In a restaurant in Manchester last Wednesday my phone began to vibrate so often that I thought it was in meltdown. Minutes earlier I had posted a message on Twitter reacting to the findings of an inquiry into the grooming and abuse of young girls in Telford.
The message read: “Hard to understand why Telford scandal is not front of every paper. 1000 children.” It went viral and was eventually viewed two million times.
A three-year independent inquiry into child sexual exploitation in the Shropshire town had uncovered child abuse lasting decades. So why were the media not shouting about it in every newspaper, radio broadcast and TV bulletin? Was it apathy? Concern at media outlets over how to report on the culturally awkward subject of Asian men, largely of Pakistani heritage, abusing scores of children? Or are we so fascinated by the power struggles of Tory politicians that we don’t care about life in towns and villages far away from London?
Halfway through my starter, I asked my lunch partner, Nazir Afzal, the former chief prosecutor for northwest England who brought down the Rochdale child sex abuse ring, what he believed.
He blamed apathy. Fatigue. We’ve seen it all before. “At first everybody was reading about the Ukraine war and talking about it. But that has started to fall away. It’s the same with the child sex gangs,” he said.
The blitz of stories about grooming gangs has felt endless. Court cases. Council reviews. Police watchdog reports. Last month a report by the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC), called Operation Linden, found that South Yorkshire police let down 1,400 abuse victims in Rotherham — enough children to fill a decent-size secondary school.
The same month, Greater Manchester’s authorities published their own review of historical child sex abuse, which found children had been left exposed to sexual exploitation because of “serious failings” by the police and Oldham council. This included a council welfare officer convicted of 30 rapes.
Child sex gangs have been rooted out in Newcastle, Oxford, Halifax, Keighley, Derby, Peterborough, Bristol, Huddersfield, Manchester, Coventry, Middlesbrough, Burton-on-Trent, Bradford, Birmingham, Nottingham, Hull, Sheffield … I could go on, but you get the picture.
“They’re in the news for 24 hours, then it’s gone,” Afzal said. “It’s today’s newspaper, but not tomorrow’s.”
And after each scandal nothing seems to change. Like the police and social services, we move on, and lurch to the next scandal of mass rape in a post-industrial town. That’s the problem. But how do we fix it? Be more proactive, Afzal argues. He makes a good point.
Victims often feel criminalised and made to believe it is their fault — that they chose a certain lifestyle and are paying for it. These young girls are so traumatised by their abuse that they are rightly suspicious of the authorities.
They find it hard to trust social workers and detectives. Children like that are not going to easily approach such people, so you have to go out and find them.
Roughly a decade ago, there was a scheme in Greater Manchester in which social workers would go out at night and visit the staff and customers of the night-time economy – the takeaway shops, pool halls and taxi ranks. This is an economy that, for whatever reason, has a disproportionately high number of Asian men.
It is in the dimly lit streets and litter-strewn pavements of the night-time economy that the perpetrators meet their victims, luring them in with gifts of food, cigarettes, booze and free rides. A victim’s mother once told me her 14-year-old daughter was performing oral sex in exchange for a bag of chips or a box of chicken. She cried to me on the phone. The whole family is broken.
The 14-year-old met her abusers in a chicken shop. Local authorities, like all public services, are firefighting, with budget cuts due to austerity and holes in their finances due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Money is stretched thinly – and proactive work is always the first to go. But police and social services must recognise this repeating pattern and disrupt it. Set up teams of community police officers and social workers. Get out there and target the night-time economy. Find those victims and earn their trust. Break the cycle.
British troops have been banned from paying for prostitutes abroad as part of a crackdown on unacceptable behaviour in the armed forces.
The Ministry of Defence said any personnel found to have bought sex while deployed outside the UK would be thrown out of the military.
However, the rules do not apply to troops paying for prostitutes while on operations in the UK.
Under the new rules, senior personnel are now banned from having sexual relationships with junior ranks in situations where it would be considered an “imbalance of power”, the MoD added.
Leo Docherty, the minister for defence people, said the rules sent “a clear message” that “predatory behaviour” would not be tolerated, adding that “the highest values and standards” were expected of all serving personnel.
The move comes a decade after the death of Agnes Wanjiru, 21, a Kenyan sex worker, allegedly at the hands of a British soldier. Her body was dumped in a hotel’s septic tank.
Paying for prostitutes has long been rife in Kenya, where hundreds of British soldiers are deployed every year for training in hot weather.
