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Government must make its review of Relationships, Sex and Health Education a top priority

5 min read

We have an unmissable opportunity to support our young people this year.

In 2023, the government will review its guidance on Relationships, Sex and Health Education (RSHE), three years on from the start of mandatory lessons in schools across England. However, research published yesterday by the Sex Education Forum finds worrying gaps in RSHE, with many young people yet to receive the high-quality curriculum they were promised and a disconnect between pledged investment and the support teachers are receiving on the ground. The review is a chance for us to right this dire oversight.

The dangers our young people face today are unprecedented, and the imperative to safeguard our children both on and offline is just as strong as it was when RSHE guidance for schools was introduced with overwhelming cross-party support in 2019. This week, the PM defended the need for quality RSHE, saying, “We do expect schools to take responsible and sensible decisions on their RHSE curriculum, making sure that those materials are age-appropriate, suitable, politically impartial and value for money."

In fact, concerns about young people’s exposure to harmful content online have only intensified. Recent research from the Children’s Commissioner found 27% of 11-year-olds had seen pornography, and 79% encountered violent pornography before the age of 18. Higher frequency of pornography use is tied to a higher likelihood of engaging in sexual violence, and unfettered access to explicit and aggressive sexual material online is distorting teenagers’ expectations. Worse, it’s implicated in lasting emotional and physical trauma to countless young people.

While measures such as the Online Safety Bill provide the chance to address some of these dangers, we would be letting our students down if we did not also offer a robust approach to prevention through education.

Where better to start than listening to what young people have to say about their experiences in the classroom – and what they feel they need to learn in order to create respectful and healthy relationships. Research out today, commissioned by the Sex Education Forum, shows what young people really feel about RSHE.  Only forty percent of respondents rate the quality of their school RSE as ‘good’ or ‘very good,’ which is on par with the 2019 pre-mandatory RHSE poll. This tells us that the quality RSHE we promised our students has not yet become a reality.

Reversing the trends of misogyny, online harm and decades of hidden child sexual abuse will never be quick or easy

The report reveals that key topics included in the original mandatory curriculum are still being missed. For example, 58% of respondents learnt not enough or nothing about pornography and 54% learnt not enough or nothing about how to tell if a relationship (including those online) is healthy), with information relevant to people who are LGBTQ+ similarly neglected. The more biological aspects of RSHE are being covered – with only 30% of respondents saying they learned not enough or nothing about puberty, for example – but we are still leaving young people unprepared on topics such as abusive relationships, attitudes towards women and identity.

At a time when the government has frequently referred to RSHE as integral to their tackling violence against women and girls strategy and as a fundamental part of safeguarding children, it is frightening that young people feel such topics are being overlooked. Research shows us that education programmes really do work in reducing sexual violence and poor sexual health. Yet to make these programmes work, we need to involve young people and understand what subjects they feel they need to learn more about.

We also need to support our schools and our teachers in delivering these lessons. Five hundred and thirty-eight MPs voted to support mandatory RSHE in 2019, and the Department of Education pledged £6 million in funding. We heard a lot of talk about supporting schools, but only £3.2 million of that funding was ever spent, and the promised training for teachers didn’t scratch the surface. How can we expect teachers to tackle issues like violent online content if they are largely left to their own devices, and 46% of secondary school teachers say they lack confidence with RSHE? (NSPCC and NASUWT)

The government, parents and students expect a lot out of RSHE – but to make it the catch-all we hope for, we need to make big changes. Firstly, young people’s views and experiences must be central to the creation of the programme. Students are key for monitoring RSHE and flagging if important topics are being missed. Both government and schools themselves would do well to ask young people routinely for feedback, respond to the excellent suggestions from students about how to meet their needs and be accountable when RSHE does not meet our standards. Secondly, we need a long-term and properly funded plan to train and support a generation of specialist RSHE teachers. Now is the moment to give RSHE the sort of professionalisation we expect of any other mandatory subject. 

Reversing the trends of misogyny, online harm and decades of hidden child sexual abuse will never be quick or easy. We need to use every tool we can to keep children safe, empower them to be active allies for equality, and to seek and give help when needed. All this depends on giving young people a voice and teachers the skills and training to open up relevant, meaningful discussions.

This is the year we can make a difference for how children and young people ready themselves to become respectful, upstanding members of society and how safely and confidently they navigate modern realities.  I worked closely with Parliamentarians across parties to bring about the landmark change in legislation through the Children and Social Work Act 2017, and through cross-party support we can see this through. It is in everyone’s interests that we do.

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