Gillian Keegan urged to not let culture wars weaken sex education

<span>Photograph: Bsip Sa/Alamy</span>
Photograph: Bsip Sa/Alamy

Dozens of organisations and charities have written to the education secretary, amid fears that sex education in England may become a casualty of the culture wars.

More than 50 organisations concerned with education and tackling violence against women and girls (VAWG) have written to Gillian Keegan to urge her to resist the “politicisation” of sex education, following a row in which Conservative backbench MPs claimed that children were being taught “graphic lessons on oral sex, how to choke your partner safely, and 72 genders”.

Rishi Sunak responded by asking the Department for Education to “ensure schools are not teaching inappropriate or contested content” in the subject of relationships, sex and health education (RSHE), and said he would bring forward a review into the subject.

The letter comes after an independent investigation for the Isle of Man government this week found that claims that children had been left “traumatised” by inappropriate and graphic sex education taught by a drag queen in a school on the island were “inaccurate” and had led to teachers facing death threats.

The prime minister confirmed a review into sex education, which will apply only to state schools in England, after a Tory MP, Miriam Cates, said children were being exposed to sex education classes that were “age-inappropriate, extreme, sexualising and inaccurate”. But teaching unions said the claims were “inflammatory rhetoric” and the review was “politically motivated”.

Led by the End Violence Against Women coalition and signed by organisations including Rape Crisis, SafeLives and the Sex Education Forum, the letter argues that schools are critical to tackling abuse, but currently were being left to deal with the fallout left by misogynistic influencers and tech companies.

It states: “In light of recent headlines – which have the potential to incite opposition to much-needed RSHE delivery in schools, we are seeking assurances that the upcoming review will not be unnecessarily politicised, and will be focused on what children and young people need to live happy and healthy lives, and the urgent need to do more to tackle VAWG and the rising influence of online misogyny in schools.”

Related: How we educate children about sex is vital. Don’t let it be part of Britain’s toxic culture war | Gaby Hinsliff

The letter states that young people are being exposed to misogynistic influencers online and “increasingly looking to porn to fill the gaps in sex education”, adding: “We urge you to commit to providing teachers with much-needed support and resources to hold space for young people to openly discuss these themes. We cannot afford the cost to these young people, and for wider society, of shutting these conversations down.”

It also argues that the VAWG sector had “a long history of delivering evidence-based and trauma-informed interventions with children and young people” and should be a critical partner delivering lessons.

The organisations accused the government of spending only £3.2m of the promised £6m funding package for RSHE, despite research from the DfE estimating that it would cost £59m to deliver the RSE curriculum. It also pointed to recent research from SafeLives that found teachers felt “time, resources and school prioritisation presented major barriers to effective delivery”.

A government spokesperson said: “All children deserve to grow up in a safe environment, which is why we will be publishing further guidance on how schools can create a culture of respectful relationships, and teach effectively about sexual harassment, sexual violence and stamping out violence against women and girls.

“We are also protecting children though our online safety bill, by ensuring technology firms will be required to enforce their age limits to stop children from being exposed to harmful material online.”