Soldiers deployed at a British base in Nanyuki were known to have jumped over fences to pay visits to prostitutes during the night despite a curfew. One officer claimed a chain-link fence had needed replacing with a more substantial barrier because soldiers would pay for and obtain sex through it.
“Money would exchange hands through the gaps in the fence,” said the officer last October.
After a string of scandals involving affairs between senior officers and lower-ranking personnel, the MoD has launched a new strategy aimed at stamping out “poor behaviours”, including a zero-tolerance approach to sexual exploitation.
As part of this, the MoD said it now “prohibits all sexual activity which involves the abuse of power, including buying sex whilst abroad”.
It added: “The policy will ensure that every allegation will be responded to, no matter where the allegation takes place, and introduces a presumption of discharge for anyone found to be engaging in the targeted behaviours, including buying sex whilst deployed outside the UK.”
Anyone convicted of an offence will be thrown out of the military and there will be a “presumption of discharge” from the armed forces for any person who has “behaved in a sexually unacceptable way”.
Asked why it had taken so long for the MoD to tackle troops paying for sex overseas, Ben Wallace, the defence secretary, said: “Life has moved on, it’s a different generation. We want more and more women to be in our forces.”
Earlier this year it was announced that any sexual relationship between an instructor and a trainee would result in the instructor being discharged from the military.
That followed the death in 2019 of Olivia Perks, 21, a cadet at Sandhurst military academy who took her own life after having an affair with an instructor.
Obvious evidence of child sex crimes in Telford was ignored for generations leading to more than 1,000 girls being abused, an inquiry has found.
Agencies blamed children for the abuse they suffered, not the perpetrators, and exploitation was not investigated because of “nervousness about race”.
The inquiry was set up after the Sunday Mirror revealed gangs had been abusing girls in the town since the 1980s.
Chairman Tom Crowther QC said the abuse had thrived unchecked for decades.
His report makes 47 recommendations for improvement by agencies involved. West Mercia Police has apologised “unequivocally” for past events as has Telford & Wrekin Council.
The report found agencies dismissed reports of child exploitation as “child prostitution”.
Mr Crowther said: “The overwhelming theme of the evidence has been the appalling suffering of generations of children caused by the utter cruelty of those who committed child sexual exploitation.
“Victims and survivors repeatedly told the inquiry how, when they were children, adult men worked to gain their trust before ruthlessly betraying that trust, treating them as sexual objects or commodities.
“Countless children were sexually assaulted and raped. They were deliberately humiliated and degraded. They were shared and trafficked. They were subjected to violence and their families were threatened.
“They lived in fear and their lives were forever changed. They have asked, over the years: how was this allowed to happen?”
Other key report findings include:
- Teachers and social workers being discouraged from reporting abuse
- Offenders becoming “emboldened” by the absence of police action, with abuse continuing for years without concerted response
- Exploitation was not investigated because of nervousness about race, that investigating concerns against Asian men, in particular, would inflame “racial tensions”
- Even after an investigation leading to seven men being jailed for child sex crimes West Mercia Police and Telford & Wrekin Council scaled down their specialist teams “to virtual zero” in order to save money
The investigation was known as Operation Chalice and saw two Telford brothers among those jailed. A court heard the brothers sexually abused, trafficked and prostituted, or tried to prostitute, four teenagers between March 2008 and December 2009.
The report found the most common way children were exploited was through a “boyfriend” model, where a child would meet a man, who would persuade them to become his girlfriend.
Perpetrators, it said, sought out “vulnerable” children and would begin giving them lifts, buying them food, alcohol or cigarettes which led to the children becoming involved in sexual activity with the men as a “favour” as payment for the gifts.
Most of those responsible for the abuse did not use contraception and “pregnancies were expected to be (and in many cases were) terminated.” Some of those abused went on to bear the perpetrator’s children.
In several cases, victims received death threats against them or their families if they tried to end the abuse.
The report references the case of Lucy Lowe, 16, who died along with her 17-year-old sister and mother in a house fire started by Azhar Ali Mehmood, 26, the father of her daughter. She had become pregnant at 14 to Mehmood.
The report continued to say children were often abused in nightclubs and takeaways with witnesses also describing a “rape house” in Wellington, Telford, to which young people were taken.
Within schools, it said, there was a “reluctance” to report concerning activity without “concrete proof” which was an “overly cautious approach”, while “obvious” indicators like absences and changes in behaviour went unremarked by school staff.
The report said, in the most recent figures from the first six months of 2020, police received 172 referrals related to child exploitation.
The “dreadful, life altering crime has not gone away – in Telford or elsewhere,” the report said.
