In 2010, in my first month as your MP, it was reported that our area had one of the highest rates in southern England of teenage pregnancies. I was clear that, at the heart of tackling this issue, was instilling our young women with the confidence and the knowledge they needed to make the choices which were right for them.
This has been a subject of great interest and importance for me. Welcome progress has been made at a national level and here in Hastings and Rye. However, much more can and will be done.
In 2012 I led an inquiry into unplanned pregnancy. Alongside parliamentary colleagues Liberal Democrat Lorely Burt and Labour’s Sandra Osborne, we heard evidence from a range of experts and organisations including Respond Academy which works with disadvantaged young people in Hastings. The evidence they gave highlighted that, when they’re growing up, young people need a greater knowledge of sexual health and guidance on how to build healthy and supportive relationships.
We found that this relationship education is absolutely key in reducing unplanned pregnancies and it is why our report recommended that Relationship and Sex Education (RSE) should be made mandatory.
In 2014, the year of the most recent published figures, there were half the number of conceptions in women under the age of 18 in Hastings and Rother than there were in 2007. However, while Rother is below the national average for teenage pregnancies, the rate in Hastings is still 42% greater than England as a whole.
Clearly, progress has been good but we must do more to educate young women in our area about sexual health, building healthy relationships and negotiating some of the personal and social challenges they will face growing up and as adults.
This is why the Government’s decision to make it a requirement that all secondary schools in England teach RSE is so important.
It is right that schools will have flexibility over how this is taught so that the needs of local communities and faiths are taken into account. Schools will also be required to publish a clear statement on what will be included in lessons so that parents can make informed decisions about whether they would like their child to take part. However, with high-quality and age-appropriate content which relates to the modern world and addresses issues like cyber bullying, ‘sexting’ and internet safety, RSE and PSHE will help support our young people to be safe, happy, healthy and successful.
Crucially, it will also give them the confidence and the understanding they need to make the decisions which are right for them.