Fewer nurses in schools could mean a decline in sex education, leaving children vulnerable to abuse and exploitation, says the Royal College of Nursing (RCN).
The RCN has said school nurses play a key role in delivering essential sex and relationships education (SRE) and safeguarding children against sexual abuse.
However, figures announced at the RCN School Nurses Conference today show that the number of school nursing posts has fallen by 13% since 2010 to just 2,606 in the NHS.
A recent investigation by the RCN found that there were 5,500 sexual assaults in the school environment during a three-year period, including one rape nearly every school day.
Meanwhile a survey by the National Union of Students (NUS) suggested half of students learned about sex through watching porn, while two thirds received no information about consent in their sex education lessons.
The RCN has said that without sex education, children and young people are at risk from a range of threats including sexual assault, mental health problems and sexually transmitted infections.
Vulnerable children such as those in care were said to be at a particularly high risk, both in and out of school.
The RCN is therefore calling for the Government to secure school nursing roles to help deliver effective sex education classes for all children and young people.
Fiona Smith, RCN professional lead for children and young people’s nursing, said: “At a time when children are facing unprecedented exposure to influences like pornography and sexualised advertising, it has never been so important to equip them with a solid understanding of healthy relationships.
“Child sexual exploitation and assault are also on the rise and it’s clear that many children are at serious risk.
“School nurses are there for all children and young people, providing support, encouraging healthy lifestyles and protecting those who are most vulnerable. They have the training and expertise to really drive forward effective SRE in schools. However, with numbers dropping all the time, school nurses simply don’t have the capacity to follow this through.
“The Government should be prioritising this expertise – not cutting the roles when we need them most. The RCN supports the call for compulsory SRE in all schools, but we need the workforce that can deliver this crucial aim and make sure all children and young people are safe and healthy.”