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 RSE for Generation Z
Last year the government announced major reforms to the teaching of Sex and Relationships Education but what this will end up looking like is far from clear. Nick Forsyth, Head of Wellbeing at Kingston Grammar School, Surrey, considers the options and the challenges...
  The government has got sex on its mind. Specifically, the teaching of Sex and Relationships Education (SRE). So far, however, it’s been a case of lots of talk and very little action. As recently as 2016, the government continued to reject
calls to make SRE compulsory in all schools. This has meant that schools that are not under local authority control have not been obligated to include SRE within their teaching and those that are need only
include lessons on basic biology. This situation has meant that, at best, the teaching of SRE has been inconsistent while, at worst, many children and young people have been left poorly informed, vulnerable and ill-equipped to deal with the challenges of modern culture.
Hopefully, however, things are about to change. Faced with recent Ofsted findings that more than a third of schools currently fail to provide adequate, age-appropriate SRE, there has been a dramatic change
in tack by the government and
the subject is finally going to be mandatory in all schools, including maintained schools, academies and independent schools. A new subject of Relationships Education will be taught in all primary schools, while SRE will be replaced by Relationships and Sex Education (RSE) in all secondary schools. Schools will still have some flexibility in terms of what is taught, however, and parents will still be able to withdraw their children from particular lessons.
So that’s that then. Job done.
Well, not quite. Given the rather chequered history of sex education in this country, I seriously doubt that it will be that simple and any new reforms, particularly the more liberal ones, are bound to attract controversy. When I began writing this article, I started thinking about my own sex education. I went to an all-boys grammar school in the 1970s and so, as you will have guessed, SRE was pretty much non- existent. So, as a young teenager, where did I get my sex education? Well snippets of information from books and magazines I suppose, together with well-intentioned but seriously ill-informed instruction from some Year 10 boys I knew.
Funnily enough, one thing I do remember very clearly was going for a hair-cut. Yes, really. In those days, somewhat bizarrely, barber shops were one of the few places where you could buy condoms. There you sat, feeling rather uncomfortable, avoiding conversation at all costs and all the while you had no choice but to stare at a display of swirly- coloured packets of Durex. I can still remember a vague sense of mystery – what exactly was in those packets? – but mostly bafflement.
The other thing I seem to remember was a lot of talk amongst the
boys at school about something called, and turn away now if you
are of a nervous disposition, the “wheelbarrow position”. What this actually was I had little idea but
you may well imagine the relief to all concerned when, much later on, this particular piece of sex education turned out to be rather less significant than previously imagined.
Thankfully, things have moved
on since then and the latest government proposals have been well received by teachers, politicians, lobby groups and organisations such as the PSHE Association and The Sex Education Forum. But now that the subject is going to be compulsory, the next question is what exactly
will need to be taught. The current statutory guidance for the teaching of SRE has not changed since it was introduced in 2000 and, in many ways, is now completely outdated. In particular, the current guidelines fail to address the risks to children and young people that have grown in prevalence in recent years such as internet pornography, “sexting” and staying safe online. In November last year, working in partnership with The Sex Education Forum, Kingston Grammar School hosted a national conference, “SRE for Generation
Z”, which called for changes to the teaching of SRE and highlighted many of the particular issues facing children and young people growing up today.
The government is currently
in a consultation period where school and college staff, parents and carers and other educational professionals are invited to give
their views as to how the current guidance should be updated. The overarching objective will be “child safety, safe relationships, both online and offline, and preparing pupils
for adult life” but this still leaves considerable scope for exactly what will need to be taught and how.
The government’s consultation document states that the new guidance will aim to make the teaching of Relationships and RSE age-appropriate and will “build knowledge and life skills over time in a way that prepares pupils for issues they will soon face”. Broadly, the kind of issues that teachers will need to address will include...
• Different types of relationships, including friendships, family relationships, dealing with strangers and, at secondary school, intimate relationships.
• How to recognise, understand and build healthy relationships, including self-respect and respect for others, boundaries and consent and how to recognise unhealthy relationships such as abuse and exploitation.
• Healthy relationships and online safety including use of social media, cyberbullying and sexting.
• Importance of healthy relationships to wellbeing and good mental health.
• At secondary school, factual knowledge about sex, sexual health and sexuality.
So far, all well and good, but we must also hope that any new guidance will also give teachers
a much better understanding of how to address the more difficult issues such as faith and religious observance, sexual abuse and
LGBT. Schools have a clear duty to ensure that teaching is accessible
to all children and young people
yet more than half of all lesbian, gay and bisexual young people are never taught anything about LGBT issues at school. Transgender is a particular issue that many schools and children’s organisations are increasingly having to deal with, often with very mixed outcomes. Can it be right, for instance, that teenage boys who believe that they are female are able to share showers,
changing rooms and toilets with girls on girl-guiding camping trips? Or when an all-girls grammar school tells staff not to refer to pupils as “girls” in order to “avoid causing upset” to those questioning their gender identity. Personally, I think not but, whatever your view, the new government guidelines will need to set out far more detailed and specific advice together with examples of best practice if teachers and schools are going to have the confidence to effectively address these difficult issues.
The new proposals place particular emphasis on respectful relationships. This is, of course, most welcome, particularly when recent reports have highlighted the growing trend of sexual harassment of girls in schools.
Overall, the future of SRE is looking hopeful. However there are still
some significant caveats in the proposals that nod to parental sensibilities. Under the new reforms, for instance, parents will retain the right to withdraw their children
from particular aspects of RSE at secondary school. As is the case now, however, this will not include sex education that is taught as part of the science National Curriculum. At primary school, parents will be able to withdraw their children from any sex education lessons that the school chooses to teach, but not from
the new, compulsory Relationships Education lessons. That said, the government is also consulting on when a pupil might be considered old enough to make their own decisions about what lessons they attend.
High quality SRE provides children and young people with a safe framework for their personal development and understanding of the world. The governments reforms are an opportunity to modernise the teaching of this vital subject and to ensure that all children have access to sex and relationships education that is consistent, up-to date and inclusive. At the same time, in a rapidly changing sexual landscape, we need, more than
ever, to promote safe, equal and enjoyable relationships. This is every child’s right, not least because an ill- informed child is a vulnerable child.
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