Thursday briefing: Why the government wants to roll back sex education in schools

<span>A teacher points to a diagram of female reproductive organs projected on a screen in a classroom in a scene from Human Growth, an education film on sex education shown to students in Oregon junior high schools from 1948.</span><span>Photograph: Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG/Getty Images</span>
A teacher points to a diagram of female reproductive organs projected on a screen in a classroom in a scene from Human Growth, an education film on sex education shown to students in Oregon junior high schools from 1948.Photograph: Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG/Getty Images

Good morning.

A group of Conservative MPs has long been pushing the idea that sex education in England is age-inappropriate, extreme, sexualising and inaccurate. Last year, 50 MPs wrote a letter to Rishi Sunak urging him to commission an independent inquiry into how sex education was being conducted in schools: evangelical Christian Conservative MP Miriam Cates has claimed children were being presented with “graphic” material including “lessons on oral sex” and “how to choke your partner safely”.

The image conjured, of schools where children are indoctrinated with “radical” ideologies about sex and gender, is one most teachers do not recognise – instead most say schools are exceedingly cautious about the material they show children and what they teach.

Nonetheless, the crusade against sex education has won out, with the government announcing an overhaul of guidance on relationships, sex education and health. For today’s newsletter I spoke with Rachel Wilder, a lecturer at the University of Bath who conducts research on education, about the consequences of restricting sex education. That’s right after the headlines.

Five big stories

  1. Europe | Slovakia’s prime minister, Robert Fico, was recovering after surgery following an assassination attempt that prompted warnings across Europe of rising political violence. A suspect was in custody, the Slovakian president said on national television. Reports identified the alleged gunman as Juraj C, a 71-year-old writer and poet from Levice, south-central Slovakia, who had spoken on YouTube of his desire to form a political movement.

  2. Labour | Keir Starmer will unveil his version of New Labour’s pledge card for the next general election with six key commitments today. He has committed to stabilising the economy, cutting NHS waiting times, setting up Great British Energy, cracking down on antisocial behaviour and recruiting 6,5000 new teachers. He also added to the list that Labour will be launching a new border security command, following criticism for not having a separate mission for migration.

  3. NHS | Almost nine out of 10 nurses come into work when ill, according to research that lays bare the intense pressures on NHS staff. Last year 85% of nurses still turned up for a shift at least once despite having issues such as stress, back pain, a cold, anxiety or depression.

  4. Prisons | Hundreds of court hearings have been postponed at the last minute after ministers introduced emergency measures to deal with overcrowded prisons. Operation Early Dawn, triggered on Wednesday, means some suspects will be released on bail, rather than sent to a cell, because their trial will be put off.

  5. Immigration | Tens of thousands of rejected asylum seekers have been added to the group of people at risk of being forcibly removed to Rwanda, the UK Home Office has announced.

In depth: ‘Teachers feel gagged, unable to support the children they’re there to support’

The education secretary, Gillian Keegan, is expected to announce a consultation today that puts forward the revised guidance restricting sex education lessons by age. It will be completely banned for children under the age of nine. By age 11, pupils can be taught about “revenge porn”, grooming, stalking, sexual harassment, forced marriage and sexting, but will not be taught about contraception, STIs and abortion until they are 13. Discussions on pornography will be delayed further, until students are 14, in year nine – despite the fact 25% of 16 to 21-year-olds say they came across porn for the first time in primary school.


What’s new?

Relationships, sex and health education (RSHE) has been compulsory in schools since 2020 – the first time in nearly two decades that guidance on sex education had been updated. In primary schools children are taught about different kinds of healthy and respectful relationships, with schools strongly encouraged to include same-sex relationships. It is up to individual schools to choose whether to introduce sex education at this point. They are also taught about safe and unsafe contact, as well as key health topics like menstruation and puberty.

In secondary schools, this is expanded to include more complex issues on “sex, sexuality, sexual health and gender identity in an age-appropriate and inclusive way”, according to official guidelines.

The point of this new guidance is to curtail the level of discretion schools have in what they teach. Headteachers have said there is no evidence that inappropriate material is a widespread or significant problem in English schools and that they already have a duty to share materials with parents who ask to see it. Parents also already have the power to remove their children from some sex education lessons.

As well as the new age restrictions, teachers will have a duty to focus on “biological facts” about sex and gender, with the government mandating that they emphasise that gender identity is a “contested” subject. “This type of policy can create a really hostile environment that is not helpful for teachers or schools,” Wilder says.

She also notes that set age bans are “artificial” and not evidence-based. “Children come from all different kinds of households – an eight-year-old only child, for instance, might only be encountering ideas around sex and sexuality for the first time in school but an eight-year-old who has older siblings could be exposed to more information,” Wilder says.


The culture war

Schools have become one of the biggest sites of the so-called culture wars. In 2020, the now business secretary Kemi Badenoch parroted complaints from the US right wing and insisted any school that taught certain elements of critical race theory was “breaking the law”. She followed that up 18 months later by saying that a new curriculum should be formulated to highlight the “benefits of the British empire” in response to history lessons on slavery and colonialism. And the government announced an urgent investigation in 2023 after spurious reports that children were identifying as cats, despite there being no evidence that was happening. (Labour leader Keir Starmer helpfully interjected into the frenzy by stating that he thinks “children should be told to identify as children”). And on and on it goes.

The impact of these noxious political arguments making their way into the classroom is already being noticed: Dame Rachel de Souza (pictured above), the children’s commissioner, has said that culture wars over sex education are partially to blame for an increase in sexually transmitted infections among young people. And Wilder told me that during her research she has heard one council was so nervous about being caught in the crosshairs of such a lightning rod issue that it refused to provide any guidance at all on sex education in a bid to avoid political backlash.

