This post is a somewhat longer piece on why and how we should offer Relationships and Sex Education. Again, your comments on this will be most gratefully received. For further information or for support please contact us on firstname.lastname@example.org
Let’s look again at the initial points from the last post regarding the purpose of RSE and how it can be taught well.
1. Teacher confidence and training
We need to focus very carefully on the training needs of the profession in order to do justice to this subject. Before we even get to looking at the key aspects of sex and relationships education, our initial teacher training institutions should focus once more on core child development and the psychology of the child. Whilst these subjects are still within the training curriculum, they have been superseded to some extent by content-driven learning.
Teachers need to be comfortable and confident with any subject that they are teaching. For RSE, this is even more important as it’s a potential open minefield of problems. Within training, we need to look at our own values and attitudes to sex and relationships, as well as societal values. We need to be realistic about what young people are confronted with through the media, within their families etc, and we need to identify ways to address relationships education sensitively.
Teachers need to be given time to develop their skills in this area, be they students of education or practitioners with decades of experience. A strong focus on active learning and the development of facilitating and enabling skills needs to be looked at too. You can’t teach this from a book. The book can be a useful tool, as can the videos and outside speakers that are brought in to give some resonance to the subject, but first and foremost it’s the teacher that’s well-known to the pupil that’s best placed to teach RSE.
Top Suggestion: Insist on training prior to teaching this subject. Consider your own set of values and how this may or may not conflict with the professional values of teaching RSE.
Can we really have tokenistic teaching about something that is going to affect every single child who passes through our schools? Relationships, their positive aspects and their damaging breakdowns, affect each and every one of us. The importance of sexual relationships is going to be important at some point in everyone’s life, even if they choose a life of celibacy. Children and young people don’t need to talk about this for one week in one term when all the “essential” learning that helps them to pass tests and exams has taken place. It needs to be on-going, structured, thoughtful and planned.
Consider the young child who has started her periods before the June of her final year in primary school. Is it really appropriate for her to wait until she’s experienced puberty before talking about it? What of the child who has been sexually abused and doesn’t necessarily know that it’s wrong, or hasn’t been given the confidence or the skills to voice their discomfort? What of the child who’s intrapersonal skills are so immature that they can’t relate to their peers because they’ve mainly experienced aggressive or negative interaction between genders?
We can’t have tokenism. This is an entitlement for children and it’s a safeguarding matter too. A carefully planned programme, with sufficient flexibility to adapt to the needs of the children and particular issues that could arise in the media, is needed.
In the media recently, for example, there has been a massive outcry about sexual deviance and abuse, and it’s understandable that a parent may wish to switch off the news to avoid difficult questioning from their child. Yet the problem remains and there will be other children who are watching the news, having things explained to them in their own homes and then coming to school to share this information with their peers – with or without distortion from the reality of what’s happened elsewhere.
We would go as far as saying that all lessons should have a focus on the personal and social development of the child which should be explicitly planned for.
Top Suggestion: Find places in the existing curriculum provision to reinforce relationships education. Use story books for work on relationships as a great starting point.
3. The needs of Young People
We can’t stress this enough. There are so many variants and influences on a child’s understanding of relationships and sex that no child is going to be coming into the classroom with the same experiences as others. Despite this diversity, you can develop a personalised programme that meets the needs of all children. It just needs very careful and sensitive planning.
There needs to be a comprehensive assessment of a child’s understanding before you can honestly and appropriately tackle this subject. (If you want some examples of needs assessment and how to carry them out, please contact us at email@example.com). Having carried out hundreds of these needs assessments, it’s still amazing that what comes out as the key areas of required learning as expressed by the children isn’t what the teachers within the school expected. For example, loss, bereavement and separation are significant issues for our young people, and these are frequently ignored by too many practitioners because they’re so difficult to tackle.
Throughout any programme of work on RSE, it should be made very clear to the young people that if they feel discomfort or want to talk to a trusted adult about a specific issue, that opportunity is there. Having an anonymity box in the room, freely available for children to post their concerns, is an excellent means of ensuring that you don’t get uncomfortable disclosures or inappropriate questions that are too mature in nature for the majority of the children in the room.
Top Tip: Involve the young people in their learning throughout RSE with continual assessment and pupil evaluation.
4. Skills and Values Development
It should come as no surprise that the majority of children who come to sex and relationships education lessons already know how to make babies, yet we offer them a curriculum that shies away from this fact.
Our children and young people don’t just want to know the facts. They already know them – in the main. What they want are discussions and understanding about what to do in given situations. They want to know how to develop the skills to manage relationships and to manage their own developing sexuality. They want to share their experiences and learn from one another. They want to be given a voice – a real voice, whilst they feel protected and can develop their skills, attitudes and values.
We’ve written in previous posts regarding our concerns about a facts-driven curriculum. This is even more relevant in the area of relationships and sex education. They can get, and probably already have got most of the facts from the internet, from the media, from books and magazines and from their own experience of watching siblings grow in their mother’s body, and of course from discussions with peers. What they want – as we know well from the previously mentioned needs assessments – is time to talk! They want time to ask questions, to seek clarification, to deepen their understanding.
