We all have sex ed stories to tell. Whether it’s the classic condom-on-the-cucumber, or (one of the Roam team's anecdotes), being shown a video called ‘How clean are your bits?’, sex education in the UK has a reputation for being embarrassing at best and useless at worst. Here at Roam, we partnered with leading sexual health charity Brook, to look at the current state of the Relationships and Sex Curriculum in the UK and what’s lacking.
BY ROAM X BROOK 10 MIN READ
RSE, standing for Relationships and Sex Education, encompasses guidance on relationships, sex and health education, splitting into Relationships education for primary schools and Relationships and Sex education for secondary level students.
RSE (Relationships and Sex Education) is essential for a number of reasons. As well as ensuring that young people are more likely to have safe sex and improved sexual health once having sexual experiences, RSE has also been proven to reduce harm by getting to the root causes of gender and sexual violence. Studies have found that schools teaching reported 25% less psychological abuse perpetration, and 60% less sexual and physical violence perpetration. It’s also been found that receiving RSE in school increases a person’s chance that their first experience of sex is consensual, as well as increasing awareness and appreciation of gender equity and sexual rights and improving mental health.
RSE in England encompasses guidance on relationships, sex and health education, splitting into Relationships Education for primary schools and Relationships and Sex Education for secondary level students.
Teaching students about the different physical, social and emotional aspects of relationships and sexuality, its aim is to provide them with the skills and knowledge needed to have safe, fulfilling relationships, to take responsibility for their own sexual health and to feel happy in their own sexuality. Stemming from the framework for Personal, Social and Health Education (PSHE) in 1999, its patchy history has meant that the content of RSE in the UK has varied over the years. It's likely that many of those educated in the years prior to 2020 (when RSE was made compulsory for the first time!) had some less than satisfactory teaching.
RSE became ‘compulsory’ in the UK in 2020 as part of the Children and Social Work Act 2017, but despite schools being mandated to offer it on their curriculum, it doesn’t always mean that all students are receiving the RSE they want and need. In primary school, parents/carers are not allowed to withdraw their young people from Relationships education, but they can opt their children out of lessons that address sex education (such as reproduction as part of a puberty lesson). At secondary level, parents are allowed to withdraw their child from sex education (other than the section which sits within the science curriculum). This means that many young people are missing out on vital lessons that could equip them to make informed decisions about their sexual health and relationships, and know where to go for support.
In recent months, RSE has become very topical again in mainstream media and there are a number of high profile individuals, parliamentarians and grass-roots groups who are posing threats to the future of RSE. Specifically, we are seeing threats to the rights of LGBTQ+ people, and to young people’s rights to confidentiality. This is filtering down, and teachers and students are the ones who are being impacted. For example, Brook recently reported having heard of a school which no longer ran condom demonstrations (a staple of RSE from its very creation), instead showing students animations. They were unable to allow young people to handle condom or penis props because of complaints from parents. Disallowing young people to understand how to put on a condom first hand could have a potentially harmful effect on their sexual health, as well as demonising a product that supports safe and fulfilling experiences.
Another key issue in RSE currently is that teachers asked to run Relationships and Sex Education lessons are not being offered adequate training. The lack of training for teachers is primarily due to schools not having the appropriate budget to spend on teacher training. When mandatory RSE was implemented in 2020, the budget allocated to support schools to deliver these complex and important topics just wasn’t sufficient and as a result this is adding more pressure to teachers who are already stretched. This means that young people aren’t always receiving the high quality, evidence-based, inclusive RSE they want and need.
Another detrimental effect of a lack of teacher training, besides children missing out on vital information, is that teacher confidence is heavily impacted. Brook has found that there is a lack of consistency of good practice across the board in RSE, where a teacher’s own confidence and personal beliefs often affect what is taught in the classroom.
All of the issues above are further highlighted when time comes into the picture. Cast your mind back to your own sex education – if you remember having more than two lessons on it at school, you’ll be one of the few!. Nowadays, things aren’t much better, with the time dedicated to RSE varying widely between different primary and secondary schools. For RSE to be effective, and for pupils to be impacted in a significant, lasting way, lessons should be regular and built on a spiral curriculum. No one stand-alone lesson can be enough.
RSE has come far from how it was first addressed in schools in the UK. However, we’ve got a long way to go and a lot has to change before we can say that our Relationships and Sex Education is world-class.
If you’re a teacher, a parent looking to properly educate your children, or someone hoping to better inform themselves, Brook has a suite of free resources from handouts and videos, to in-depth online learning courses on Brook Learn covering topics from consent to contraception, STIs and puberty.