“This gags the local council because it means that they cannot give the schools the support they’re asking for and need,” she said. “It creates a chilling effect on schools as they feel that they have to back away from it to avoid reprisals.”


What kids and teachers want

Despite the reports from Cates and others that schools have become amoral cesspits, a survey conducted by the Sex Education Forum found that more young people than ever before report that their RSE provision is good or very good and that has been consistently improving. What they want is more inclusivity, not less.

Wilder says it is important to allow experts to guide the curriculum, not “political agendas” because “these types of policies and directives have a really long effect. I was doing research with primary schools in 2013 and 2014 and they were still using the language from section 28, which was repealed in 2003.”

The key issue, according to teachers and experts, is that in the digital age, children have access to a multitude of different sources online. If they are not being taught a comprehensive, accessible and inclusive curriculum they will learn about it elsewhere, which could be from unreliable, poor quality, inaccurate or misleading sources. The consequences of that can be damaging.

The situation also becomes perilous for teachers who increasingly feel unable to answer questions that children come to them with. “I’ve spoken to teachers who have said that if a child asks them a question and they don’t feel they are supported by the government to answer it they will tell them to ask their parents,” says Wilder. “They feel gagged and unable to support the children that they’re there to support.”

What else we’ve been reading

  • Today’s long read, by Atul Dev, is a profile of Narendra Modi’s right-hand man, Amit Shah (above left, with Modi). It’s a riveting portrait of a deeply intimidating figure – and an essential primer on how power operates in Modi’s India. Archie

  • Of course you, dear reader, are far too engrossed in First Edition to be listening to the Today programme – so let Mark Lawson fill you in on how Emma Barnett fared as she stepped into the hot seat on Radio 4. Toby Moses, head of newsletters

  • Lucy Osborne and Stephanie Kirchgaessner’s rigorous investigation into allegations of sexual misconduct and inappropriate behaviour against famed magician David Copperfield is a piece of troubling and important reporting. Nimo

  • Bubble tea has gradually been taking over the high street. Hilary Osborne looks at the phenomenon and why the UK version is almost unrecognisably sweet when compared to the Taiwanese original. Toby

  • The secret civil servant reveals how the bureaucracy is standing firm in the face of continued attacks from the government – including Esther McVey’s recently announced crackdown on their lanyards: “Listening to the Tory party sermonise about the perils of diversity and inclusion has the same level of credibility as Dr Crippen giving a Ted Talk.” Toby


Premier League | Goals from Cole Palmer and Christopher Nkunku gave Chelsea a 2-1 win at Brighton despite Reece James being sent off. A see-saw battle ended with Manchester United beating Newcastle 3-2 thanks to Rasmus Højlund’s 84th-minute strike.

Football | Meanwhile, off the pitch, Erik ten Hag’s future at Manchester United is expected to be decided in the next fortnight, with the chances of the Dutchman keeping his job thought to be 50-50. United’s plan is to decide the manager’s fate after the FA Cup final on 25 May, when they face Manchester City at Wembley.

Formula One | Alex Albon has committed his long-term future to Williams after signing a “multi-year” contract extension. Albon, 28, had been linked with Mercedes following Lewis Hamilton’s move to Ferrari for 2025 and also a return to Red Bull.

The front pages

The Guardian print edition leads with “Slovakian leader ‘fighting for his life’ after assassination attempt”. “Europe on edge after pro-Russian Slovak PM is gunned down” reports the Daily Mail. In a panel on its front page, the Daily Mirror enumerates Keir Starmer’s “6 fixes for Britain”. The Times says “Starmer sets out to woo voters with six pledges” while the Daily Telegraph has “NHS turns on doctors who blow whistle over safety”. “Britain goes pension cash-in crazy” – it’s because of the cost of living crisis, explains the Daily Express. Something’s in the “UK’s toxic water” over at the i: “Illegal sewage, parasite in taps – and higher bills on the way”. A hopeful story in the Metro: “Blood test to give us 7yr notice of cancer”. Top story in the Financial Times is “Business leaders warn Sunak that Tory migration policy threatens investment”.

Today in Focus

What keeps the world’s top climate scientists up at night?

Hundreds of climate experts expect global temperatures to rise to at least 2.5C (4.5F) above preindustrial levels by 2100. Damian Carrington reports

Cartoon of the day | Ben Jennings

The Upside

A bit of good news to remind you that the world’s not all bad

“Housewife finds time to write short stories”, went a regrettable headline by the Vancouver Sun from many decades past in one of the first pieces about the Nobel-winning Canadian writer Alice Munro. How wrong they got it! Munro, who died on Monday aged 92, was called “the Great One” by Jonathan Franzen and was part of an “international literary sainthood”, as Margaret Atwood put it.

Lisa Allardice pays tribute to her extraordinary talent: “To read a Munro story is like watching a virtuoso pianist perform alone on the stage, where novelists have the rest of the orchestra to hide behind. Every move, every note, is on show, and yet it is impossible to know how she does it.”

For a taste of that greatness, read a passage from one of her most celebrated collections, Lives of Girls and Women (1971), and discover if you haven’t already why “her stories are small miracles of humane understanding”:

People’s lives, in Jubilee as elsewhere, were dull, simple, amazing, unfathomable – deep caves paved with kitchen linoleum. It did not occur to me then that one day I would be so greedy for Jubilee … what I wanted was every last thing, every layer of speech and thought, stroke of light on bark or walls, every smell, pothole, pain, crack, delusion, held still and held together – radiant, everlasting.

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Bored at work?

And finally, the Guardian’s puzzles are here to keep you entertained throughout the day. Until tomorrow.