It also outlines recent police evidence of “an unacceptable, and quite frankly offensive attitude”, towards child abuse victims, with “disparaging language being used”.
In his statement, Mr Crowther said he looked back as far as 1989 to draw his conclusions, but had heard from victims exploited as long ago as the 1970s.
“I saw references to exploitation being ‘generational’; having come to be regarded as ‘normal’ by perpetrators and inevitable by victims and survivors some of whose parents had been through similar experiences,” he said.
He urged agencies to accept the recommendations made in the report and hoped the report “goes some way” to giving a voice to the survivors.
Mr Crowther recommended the formation of a joint review team to publish an annual report on child abuse in Telford.
Following the inquiry’s publication, survivor Joanne Phillips, who gave evidence said: “Victims were being identified as child prostitutes. Once you have been convicted that label will never leave you.
“Prosecutions are damaging to your life.
“Some children went to prison for not paying the fines. Convictions should be completely expunged.
“Today I feel incredibly proud of the girls in Telford….I cannot express enough how proud I am for seeing this through and their resilience and bravery.”
Lucy Allan, the MP for Telford, who has been campaigning on the issue since 2016, said: “Today is a very important day for victims and survivors of CSE, not just in Telford but right across the country because this report is damning, it is devastating.
“There are clear patterns that existed well before this report was commissioned that people knew about CSE, we had had high profile court cases in Telford and we should have taken learnings from that and we quite clearly didn’t.
“The saddest thing is that victims and survivors, their voices weren’t heard, they weren’t taken seriously and that should never have happened.”
The report’s recommendations should be adopted by local authorities around the country, she said.
Telford and Wrekin Council has said it “apologises wholeheartedly” to the victims.
“Child sexual exploitation is a vile crime that disgusts us and all right thinking people.
“The independent inquiry acknowledges we have made significant improvements in recent years.”
It said it was working to provide support for victims and it was already carrying out many of the inquiry’s recommendations.
Assistant Chief Constable Richard Cooper, of West Mercia Police, said he would like to say sorry to the survivors and all those affected in Telford.
“While there were no findings of corruption, our actions fell far short of the help and protection you should have had from us, it was unacceptable, we let you down. It is important we now take time to reflect critically and carefully on the content of the report and the recommendations that have been made,” he said.
He said the force now has teams dedicated to preventing and tackling child exploitation and works better together with organisations to safeguard children.
West Mercia Police and Crime Commissioner, John Campion, said victims and survivors had been let down.
“I cannot say with absolute certainty, just because lessons have been learnt, that it will never happen again.
“However, my drive as PCC remains resolute to ensure the system, that is there to keep people safe, continues building on the progress that has been made.”
Shropshire Council, which neighbours Telford & Wrekin said these crimes are “happening right across the country”.
It said awareness of the crime is now “far greater” and it has “safeguards” in place to help people living in the area.
Providers of sex education in schools are teaching children that prostitution is a “rewarding job” and failed to advise a 14-year-old girl having sex with a 16-year-old boy that it was illegal.
Outside organisations teaching children about sex also promote “kinks” such as being locked in a cage, flogged, caned, beaten and slapped in the face, The Times has found.
One organisation encouraged pupils to demonstrate where they like to touch themselves sexually, in a practise criticised as “sex abuse” by campaigners.
Another provider, an LGBT+ youth charity called the Proud Trust, produces resources asking children aged seven to 11 whether they are “planet boy, planet girl, planet non-binary”.
Last night campaigners said that “inclusiveness is overriding child safeguarding” and that the materials were “bordering on illegal”.
This week Rachel de Souza, the children’s commissioner, revealed that she would review sex education being taught in schools after Miriam Cates, an MP, was contacted by a parent whose nine-year-old child came home “shaking” and “white as a sheet because they’d been taught in detail about rape”.
Relationship and sex education (RSE) became compulsory in English secondary schools in 2020, with many contracting out the teaching. Since then an industry has sprung up of providers who produce resources and go into schools to teach sex education and gender issues.
Staff do not need education or child development qualifications and there is no professional register or regulation of their curriculum.
One organisation, Bish, is an online guide to sex and relationships for children aged over 14. It is written by Justin Hancock, who teaches sex education in schools and provides teacher training on sex education.
The website features a question from a 14-year-old girl having a sexual relationship with a 16-year-old male. She states that she is worried about becoming pregnant because they are not using contraception and are using the “withdrawal” method. In his response Hancock, who describes himself as a freelance sex and relationships educator, said that “your risks of pregnancy are very, very low”, a statement described as “dangerously reckless” by campaigners. He also failed to mention that the relationship was illegal and advised using lubricant during anal sex.