When planning a programme of work for RSE, we need to be very clear about the balance between knowledge, attitudes and values. An excellent example of this can be found in the “Passport” document from the Gulbenkian Foundation, written be Jane Lees and Sue Plant, which we highly recommend.
Top suggestion: Follow this link and get planning! http://www.gulbenkian.org.uk/publications/publications/46-PASSPORT.html
5. Sex positive
We said this in our previous posts and we need to say it again. There’s NO EVIDENCE that simply talking about sex encourages children and young people to seek sexual experience. To the contrary, positive RSE education encourages young people to wait until their bodies and their emotions are mature enough to handle it.
Young people can sniff out hypocrisy from some distance. A frequent comment from young people is that we tell them all about the dangers of sex rather than the reality of it being a wonderful and life-enhancing experience (at an appropriate age).
We need to be realistic about sex and we need to educate our young people into knowing that it is a very special part of adulthood, but it’s so special that they need to wait in order to experience it best. We can’t keep pretending it’s to be avoided at all costs because our young people know that we’re not being entirely truthful. What we can and should do is reiterate that it’s not something that they should experience until they’ve really thought through all the possible consequences of having a sexual relationship – because for young people in particular there can be lots of extremely unwelcome consequences that can follow some fleeting moments of experimentation or coersion.
The very best RSE is sex positive – i.e. it explains to children that sex is good providing we know exactly what we’re doing and we know what the consequences can be, and providing we have developed key attitudes to sexuality before we begin a sexual relationship.
In the Netherlands, which is often quoted as having the best SRE in the western world, there are much lower levels of teenage conception as a result of SRE being universal, open, honest and positive about sex. We really ought to focus on what works for them and on how we can adopt and adapt such programmes to address the needs of young people in this country.
Top suggestion: Think positive and make sure young people consider other aspects of relationships and exploring/demonstrating their sexuality, especially before penetrative sex.
6. Relationships, not just sex
We’ve already mentioned this in our previous post but our education should be focused far more on relationships – the management of relationships, the development of relationships, the variety of relationships – than on sex itself.
We all need to develop and continue to pay heed to the important relationships in our lives. Relationships don’t grow, change or deteriorate by themselves. Whatever the relationship is, it needs attention and it needs work. It needs compassion, consideration, thoughtfulness, kindness, honesty, trust and empathy. No relationship, be it a parent to child, a lover to lover, a sister to brother, a platonic friend to friend can work effectively without these key values.
If we considered and prioritised the development of these then perhaps relationships wouldn’t break down so frequently with such a detrimental effect on those involved.
Again, in the news recently, there’s been much talk about young men operating in gangs in places like Telford and Rochdale, sexually exploiting and abusing young girls, without a single mention of the role of PSHE education in schools. If we concentrated on aspects of relationships that truly consider the wellbeing and needs of others as well as the personal desires or needs of the individual, then we may have a better foundation that would prevent so many of the atrocities which we witness. At the very least our teenagers need to be aware of what’s deemed illegal and/or inappropriate behaviour, as well as aware of various forms of abuse.
Our RSE provision needs to look at relationships generically because the values that we hold for each of our relationships and the inter/intrapersonal skills, in the main, are as relevant to one type of relationship as another.
Top suggestion: When planning work on relationships, look at generic skills that can be transferrable from one relationship to another, and from one situation to another.
7. Involving parents
One of the arguments that is usually cited against the teaching of RSE in schools is that it really should be done by parents. Learning about relationships and sex should indeed evolve naturally as part of a loving, caring and thoughtful relationship between parent and child. But this is an idealistic vision that doesn’t account for individual needs or the fact that some parents simply don’t feel comfortable talking to children about these issues, if indeed they have the skills to do so. It’s also undeniable that learning is deepened and reinforced when young people are able to discuss relationships and sex in a supportive classroom environment that’s controlled and moderated by a trained and trusted teacher.
In our experience, most parents welcome support in this area. No RSE programme should be developed or implemented without significant engagement with parents and carers. It’s not enough to just inform them of the subject matter. They need to be actively encouraged to participate by following up with discussions at home.
Many parents would also welcome the chance to be trained themselves, and good schools will offer that as part of the RSE programme. (Again, for more information on this or to book such a session, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org)
The best teaching is personalised. Good pedagogy is good whatever the subject matter. Knowing your children is so important to enabling the life-long learning that we advocate and desire for our children, and in most cases parents are the ones who know their children best and can be the greatest asset for encouraging lifelong learning.
Top suggestion: Put on a workshop for parents about the content of the curriculum for RSE and guide and support them in their skills for talking with their children about relationships.
As we said at the beginning of this piece, this isn’t an exhaustive list of what to do and not to do for relationships and sex education. However, if these issues are addressed, then it will go a long way towards ensuring that children and young people receive and are involved in quality relationships and sex education that will stand them in good stead for a lifetime.
- Relationships, Sex Education and Pornography: What should schools do next? (3diassociates.wordpress.com)
- PSHE Education “Not Yet Good Enough” (3diassociates.wordpress.com)
- Sex education ‘must counter porn’ (bbc.co.uk)
- We need to talk to children about porn | Justin Hancock (guardian.co.uk)