Improving RSE: Five urgent steps for schools

Written by: Lucy Emmerson | Published:
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New research has shown just how poor many young people’s experience of relationships and sex education still is. What are the key problems? And how can secondary schools get RSE back on track so that quality of provision improves? Lucy Emmerson offers some practical steps

The findings from the Sex Education Forum’s poll of 1,000 young people aged 16 and 17 (SEF, 2022; see also SecEd, 2022) paint a worrying picture.

Despite relationships and sex education (RSE) becoming statutory in all secondary schools, with all schools expected to follow the new statutory guidance (DfE, 2019) in full since September 2021, only 35% of the young people rated their RSE as “good” or “very good”, which is down six percentage points on the ratings from a similar poll in 2019.

In fact, 22% rated the quality of their school RSE as “bad” or “very bad”, up by four percentage points from 2019.

Young people are the recipients of RSE and so it is appropriate that we ask for and respond to their feedback about whether or not it is good enough.

The poll was carried out in 2021 by Censuswide and asked young people for their views on what would have improved their school RSE. This question produced some very clear messages about what needs to change. In this article, I will look at some practical steps schools can take to put young people’s advice into practice.

1, More time, more in-depth

Young people pointed to lack of curriculum time for RSE as a reason for poor quality. While statutory guidance doesn’t prescribe a set number of hours for RSE lessons, it does set out a clear expectation that the full range of RSE and health education topics should be covered and that a developmental, sequenced approach is needed. This is very difficult to do through drop-down days only or through the use of 20-minute sessions as part of tutor time, and yet young people tell us that this is often the way their RSE is provided.

School leaders need to review their timetabling model for RSHE and if needed, start planning changes ahead of September 2022.

Any judgement about what constitutes adequate time also needs to factor in the time it takes to explore issues “in-depth” with pupils and to go beyond just teaching facts.

2, More talking, more honesty, more open

While 29% of young people had experienced “learning facts about a topic” and “open discussion” as part of their RSE lessons over the last 12 months, only 17% said that their RSE had included “exploring different points of view”, and only 19% had explored scenarios or real-life examples.

Research evidence shows that taking a participatory, learner-centred approach, including small group work, with opportunity to address peer group norms and values is an essential component of effective RSE (SEF, 2015).

Teachers may well feel that exploring points of view is riskier than focusing on a pre-prepared set of facts, but in our experience at the SEF, this discomfort can be overcome through supporting educators with high-quality, on-going training.

Teachers do not need to share their own views and opinions, but they do need to feel they can cope with an unpredictable range of views from pupils. Using real-life scenarios is something that requires skill, for example creating fictional but relevant case studies and then setting clear boundaries for safe classroom discussion and always signposting young people to further confidential support.

3, More about relationships

Sadly, the data from the poll shows that basic aspects of relationships education are still not happening. The building blocks of being able to identify signs of a healthy relationship are not being put in place for huge numbers of young people.

This needs to be a continuous thread, starting in primary school with plenty of discussion about friendships and then frequent opportunities in the secondary phase to consider the signs of healthy and unhealthy intimate relationships.

Once foundations are in place around relationships, it is easier to venture into teaching about issues to do with pornography, which was something that 36% of the young people said they hadn’t learnt about at all, despite this being a mandatory part of statutory RSE.

4, More non-judgemental, more diverse

While some schools are providing an inclusive and balanced RSE programme for their pupils, it is clear that this is not yet the norm: 39% of young people learnt nothing at school about gender identity, and information relevant to people who are trans and non-binary. Sexual orientation is more likely to be covered than gender identity, but 28% of respondents said they had learnt nothing about this.

The DfE guidance states that learning about LGBT+ must be included in secondary RSE and it must be an integrated approach, not a standalone lesson. An inclusive approach needs to be viewed as part and parcel of curriculum planning.

5, More consultation with young people

While the SEF poll provides national data about young people’s experiences of RSE it is also vital to consult with them at a school level. Young people can see the weaknesses in current provision, they can advise on where further training is needed, and they are the only true barometer on whether enough time and status are being afforded to the subject.

Asking a year group from key stage 3 or 4 to write down their thoughts on “what’s been good about RSE so far” and “what else is needed in RSE” can rapidly generate a useful snapshot.

We must also be bolder in offering space for young people to ask questions in RSE. Only one in five young people reported having had an opportunity to ask their questions and get answers as part of their recent RSE experiences. Even if we don’t know the answer it is always possible to find out. Question boxes are a great tool because they can give pupils’ anonymity and give the teacher time to prepare for and research answers.


The simplest “take-away” from the research is that young people want more RSE. School leaders, governors and trustees must engage with this message and plan their path forward to meet the needs of their pupils. Failure to do so has serious consequences for the immediate and future physical and mental health of young people.

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