In another post on the site, a reader wrote to say that she felt “dirty” after being coerced into having sex for money. Hancock replied: “There are many many people doing sex work who do enjoy what they do — even if they don’t necessarily enjoy the sex. It can be a really difficult job but many people find it rewarding — just like other jobs.
“This is especially true if sex workers mainly have good clients, which I don’t think you do. If you did want to continue, maybe you could get better clients?”
In a post about “kink”, Bish links to a blog that provides a list of sexual activities including using manacles and irons, whips, swinging and beating.
In a post about masturbation, parents are told: “If your kid is having trouble understanding this, or you want to explain how to touch themselves, you could get hold of some Play-Doh or plasticine and make a model of what someone’s genitals might look like. They could practice touching the models gently in a similar way to how they may touch their own.”
The Safe Schools Alliance said: “Telling children to practise masturbating on a plasticine model is child sexual abuse.”
Bish claims that more than 100,000 young people a month learn about sex from its website. The site was funded by Durex but the condom brand withdrew its sponsorship. It is not clear why. The website is now funded by donations from the public and schools pay Hancock for resource packs that he provides. Hancock says on his website that he has taught “a broad variety of RSE topics in state and independent schools”.
A full day of teaching costs £500 a day for local authority schools, £550 for academy schools and £600 for fee-paying schools.
Hancock says that his website “is not designed for classroom RSE teaching”, and that teachers should visit his training site for resources, which can be bought on his online shop.
In 2019 the government announced that schools would be given access to a £6 million RSE training and support package so that teachers in England could provide new classes on issues such as healthy relationships, safe sex and consent. Last month the website Vice reported that only £3.2 million had been taken up by schools.
A survey by the Sex Education Forum of children aged 16 and 17 last year found that 35 per cent rated the quality of their school’s RSE provision as “good” or “very good” — down six percentage points from the previous year. This was attributed to many of the basics not being covered.
The Proud Trust produced a range of resources called Alien Nation that asked primary schoolchildren aged seven to 11 whether they felt closest to “planet boy, planet girl, planet non-binary”.
It also asks: “Which planet were you sent to as a baby” and “What would your ideal planet be like?”. Its website states that the resource was funded by Cheshire West and Chester council. The charity Educate & Celebrate, founded by Elly Barnes, a teacher, promoted a book called Can I Tell You About Gender Diversity?, which tells the story of Kit, a 12-year-old girl who is being medically transitioned to live as a boy.
Resources on their website include lesson plans for children aged seven to 11 that suggest pupils “create a gender neutral character” that they can share with the rest of the class.
Teachers should encourage them to “refrain from saying he or she” and “introduce gender neutral pronouns and language, eg They, Zie and Mx”. The group says that its methods have been adopted by “hundreds of schools”.
Last month Lord Macdonald of River Glaven, a former director of public prosecutions, said that providers were preventing parents from viewing teaching resources, citing commercial confidentiality.
Tanya Carter, spokeswoman for Safe Schools Alliance and an early years practitioner, said: “We are very much in favour of sex education but it should be for the benefit of children — learning about rights, how to protect themselves, and how to get help if someone is abusing them. It should not be about promoting prostitution and abuse to already vulnerable children.
“We don’t think Bish or Justin Hancock should be anywhere near children because he clearly doesn’t understand child protection. It’s completely indefensible what he’s been promoting to children and some of it is verging on a criminal offence.”
Hancock declined to comment. The other providers did not respond to a request for comment.
A spokeswoman for Cheshire West and Chester council said: “The Alien Nation book aimed to support teachers and schools to explain gender identity and gender variance. Lesson plans were created by the Proud Trust to accompany the book, which could be used by schools if they wished.
“The council will always take on board comments and will share these with the Proud Trust in relation to the Alien Nation book. The support pack is not available on the council’s website.”
A mother was reported to social services after she objected to the way her children were being taught about sex and gender at school (Charlotte Wace writes).
The woman said that she wanted her six daughters, four of whom are foster children, “to know they have [a] right to safe spaces based on biological sex and equality in sport”. She wrote to the school after being told that two of the girls, aged 12 and 13, were due to have lessons on sex and gender, and asked to see material used in the lessons in advance.
It amounted to “indoctrination”, she claimed in her letter, and she asked the school to add “some scientific balance”.
