The Department for Education's recent announcement that Sex and Relationships Education (SRE) will be mandatory in schools, starting at age 4, is one that may scare some teachers. Sex is often seen as a taboo subject, even in general society, and for a teacher speaking to a classroom full of children delivering SRE could be an embarrassing prospect. While these fears are valid, they can be based on misguided ideas about what it is that is being taught, and how; - a Science lesson on the biology of sex here, a PSHE session with condoms and bananas there. What is missing from this model is the relationships aspect of SRE, which needs to be the foundation for understanding RSE.
This is why the Department for Education have recently recognised the need to emphasise the 'R' in SRE - focusing on the Relationships as key to healthy sexual interactions. Schools will therefore be introducing Relationships and Sex Education (RSE) and Relationships Education (RE) from age 4 come September 2019.
What do parents and young people say?
Statistics from the Sex Education Forum and the National Children's Bureau found that 84% of young people rated their school SRE as "OK", "bad" or "very bad" in 2015, and 46% said they hadn't learnt about how to tell when a relationship is healthy. Surveys carried out with parents in the UK also demonstrate a high demand for primary schools to teach SRE. 78% of parents said they want their children to learn about the difference between safe and unwanted touching, 64.5% said they want their children to learn medically correct terms for genitalia, and 65.5% agreed that children should learn about puberty before they experience changes to their bodies. It is obvious from these statistics that both parents and young people want and need information to be given around sex and relationships in schools, but also that there is not enough focus on the relationships part of SRE.
What are the key components of teaching RSE in schools?
The Government's new regulations state that pupils will learn about safety in forming and maintaining relationships, what healthy relationships look like and how relationships affect physical and mental health and wellbeing - all at an age appropriate level. It is great news that the Government has recognised the need for statutory RSE, however if it continues to be taught in isolation as a "bolt on" to academic subjects, schools will still not be providing the fullest, most beneficial relationships education that they could.
To forge emotionally healthy relationships, young people must have the support to develop good self-esteem, self-awareness, empathy and to regulate their emotions. How can young people develop these (very teachable) skills well unless schools weave them into pupils' learning, and reflect them in all relationships at school? Social Learning Theory tells us that we learn social and emotional skills by watching others. There will be children who don't have examples of healthy relationships at home, so it's vital that these skills are modeled at school too. Supporting the development of these skills in young people through relationships education will not only stand them in good stead to develop healthy relationships with future partners, it can have a multitude of positive life outcomes and allow them to forge positive, every day relationships too.
It is within this context of more information and modelling of healthy relationships that schools should be talking about various aspects of sex with children at an age appropriate level. For instance, schools could consider teaching the medical names for genitalia at age 4, alongside what different types of relationships look like; what their parents or carers relationship might look like, relationships with friends and their relationships to strangers, as well as practical social and safety skills around what to do if a stranger talks to you. Towards the ages of 10 and 11, schools could talk about the bodily and emotional changes of puberty alongside how to stay safe online, and prepare children for secondary school by giving them practical social skills to make friends, such as how to start conversations. When children reach the age of 13 and 14, the focus for RSE could move towards topics like consent, harassment and sexting, as well as how to communicate assertively in the face of peer pressure. Giving young people practical skills around how to say "no" when they want to, and how to identify and deal with abuse in relationships could be another way for schools to contextualise sex education at this age.
How can schools embed a whole approach to relationships?
Schools and teachers must take the Government's new legislation as an opportunity to implement real, lasting change for children and young people's emotional health. This can be achieved by taking on a broad approach to RSE and embedding it into every part of school life, alongside information about sex that is contextualised with learning around healthy relationships. The approach that Family Links would recommend to achieve this is called a 'whole-school approach' to relationships, alongside a curriculum that explicitly teaches social and emotional skills and embeds that skill development across the curriculum. A whole-school approach to relationships pervades all aspects of the life of a school. This would include whole-school policies and practices that promote positive relationships and provide opportunities for the development of social skills, for example positive behaviour management and restorative justice approaches. It is also essential for schools to ensure that staff receive training and CPD to support positive relationships with pupils, and work in close partnership with parents and families.
This whole-school approach to relationships education can help pupils create healthy relationships in every aspect of their lives. Of course talking about aspects of sex such as consent, puberty, and contraception are extremely important, but they should be taught within a context where the foundations of what a healthy relationship looks like have been laid from an early age, and not discreetly as an "added on" lesson. This will mean that when pupils have lessons that do focus on sex, they will have already developed social and emotional skills, and have a much broader understanding of relationships to contextualise this information. While some of these actions are in the hands of schools, the Government must also provide adequate funding so schools can offer training, professional development and resources to their staff, especially for those delivering RSE. Schools and teachers must embrace the Government's new legislation as an opportunity to support pupils' relationship skills in holistic way, and not be scared off by the "sex" in Relationships and Sex Education.