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

Imagine travelling to work in the morning, listening to colleagues loudly marking your body out of 10. Imagine being groped in the corridor, catcalled, hearing rape jokes.

A woman suffering this at work would surely leave, or sue. But teenage girls at school don’t have that option, although a horrifying report from Ofsted in 2021 found this is the environment in which many are trying to learn. Nine out of 10 girls said being sent unwanted explicit images happened “a lot” or “sometimes” among their peers. Two-thirds said the same for unwanted touching. That report, which among other failings identified “weak implementation” and “poor teacher subject knowledge” of relationship, sex and health education (RSHE), was the wake-up call ministers needed to order all English schools to follow RSHE guidance. Good sex education at school matters, in a world where “leave it to the parents” would all too often mean leaving it to Pornhub and Andrew Tate.

Which brings us to this week, when Conservative MP Miriam Cates, a committed Christian and former biology teacher, stood up in parliament to demand an inquiry into children being taught “graphic lessons on oral sex, how to choke your partner safely and 72 genders” under that guidance, in what she called a widespread “safeguarding scandal”. Rishi Sunak responded earnestly that he’d asked education ministers to investigate and “as a result of all this we are bringing forward a review of RSHE statutory guidance”. It’s fertile ground for a moral panic, amid reports of an Isle of Man school hiring a drag queen to lead a sex education session in which she allegedly announced there were 73 genders, and ordered a child who disagreed to leave the room. But the school has said there could be “inaccuracies with the information being shared” about that one.

So what of the long, indignant report on sex education that Cates and her fellow MP Danny Kruger have just published? It would be truly shocking if children were encouraged in school to choke each other for sexual gratification, so perhaps it’s a relief the report offers no evidence this actually happened. (The choking “advice” is taken from a blog by the self-styled sex-positive podcaster Evie Plumb, who says she has undergone professional RSHE training, but there’s no claim it was ever taught in schools.) It’s one of several faintly dizzying leaps in the report, which accuses schools of “promoting trans identification” to children, downplaying marriage and introducing “pupils in year 9 to a definition of bestiality”.

Have some schools occasionally got it wrong? Almost certainly. There will be good and bad lessons out there, as in any subject, and that matters. Refusing to show sex education materials to parents, as some schools have, doesn’t inspire confidence. According to the Sex Education Forum, which represents professionals, there aren’t enough teachers properly trained to cover complex issues. Into that vacuum have stepped external providers of possibly variable quality, with Cates and Kruger’s report suggesting lines between teaching and corporate side hustles may sometimes be blurred. Children aren’t a business opportunity or captive audience. But they’re not fodder for a politically convenient culture war either.

A careful, considered review of sex education might be no bad thing. The Sex Education Forum’s latest pupil survey found over half of children felt they weren’t taught enough about power imbalances in relationships, or navigating porn. Although current guidance is usefully flexible, letting schools decide what “sensitive and age appropriate” education means for the communities they serve, it’s also fairly vague. Long-promised official guidance on handling trans pupils is woefully overdue, with schools puzzling over conflicting advice from rival campaign groups on pronouns, toilets and teaching about gender identity. But a politically weaponised review trampling over this sensitive ground would be disastrous.

Ofsted’s report uncovered cases of children in their final year of primary school sending nude pictures. Even seemingly sleepy rural schools are now dealing with teenagers thought to be targeted by grooming gangs. These are the new facts of life. Teachers cannot simply ignore them when facing a roomful of sniggering teens, trying simultaneously not to terrify the ones who have never been kissed or shame the early experimenters, while respectfully accommodating the little girl who has two dads and the boy whose strictly religious parents think that’s a sin.

That’s a job for a trained specialist, not a reluctant staffroom volunteer or wholly unregulated third party. Good sex education costs money. But ultimately, it’s children who pay dearly for the bad kind.

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