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.