She was summoned to a meeting with social workers, an educational adviser and the member of school staff who had alerted the authorities. It was decided that a social worker would speak to the mother. The social worker summarised that they, along with other social workers, held “no concerns” relating to the mother’s care of the children and that no further action was required.
The woman has started legal action against the teacher who made the complaint and is suing for defamation.
The school has declined to comment.
I’ve just returned from a conference in Rome called Prostitution: Is Italy ready for the Nordic model?. The event was the first of its kind to be held in the Italian senate and it has caused some controversy.
A new bill drafted by senator Alessandra Maiorino was launched at the event, which, if approved by parliament, would criminalise the buying of sex and decriminalise those in prostitution. Known as the Nordic model, this approach to tackling the harms of the sex trade was first introduced in Sweden in 1999 and has since been adopted by a number of countries, including the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland, France, Norway, Sweden, Iceland and Israel.
Outside the venue, a small protest group representing sex workers and allies accused the organisers of “talking about our lives and bodies without even inviting us to the discussion table”, despite the fact that the views of pro-legalisation individuals are in the evidence that is included in the bill. Perhaps more significantly, the voices of those women who have survived the sex trade and since left it are loud and clear in this debate.
The tide is turning in Italy about the sex trade. Maiorino, a parliamentarian in the Five Star Movement party, has garnered cross-party support, with speakers at the conference representing youth, violence against women and gender equality.
Evaluation shows that this Nordic model approach has reduced the number of women in prostitution and that it challenges the culture of acceptability of men paying for sex. There are calls from abolitionists, including many sex trade survivors, to introduce the law globally.
Italy has a history of legislating against the sex trade. In 1958, senator Lina Merlin introduced the Merlin law, which effectively abolished legal brothels. Before the law was introduced there were 560 state approved brothels. The law also abolished the keeping of records of prostituted women, freeing them from the stigma associated with selling (but not buying) sex and providing support to leave. The key aim of the law was to reduce the numbers of women being forced, coerced or exploited into prostitution. It is regarded by Italian feminists as the foundation for a human rights critique of commercial sexual exploitation.
The law periodically comes under fire from those in favour of legalisation. The most recent example came in March 2019 whenit was challenged by the court of appeal in Bari in relation to a case in which businessman Giampaolo Tarantini was convicted of aiding and abetting prostitution by recruiting “escorts” for the then prime minister Silvio Berlusconi. Lawyers argued that prostitution is organised differently than in 1958 and that women now have sexual freedom and therefore can freely choose to be sex workers. The appeal was rejected by the constitutional court and the Merlin law was upheld.
According to Maiorino, there is more violence, abuse and exploitation in the sex trade than in 1958. “There are increasing ways in which women can be coerced into prostitution,” she said.
In fact, as Ilaria Baldini from Resistenza Femminista, a feminist activist group, told me, prostitution across Italy was “totally normalised” and the police often ignored the criminal exploitation of women in brothels and on street, rarely targeting pimps or buyers.
In March, Roberto Saviano (whose book Gomorra exposed one of Italy’s most powerful mafia networks) wrote an article for Corriere della Sera, arguing that legalising prostitution in Italy was necessary, that prostitution was a “real profession” and that the only way that women can be protected within the sex trade is to “regulate” it.
The article caused huge controversy and the newspaper was inundated with emails from anti-sex trade feminists, demanding a right to reply. Monica Ricci Sargentini, a reporter at the newspaper, supported the call for a feminist response; as a result, she was issued with a written warning and threatened with a three-day suspension.
Despite the significant resistance from pro-legalisation activists in Italy and elsewhere, its benefits are clear. Everywhere it has been implemented, the number of women in prostitution has fallen, as has violence – including homicide – against them. Neither is it an overly punitive or “carceral” law; proposals within Maiorino’s bill for sex buyers are typically modest: for first offenders, a fine of €1,500 to €5,000 and a police caution. Those that reoffend more than once in five years can be fined up to €15,000. A prison sentence of between six months to three years can be avoided if the buyers participate in a perpetrator re-education programme.
On the other hand, legalisation is always disastrous, as I discovered during my research. Germany introduced blanket legalisation in 2002 and, as parliamentarian Leni Breymaier told delegates in Rome, it has since become one of the fastest growing destinations for traffickers of women and children.
“There should never have been the scandal of Berlusconi,” she tells me. “And nor should any Italian men be led by his example.”
