Teaching consent in the #MeToo age

With guidance for relationships and sex education in schools to be consulted on by Govt, how do we handle questions of sexual and verbal misconduct

By King’s Ely Principal, Sue Freestone 

The Government, in the first update to sex education  since 2000, is seeking to overhaul the curriculum to teach children as young as four about consent. The news comes as police figures revealed almost 30,000 reports of children sexually assaulting other youngsters over a four-year period. Meanwhile, the #MeToo  hashtag continues to expose a sorry history of  young people too afraid to come forward with stories of harassment and rape. With the shocking prevalence of intimidation and assault within our culture, it is perhaps time for schools to rethink how we handle the question of sexual  and verbal l misconduct. But how can we equip girls and boys with techniques to protect themselves in an often unjust, imperfect world, when each day seems to bring another revelation of sexual impropriety or abuse of power, most typically, but no means exclusively, by men over women? Easier said than done, of course. Many people who experience sex-based intimidation fail to tell anyone in authority about it, preferring instead to avoid the person in question, or to play down or deny the gravity of the situation. However, we neglect abuse of power or sexual predation at our peril.  

In schools the matter is addressed in PSHE education, through modelling correct behaviour, and via messages reiterated in assemblies; but are we appropriately specific? Are we inhibited by our concern that we may be corrupting rather than educating? More importantly, are we so conditioned ourselves that we fail to notice comments and accepted practice that reinforces centuries of prejudice and misplaced expectation?   As a woman, even I find myself guilty of laughing things off rather than challenging them; is that just because I am a woman? Things have moved on since the beginning of my own career in teaching, and in some respects things have gone too far and I often find myself speaking up in defence of men. But, from the age of bra-burning during my own formative years, we have regressed into a time when, once again and far more explicitly, a woman is judged and judges herself, by the quality of her skin, the size of her bust, the shapeliness of her thigh and her rating on social media. Boys are not far behind in their growing obsession with the way they look.  

“I believe we can harness the energy of the #MeToo movement to open a valuable conversation with young people and an opportunity to model empowerment and change.” 

Where has it all gone wrong? If we are to equip our young adults to stand up to sexual predators, be they manifest in the Harvey Weinsteins and Kevin Spaceys of tomorrow, or in outwardly idle but corrosive banter, we have to do more to instill in them a sense of their own value; equal to that of any other human being, regardless of status. While we seek to protect innocence, the world gets on with exposing ever-younger children to all manner of pornography and disfigured expectation. Our pupils should feel able to speak out if they are exposed to people who commit sexual crimes. Always a concern associated with adolescence, we cannot start educating children too young. It is time to fight back and, as is so often the case, it is only through education that such fundamental societal change can be engineered.  

I believe we can harness the energy of the #MeToo movement to open a valuable conversation with young people and an opportunity to model empowerment and change. Teachers know their pupils and how to deal with sensitive topics. If the young adults in our schools are to become the first generation to call time on sexual offenders, we need to build their belief in their own intrinsic worth and the empowerment born of standing up to menace. 

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