The trials and tribulations of Relationships and Sex Education in England: What should we be teaching children and young people in schools and how should it be taught?

By Emily Setty

Policy and practice pertaining to Relationships and Sex Education (RSE) in England has been and remains fraught. While the long-fought battle to introduce a statutory national curriculum for RSE has been won, we continue to see RSE as site within and through which the so-called ‘culture wars’ play out. In light of the recent furore about ‘age-inappropriate’ RSE, this blog considers the purpose of RSE and who and what it is for. In particular, I discuss what it means to advance learner-centred RSE that addresses sex and relationships in all their complexity but in a safe, inclusive, and objective way.

Following the roll-out of the statutory curriculum in England, I, along with Dr Emma Dobson from Durham University, reviewed the Department for Education (DfE) curriculum guidance. While we praised it for upholding young people’s rights to comprehensive RSE, we identified unresolved tensions in the principles espoused and argued that schools are being left to join the dots in practice but with very little support. It is perhaps unsurprising, therefore, that we’ve subsequently seen various interest groups take issue with how they believe RSE is being taught in schools.

RSE brings into focus matters regarding childhood and youth sexuality and gender and sexual norms and rights, all of which are contested and subject to deeply held personal and cultural values and beliefs. It is, perhaps, impossible to please everyone but therein lies the issue; what, exactly, is the purpose of RSE? Who and what is it for? Reflecting on these questions may help in charting a pathway forward to reconciling competing concerns. Doing so requires political courage, however, and it remains necessary for those of us of a rights-based persuasion to continue unequivocally advocating for comprehensive and holistic education even in difficult times as is currently the case in England.

RSE as about protection and/or participation and provision rights?

While those currently taking issue with aspects of RSE curriculum design and delivery may articulate their concerns in terms of children and young people’s protection rights, it is nevertheless the case that some form of RSE is vital to protecting children and young people from abuse and poor sexual health and wellbeing outcomes. To uphold these protection rights through RSE requires effective pedagogy and we know that comprehensive and holistic education that also addresses participatory and provision rights is vastly superior to risk-averse or abstinence-based approaches in terms of outcomes. In our increasingly digitally-mediated, sexualised and pornified culture, such RSE is also often called upon to address ‘tricky’ topics and children and young people need accurate information and safe spaces to safely explore and learn about these topics.  

If we accept, therefore, as the DfE guidance appears to, that children and young people need to be fully informed about sex and relationships in all their diversity and complexity, then how, exactly, can we do that in ways that avoid the tensions and protests that keep emerging among politicians, parents, and other interest groups?

A youth-led approach to RSE

I’d suggest we return to the evidence and think about children and young people’s best interests. Some recent projects I’ve completed with teenagers, including one to co-design guidance for RSE teaching and another that explored experiences of relationships during lockdown, identified that the last thing they want is for adults to tell them what to think, feel, and do regarding sex and relationships. Whatever the ideological stance of the educator—traditional, faith-based, progressive, or otherwise—they aren’t interested and instead want to explore and make sense of different and competing ideas and narratives about gender, sex, sexuality, and relationships.

I’ve found that the debates going on around young people—both regarding their educational needs and rights and gender and sexual politics more generally—are, to them, just part of the ‘ecosystem’ of their socio-sexual lives and developmental processes. They quite like reflecting on it all and what it shows about social attitudes and meanings regarding sex and relationships. They want to discuss values and beliefs and be given the opportunity to explore the different ways that people understand sex and relationships.

Most of the young people I’ve spoken to feel they are on an affective and experiential journey when it comes to their socio-sexual development, and they want to be supported along this journey by adults who can help them reflect and develop and practice the skills and outlooks they need for positive, healthy, and ethical experiences and self-concepts. This means that for RSE to be effective and to have an impact it needs to be relevant to the conditions in which they find themselves, not just the hypothetical adults they may become. In turn, therefore, they also want and need to be able to raise concerns, ask questions, and get advice and answers from knowledgeable, competent, and credible adults.

All this is recognised in DfE guidance. Recognition in the abstract must, however, inevitably give way to the reality that questions and conversations may sometimes sway onto tricky ground and require sensitive and careful handling in an age-appropriate way. Such handling requires providing young people with accurate information (because, if they aren’t, they will search for and find answers elsewhere, which may be partial, inaccurate, or otherwise unhelpful) and not shutting them down or shaming them.

Unfortunately for schools in England, while they are under a statutory duty to deliver RSE there is little guidance on how to do so effectively nor adequate resourcing for consistent teacher training and use of specialist experts.

Supporting young people’s socio-sexual development journeys

Socio-sexual development is, I never tire of saying, a journey without a destination. Adults also continue to develop, grow, and change and the current intensified debates about gender and sexuality only serve to illustrate that at a socio-political level. We may, therefore, need to consider that we are unlikely to have all the answers and a skilled RSE educator is able to make space for uncertainty and complexity. Doing so is not a weakness but integral to how young people develop and practice critical reflection, perspective-taking, and emotional literacy.

The best RSE enables and empowers children and young people to understand what is happening to themselves and their bodies, and to those around them and to develop their wants and values for sex and relationships, whatever they may be and however they may change over time. The challenge for educators is doing so in a child- and youth-led way that addresses the issues they want and need to know about while ensuring that the content and delivery is age-appropriate. I’d suggest that there is a need for leadership and resourcing to professionalise RSE as a national curriculum subject in ways that codify children and young people’s rights to holistic and comprehensive RSE and that, in turn, offer a bulwark against the twists and turns of public opinion regarding the complexities of gender, sex, and sexuality at the current time. 

Please note that articles published on this blog reflect the views of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect those of the Department of Sociology.