Most parents approach children’s questions about sex with careful thought. We know that our period chat, puberty Q&A, our bleakly vital guidance on sexting and porn won’t just affect their present happiness and bodily ease, but future relationships too. We entrust schools to make up for our shortfalls or embarrassment, to further our conversations with sensitivity and fact.
We’d expect RSHE (relationships, sex and health education) lessons to be conducted by trained teachers, schooled in biology, alert to pornified and misleading internet content. We’d hope our kids learn not just where babies come from but that sexuality is diverse, that sex isn’t just about problems, like STIs and abortion, but a source of joy.
Instead your child may be taught by the School of Sexuality Education which asked kids to Google then draw masturbating animals. Or the Proud Trust, whose dice game asks 13-year-olds to speculate how various body parts and objects will pleasure their anus. Or Diversity Role Models, which promoted the message beloved of paedophiles: “Love has no age limit.”
Because any organisation can now teach RSHE, including activist groups with political agendas. Staff don’t need education or child development qualifications. There is no professional register or regulation of their curriculum. The Department for Education (DfE) says it is a school’s responsibility to oversee lesson content but many don’t have time, often entrusting outside speakers to address classes with no teacher present. And if parents demand to see teaching resources, groups often cite copyright law and refuse.
RSHE teaching, as Miriam Cates, a Tory MP and former biology teacher, noted in her Westminster Hall debate on Thursday, is “a wild west”. Indeed it is a deregulated, privatised, quintessentially Conservative mess.
The government’s response to criticism about inadequate sex education was to make it mandatory from September 2020 for both primary and secondary pupils. The DfE advocates a “programme tailored to the age and the physical and emotional maturity of the pupils”. But instead of providing funds to recruit or train RSHE specialists, it left schools often to outsource lessons to groups, some newly formed to win these lucrative contracts. Since then many parents have voiced concerns. First at the inappropriately sexualised content of lessons for young children: 11-year-olds asked to work out from a list if they are straight, gay or bisexual; ten-year-olds told to discuss masturbation in pairs. Compelling pre-pubescent children to talk about explicit material with adults transgresses their natural shyness and is a safeguarding red flag.
Many groups brand themselves “sex positive”, a confusing term which doesn’t mean “relationships are great” but that no sexual practice is off-limits and the sex industry, specifically pornography, is wholly liberating. BISH Training’s website entry on “rough sex” dismisses the notion that online porn is responsible for a rise in choking, hair-pulling and spitting as “annoying”. Although 60 British women have died of strangulation during sex, BISH simply tells young people to go slow “at first”.
Reading RSHE groups’ online material, and most is hidden from public scrutiny, none addresses the fact that boys and girls are fed different sexual scripts from increasingly violent mainstream porn. Those being choked, violently penetrated in multiple orifices are rarely male. Yet there is no feminist critique or much focus on female pleasure.
Such teaching is supposed to uphold the 2010 Equality Act in which sex is a protected characteristic, yet much of it blurs biology. The Sex Education Forum divides us into “menstruaters” and “non-menstruaters”. Just Like Us states that sex can be changed. Amaze suggests boys who wear nail varnish and girls who like weightlifting could be trans.
Researching my report on the Tavistock child gender service, I spoke with parents of girls on the autistic spectrum who’d always felt like misfits but after listening to outside speakers at school assemblies or RSHE classes now believed they were boys. Gender ideology, with no basis in science or fact, is being pushed in schools, as Cates says, “with religious fervour”.
In its carelessness and cheap-skatery, the government has enabled teaching that is well out of step with public opinion. More In Common polling of 5,000 people found that while 64 per cent of us are happy for schools to teach that some children have two dads or mums, only 31 per cent believe primary schools should teach about trans identity. Parents know it is confusing, unscientific and predicated upon gender stereotypes.
The government’s present hands-off policy also leaves schools vulnerable when challenged by homophobic religious groups, as in Birmingham when extreme Islamists stirred up parents to oppose teaching about gay parents. Head teachers then said they’d have welcomed more prescriptive government guidance so parents could hold elected politicians, not individual schools, to account.
At Thursday’s debate, the chastened schools minister Robin Walker noted that parents should have ready access to all RSHE teaching materials and said the equality and human rights commission is working out guidance on how gender identity should be taught in schools. Such lessons must include evidence of social contagion, the harms of puberty blockers, warning about irreversible treatment and the experience of a growing number of “detransitioners”.
But the government needs to go further, with a register of outside groups and close monitoring of misleading materials. It should also teach critical thinking, so children can evaluate the porn-suffused culture in which they live. There’s no point parents putting such care into how we teach children about sex if the government gives none at all.