Half of school pupils received no sex education during lockdown, as young people report concerning levels of sexual abuse and harassment in the classroom and online

More than a fifth (22%) of school pupils rate sex education in school as “bad” or “very bad”, according to new findings from the Sex Education Forum – a four percentage points increase since before the pandemic. 

One third of pupils said they had received no information about how to access sexual health services, a mandatory part of the Relationships and Sex Education (RSE) curriculum, and nearly half (46%) learned nothing about sexual pleasure. 

Half of pupils also reported receiving no sex education during lockdown, at a time when safety campaigners were concerned children were vulnerable to abuse and exploitation.

The findings come five years after the decision to make RSE statutory within schools, with the new curriculum launching more than 18 months ago. 

The decision caused controversy in some religious communities, including Muslim people protesting against LGBTIQ-inclusive education in Birmingham. The Christian right has also campaigned against statutory RSE, accusing the lessons of sexualising children and promoting an “LGBT agenda”.

Despite this, 39% of pupils said they had received no education about gender identity, or information relevant to people who are trans and non-binary.

Violence and Education

While the majority of survey respondents received education on reproduction (how babies are conceived and born), puberty, contraception and sexually transmitted diseases, there remain worrying gaps in education about abuse, power dynamics and pornography. 

This is in spite of high levels of sexual harassment and abuse in teenage populations – a 2021 Ofsted report found that 90% of girls and 50% of boys had been sent explicit pictures or videos without their consent. Almost a quarter (24%) of girls in mixed-sex schools have been subjected to unwanted physical touching of a sexual nature while at school, along with 4% of boys. 

The Everyone’s Invited campaign laid bare the extent of sexual abuse in schools, with majority girls experiencing harassment and violence from male students. 

“I was sexually assaulted by a boy in my year, after school, while i was wearing my uniform,” one girl wrote. “My school refused to do anything. Even though I had proof I wasn’t the first girl.”

“In year seven, I had a year 11 boy proposition me for sex and when I said no he spread a rumour that I gave handjobs for £5,” explained another. “I was 11 and didn’t know what that meant.”

Other girls described being subjected to constant messaging and harassment on their mobile phones and social media accounts. Some incidents involved boys “joking” by saying to girls “yeah so this is where we’re all gonna rape you”. 

One positive is that nearly nine in 10 pupils were taught about the importance of consent. However, many pupils expressed concern that there was a lack of education addressing issues of power and abuse such as that experienced by the girls writing to Everyone’s Invited. 

More than a third (37%) of pupils said there was no education about power imbalances in relationships, while 28% reported not being taught how to tell if a relationship is healthy. Despite increased understanding around grooming and sexual exploitation, 29% of respondents had learnt nothing about how to recognise the signs of this kind of abuse. 


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Explicit Content

Concerningly, 36% of respondents said they received no education about pornography despite, as former Chair of the Women and Equalities Committee Maria Miller explained, porn “playing a destructive role in young people’s understanding of healthy relationships”.

For this reason, Ofsted explicitly recommended that the RSE curriculum addresses pornography. 

Nearly half (48%) of 11 to 16 year olds have seen pornography online, and most children first see pornographic images without their consent, such as via pop-ups or being shown it by someone else. Boys were more likely than girls to say that pornography had given them ideas about the sex they wanted to try. 

That porn is giving young people ideas about sex is not surprising when there is a gap in comprehensive RSE. But it is a cause for concern when so much pornography includes scenes of aggression and violence – some studies say that up to 88% of porn scenes depict violence against women. Other studies put the figure much lower, at 36%, due to excluding films and images of BDSM. 

Girls have shared how their partners play out aggressive acts they have watched in mainstream pornography during sex – one US study found that 13% of sexually active girls ages 14 to 17 have been choked, while in the UK a third of women under the age of 40 have been subjected to unwanted choking, slapping, spitting or gagging, during consensual sex. 

The Government’s Online Harms Bill has proposed age verification for porn websites. This has been criticised by some child abuse campaigners for not going far enough, while privacy campaigners have argued the move provides little benefit on child safety while doing much harm to people’s privacy. 

Girls have also reported how porn has played a role in the abuse they have experienced from their peers. One submission to Everyone’s Invited described how a group of boys on a group chat shared “multiple horrific messages” including porn, videos depicting rape and violent fantasies about what they planned to do to her. Others reported being pressured to send explicit photos of themselves, or being sent images without their consent. 

“Relationships and Sex Education lessons became mandatory in all schools because it was the right thing to do after decades of inconsistent delivery of RSE but this new polling shows the extent to which young people are continuing to be failed,” said Lucy Emmerson, chief executive, Sex Education Forum. “Even the basic building blocks of RSE are still being missed and the knock-on effect is young people lacking the skills and knowledge for healthy and respectful relationships.” 


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