RSE best practice research reveals 27 steps for an effective curriculum

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
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The key messages of effective relationships and sex education (RSE) can become lost when “interpreted by teachers”, academics have warned.

The finding is among those from a best practice research paper looking at what makes RSE education effective and sustainable.

The paper – What is best practice in sex and relationship education? – was published earlier this year by the British Medical Journal and offers schools a list of 27 best practice criteria by which to evaluate existing programmes and provision.

It comes as schools prepare for the introduction of statutory RSE in September 2019 (to be called relationships education in primary schools). MPs approved the plans earlier this year and work is now beginning to draft the new-look RSE curriculum.

For the study, the academics drew on interviews with practitioners across England, existing research into young people’s views of RSE and data from the National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles.

The research highlights that increasing numbers of young people now say that school is their main source of information about sex – from 28 per cent in 1990 to 40 per cent in 2012. However, in 2013, Ofsted warned that more than a third of schools in England lacked good quality RSE, with inspectors voicing concerns about inconsistent content and quality of provision.

The researchers found that comprehensive programmes that aim to decrease sexual activity but also promote condom use “can be effective at improving knowledge, skills and attitudes”. Likewise, HIV prevention programmes and teenage pregnancy prevention programmes also appear effective.

However, “abstinence-only programmes are not effective at promoting positive changes in sexual behaviour”, the paper adds.

School-based or school-linked sexual health services were also well received by students. The paper adds: “School-based or school-linked sexual health services appear to be effective at reducing sexual activity, numbers of sexual partners and teenage pregnancies. Professionals suggest that best practice in (RSE) involves close liaison with relevant sexual health and advice services, either through offering school-based services or through links with local sexual health services.”

Elsewhere, the study emphasises the professionals’ view that RSE should be integrated into a whole-school ethos, which “promotes and embodies a consistent set of principles and values”, such as respect. Good RSE also includes the promotion of good life-skills, such as communication, decision-making and assessing risk.

On the issue of who should teach RSE, the researchers found that while sexual health professionals saw an important role for teachers in aiding delivery, young people were not supportive of having RSE delivered by teachers, saying this could be “awkward” and could compromise confidentiality.

Some young people in the study were taught by their form tutors, but said that this “blurred boundaries” and made them feel “particularly uncomfortable”.

The paper states: “The qualitative synthesis found that young people generally regard school teachers as unsuitable for delivering (RSE), perceiving them to be inadequately trained, embarrassed and unable to discuss sex frankly, and judgemental and unaccepting of young people’s sexual activity.

“Young people also reported that delivery by teachers could blur boundaries and disrupt established relationships … The case study investigation found that key messages intended by (RSE) programmes could get lost when programmes were interpreted by teachers, for example messages might lack consistency, or more negative messages might be delivered than the approach intended.”

Conversely, young people perceived sexual health professionals to be less judgemental, to “know what they’re talking about”, and to be better at delivering the subject.

The paper adds: “In both the qualitative synthesis and the case studies, young people reported that outside experts provide greater confidentiality and reduce discomfort and embarrassment due to their separateness from the school.”

The paper includes a list of more than 27 criteria for best practice in RSE spanning curriculum content and delivery.


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