Together with leading sexual health charity, Brook, Roam has looked at the nature of RSE in the UK currently, and where it could improve.
BY ROAM X BROOK 8 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.
Relationships and Sex Education in the UK has come a long way from what it used to be (cue those memories you pushed away of questionable and uncomfortable lessons with 30 giggling 12 year olds), but it still has a long, long way to go. We’re breaking down where RSE could improve in the UK and why.
A key issue with RSE as it stands is that teachers asked to teach Relationships and Sex Education are not trained adequately, largely due to a lack of budget. For RSE to really improve, and quickly, there should be a greater allocation of funding for teacher training, in order for the teacher’s own expertise and confidence to improve. To fully upskill the workforce and ensure that sufficient numbers of teachers are competent, informed and confident in delivery of RSE, RSE should also be included in initial teacher training for primary and secondary teachers, and be developed into a specialist subject, as well as the government providing adequate resource and budget to train teachers properly.
Alongside a lack of teacher training, teachers currently don’t have the resources needed to be able to fully teach their students all they need to know in RSE lessons to have safe and fulfilling relationships. In order for this to be guaranteed, more guidance for schools, particularly in primary educations, should be provided on what they need to teach. An ongoing programme of continuing professional development for teachers should also be provided, so as to ensure RSE keeps up to date with pedagogical developments, and continues to reflect current and emerging challenges for young people.
The government provides online guidance to schools planning RSE into their curriculum, advising that weekly or fortnightly lessons are beneficial, yet it is unclear how many schools put this advice into practice. In order to mitigate against parents worrying about RSE, it's important that parents receive information about the contents and timing of the curriculum prior to teaching. Given the small number of RSE classes many remember as children, it would also be more helpful if RSE was taught through a spiral or developmental curriculum which begins in reception and builds on the child's knowledge year upon year.
A key issue with Relationships and Sex Education currently is that, whilst it is ‘mandatory’ in schools (i.e. it must be offered on the curriculum), parents still have the right to withdraw their children from lessons. Backlash from parents centres around culture wars and transphobia, meaning that children that are usually pulled out from sex education fail to receive adequate RSE, as well as learning what they know about sex from regressive beliefs. Removing caveats and the ability of parents to withdraw their child from RSE when they feel like it will prevent schools depriving their students of comprehensive, accurate and inclusive RSE.
RSE can only be effective when it's accessible to all young people. LGBTQIA+ young people have particular issues when it comes to sex education, reporting that the lessons they receive are either heteronormative or overtly homophobic. Young people who are neurodiverse or have a physical disability are also often excluded from RSE. This is two-fold: they are sometimes not granted access to the lessons themselves or find that they aren't represented in those classes. A survey by charity Deafax actually discovered that 35% of d/Deaf people did not receive any sex education at school at all.
These inequalities highlight the need to raise awareness amongst teachers of RSE of unconscious (and conscious bias), as well as highlighting how important it is to ensure teaching is as inclusive as possible. Not only does this ensure all children feel safe and empowered during RSE, it also battles stigmas around sex.
Leading the charge for better quality RSE in England are young people themselves and it is because of this that they should be involved decisions that affect them. In a world that is ever-changing (often in ways older people struggle to understand or keep up with), involving young people is essential to making sure RSE stays up-to-date and effective.
If you’re looking for a spokesperson outside of the sexual health sector to champion the importance of RSE, you’re going to be hard pushed. In order for RSE to change for good, we’ve first got to educate everyone on the weaknesses of the current curriculum and highlight areas for change, in order to encourage everyone, not simply industry experts, to shout about the significance of Relationships and Sex Education to safe and fulfilling relationships for young people in the future.
The content currently encompassing RSE in the UK has strengths and clear weaknesses, one of which is that the curriculum of Relationships and Sex Education misses out a key component in ensuring that the students taught it have safe and fulfilling relationships in the future. Sex positivity completely changes how a person views themselves and others when having sexual experiences, tying into matters of consent and safeguarding. What is more, being taught how and why pleasure is important in sexual experiences, will give young people the tools to enjoy and facilitate pleasure. Sex positivity and pleasure go hand in hand with consent and safeguarding, and the current gap between the two must be bridged in order for RSE to be called comprehensive.