Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Relationships and sex education: ensuring entitlement

Last week both the End Violence Against Women Coalition and the Office of the Children’s Commissioner called on government to improve the quality of relationships and sex education (RSE). These reports came hot on the heels of Ofsted’s subject report which concluded RSE is still not good enough and is one of the weaker elements of Personal, Social and Health Education (PSHE). Not long before that the Association of Teachers and Lecturers passed a resolution that young people must be taught about pornography in schools.

Not a week goes by without expert opinion demonstrating that more needs to be done to improve the quality and quantity of RSE in schools. There is a broad consensus that PSHE is a vital part of a well rounded education for children and young people. And rightly so - all children and young people have an entitlement to learn about relationships, emotions, sex and sexuality. This is set out in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child ratified in 1989.

Department for Education is repeatedly quoted as saying that SRE (RSE) is compulsory in all state maintained schools. This is a slight misrepresentation.  Some aspects are included in science and in addition secondary schools have to include as a minimum HIV and other sexually transmitted infections.  The relationships part is not a statutory requirement.  All state maintained schools do have to have regard for the Sex and Relationship Education guidance published in 2000 (0116/2000) if they choose to deliver SRE beyond the statutory requirements.  The guidance does not apply to Free Schools and Academies.
Teaching about relationships and sex should be a normal part of everyday life, but the quality of teaching and learning on this issue in schools has been hampered by politicisation and a lack of willingness from successive governments to make it a statutory part of the curriculum. Over the last 25 years since the Sex Education Forum was established much has been learnt about best practice and there is an increasing evidence base of effectiveness. This must now be used in our work with schools to ensure entitlement for all.

Despite the consensus that PSHE is important it has too often remained on the edges of the curriculum and too many teachers do not get the training and support they need at initial training or in service. The net result is patchy provision – excellent in some schools and non-existent or poor in others which simply isn't acceptable in any subject.

Research with children and young people shows time and again their RSE does not meet all of their needs - that it is too little, too late and too biological. A major survey carried out by UKYP and a recent poll by Brook showed the majority of young people believe more needs to be taught about relationships and real life dilemmas. Qualitative research recently carried out by Brook shows that young lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people often feel invisible at best. Worst still some experience explicit prejudice in the classroom from peers and adults.

A vocal and tiny minority still perceive RSE as fuelling early sexual activity despite all the evidence to the contrary. On the flip side RSE is increasingly seen by a wide range of groups as a critical antidote to a number of society's ills - from reducing teenage pregnancy to preventing infections, abuse, violence and exploitation including homophobia.

It is of course welcome that RSE is recognised as playing a vital role in improving public health and reducing violence and this is an important driver for change. All children and young people must receive a core educational entitlement of RSE that provides information, develops their core skills of communication, assertiveness and negotiation and develops positive beliefs and values including self respect and respect for others. This is fundamental to enable children and young people to develop and grow with confidence from puberty into adolescence and adulthood. The success is best measured through effective assessment of pupils learning.

The educational inspectorate Ofsted recently reiterated yet again there is a gap between the rhetoric of high quality SRE for all, and the reality of patchy provision in primary and secondary schools across the UK. The gap is one that urgently needs filling.

The expectations of what SRE can achieve place must be understood in the context of wider social norms and interventions.RSE is not a panacea for society’s ills, but it makes an important contribution to creating an open and honest culture which is safe and nurturing for all.

Government has resolutely devolved responsibility to schools to design and deliver SRE that meets the needs of their pupils. This creates an exciting opportunity to work with leaders at a local level ensuring we focus on the important questions of how do we do it, what success will look like for pupils and how we will know if it what is offered is good enough for all children and young people in all types of school.

Wednesday, 15 May 2013

The role of external visitors in school based PSHE

I have had a bit of a wake up call over recent months and weeks about the role of external visitors supporting schools in their Personal, Social and Health Education curriculum and it is an area we need to turn some attention to, to ensure that children and young people are not being subjected to lies, misinformation and poor quality teaching.

Firstly, I was in Cornwall recently and observed the Brook team deliver a brilliant Bitesize programme in partnership with the Alcohol Health Promotion worker, and the Youth Service in a school.  The programme was high energy, interesting, challenging for all students and most of all it was fun.  The students will remember it and pretty much everyone will have gotten some takeaways including, importantly, knowing where their local Brook service is.  It was also clear the school knew where the half day session fitted into students' wider learning.  This is clear evidence that when using outside visitors works, it really works and can be a brilliant experience for all.

The flip side of this is it can too easily go wrong.  This was shown in a recent report by one of Brook's projects Education for Choice.  The report revealed a range of young people's experiences of outside visitors teaching about abortion.  The findings make horrifying reading at times - a melting pot of lies, misinformation and scaremongering about the impact of abortion on future fertility, on risk of breast cancer, about the size and stage of foetal development and what happens when a woman has an abortion.

But it's not just the facts about abortion that are  inaccurate - the teaching is often deeply moralistic and presents a particular world view.  This approach extends way beyond abortion.  Take for example the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Children (SPUC). SPUC recently published a leaflet about same-sex marriage. In it they warn that if marriage is available for any combination, then gender becomes irrelevant and marriage will be reduced to gratifying your own personal desires.  The human cost of legalising same-sex marriage will be that motherless and fatherless families will be institutionalised, they claim.

Talking in response to recent reporting about outside visitors in drug education, the PSHE Association has urged schools to take a cautious approach when inviting external visitors into schools.  I support that call.  At a meeting on Monday Minister for PSHE, Liz Truss was clear they also want good quality outside visitors and told the meeting that the PSHE Association will be doing some work on this issue, which is to be welcomed. Brook will be discussing this with the Association to see how we can input in our area of expertise.

In the meantime, all of us - organisations, teachers and school leaders - must be explicit about what is and is not good practice when working with outside visitors, and raise the profile of the potentially damaging impact of allowing organisations into the classroom whose aim is to push a single world view and whose approach frightens and worries children and young people. That is not good teaching or good learning.  It would not be welcomed by most people teaching other subjects and it is unacceptable in PSHE.

  • You can read the Sex Education Forum's briefing on external visitors and SRE here.
  • You can read the PSHE Association's guidance here.