Nearly a fortnight has elapsed since the new Prime Minister named her cabinet. Plenty of time for the new team to get their feet under their desks, find out where the water cooler is, and learn the names of their officials.
So now I’d like to throw down a gauntlet to the new Education Secretary, Justine Greening, and her colleagues: Let’s talk about sex, minister.
To be precise, sex and relationships education, and the overwhelming pressure to make it compulsory at schools up and down the country – pressure David Cameron inexplicably resisted during his time at the helm.
Ms Greening was one member of the cabinet to urge him to think again. Now she’s in a position to do something about it. Better still, she has a crucial ally: none other than Theresa May herself.
I blogged here about the last Education Secretary Nicky Morgan’s decision to rule out making sex education compulsory for all schools – explaining that David Cameron was behind the move, which had made his Cabinet women furious. Morgan did so against her better judgement, having fought alongside Mrs May, then Home Secretary, and Ms Greening, then International Development Secretary, to persuade Number 10 to think again.
The new Home Secretary Amber Rudd is also on the right side of the argument, having co-authored a cross-party inquiry on the subject a few years back.
Now these senior women are in a position to make it happen. The Bullingdon bruisers aren’t an obstacle any more.
Why does this matter? At the moment sex education is mandatory only from the age of 11 and only in maintained schools, not academies – which comprise the majority of secondary schools. And when sex education – or Personal, Social, Health and Economic (PSHE) to give it its full name – is taught, parents have to be informed. Some, often in faith schools, refuse to let their children participate. Just this month theschools watchdog Ofsted raised concerns about “organised resistance” to schools in Birmingham teaching about equality.
The result is that too many children are growing up without knowing what appropriate sexual relationships are.
They’re accessing abusive imagery at an increasingly young age, however hard their parents might try to block it. Without an open conversation about sex, boys think that the violent “porn” they stumble across online is the way to do it. Neither boys nor girls will grasp the concept of consent from videos furtively shared on smartphones.
Don’t take it from me though. The vast majority of parents and young people themselves , according to polls, support compulsory PSHE. Oh, and two royal societies, five select committee chairs, five teaching unions, the Equality and Human Rights Commission, Public Health England, the Children’s Commissioner, the Chief Medical Officer, the National Police Lead for preventing child sexual exploitation, the Association of Police and Crime Commissioners, the NSPCC, Barnado’s, Stonewall, and the End Violence Against Women Coalition. Even the media are onside.
That’s quite a coalition.
Of course there will be those who argue that this is a first world problem, that the new PM has an in-tray piled high with far more pressing concerns – about the economy, Brexit, security.
But just hours before being confirmed as Prime Minister, she promised not to “become defined exclusively by the process of our withdrawal from the EU”. In the very same paragraph she also vowed to lead a government “that will deliver serious social reform”.
Delivering on mandatory PSHE would show she’s starting as she means to go on.
Joe Hayman, of the PSHE Association, tells me there’s no time to waste. “We have been really encouraged by recent government statements on PSHE and I just hope ministers will see the urgency of the situation and act quickly. Report after report after report has called for action, and concerns about organised resistance to lessons about equality just strengthen the imperative to act quickly – we cannot get to a situation again when lack of clarity about the status of the subject is exploited by ideologically-driven groups to prevent children learning about subjects like equality,” he says.
Mrs May has confounded her critics with a decisive start in Number 10. Making a decision on this would take a nano-second. But its impact may well be felt for generations.