation’s mental and physical welfare in peril.”