RSE: What do young people want and need?

Written by: Lucy Emmerson | Published:
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Who better to ask about what is needed from relationships and sex education than the young people themselves. This is what the Sex Education Forum has done. Lucy Emmerson explains

Changes to relationships and sex education (RSE) take effect this September and mean that all primary and secondary schools in England will need to update their provision.

Seeing this as an opportunity to better understand pupils’ needs can be a helpful starting point. The new legislation was, after all, driven by the desire to protect children and young people, and support them to be healthy, happy and safe in their relationships and growing up.

Curriculum content for relationships education, RSE and health education is set out in updated government guidance on the subject (DfE, 2019), which leaves flexibility for schools to determine where to place emphasis. The guidance also recommends involving pupils in developing the school policy. This is to be commended because consulting pupils will give teachers fresh insight into what is needed and build a stronger case to share with staff, parents and governors.

Being aware of national data on RSE puts what your pupils say in context. Findings from the Sex Education Forum’s second annual Young People’s RSE poll have recently been published (SEF, 2019). One thousand young people aged 16 and 17 from across England were asked to rate aspects of their RSE at school and home and their responses provide food for thought for all schools:

  • Only 41 per cent rated their school-based RSE as good or very good, slightly lower than a similar poll conducted in 2018.
  • At home, young people rated the RSE they received from their parents or carers as only slightly better, with 48 per cent saying it was good or very good.
  • At the other end of the scale, one in six (17 per cent) young people rated their school RSE as bad or very bad, and 19 per cent said the same of the RSE they received from their parents.

These results raise important concerns about a lack of progress as we approach RSE becoming statutory and about consistency in how the subject is handled at school and home.

It appears that nervousness may also be getting in the way of addressing more sensitive topics. Young people in the survey were least likely to have learnt all that they needed to about sexual pleasure, pornography and female genital mutilation (FGM). LGBT+ inclusion was another area of concern, with 18 per cent of young people saying they learnt nothing about LGBT+ issues at school, and a further 28 per cent saying that they had not learnt all that they needed to about LGBT+ issues.

On two subjects parents do appear to be providing useful information. Young people said that parents were more likely than schools to fully discuss marriage and other committed relationships with them, with nearly three-quarters of 16 to 17-year-olds saying they had learnt everything they needed to about this from discussions with their parents.

Young people were also more likely to say they had had adequate learning about healthy and abusive relationships from their parents compared with schools.

Conversely, young people were more likely to have learnt about “how babies are conceived and born” from school than home, with 14 per cent of young people not having learnt about this from parents/carers at all compared with only three per cent who did not learn about this at school. This underlines the important role of schools in guaranteeing a child’s education on essential topics.

Parents could be assuming that school will cover topics such as how babies are conceived and born, and are possibly in their comfort zone sharing their views and values about committed relationships with their children.

It is worrying though, that nine per cent of young people did not learn anything about puberty from their parents. Would any parent say it was their intention to teach their child nothing about puberty?

Teaching in school can ensure that all children know about the emotional and physical changes of puberty, but puberty is different for everyone and parents have a vital role to play in helping their child make sense of their particular experience in a way that schools cannot. Separate research studies show that young people want their parents to talk to them about these topics, and that RSE is more effective when school and home are both involved.

Findings from our national RSE poll can be used to open up dialogue with members of your school community. For example:

  • Share infographics summarising the national RSE poll findings with parents as part of a communication to inform them about the new legislation.
  • Look at the 22 survey topics as part of a parent consultation event, asking parents to identify which topics they think are highest priority and any they want help with to support their conversations at home.
  • Run a similar survey with pupils at your school and compare with the national data, or run focus groups to explore what needs to be covered on a particular topic in order to meet their needs.

As we rapidly approach a new era in RSE, young people are sending the message loud and clear that school and parents both fall short in discussing the issues that are pressing and relevant for them.

To turn this around the government should confidently lead the way, making a proper investment in teacher training in this specialist subject, and give clarity that all schools are expected to provide LGBT+ inclusive education.

Ultimately young people want to learn from home and school. As we start the year in which RSE becomes statutory it is time for government to be more ambitious and set out a strategy to support parents in their role as educators and show a commitment to work with schools as they see through the changes.

  • Lucy Emmerson is director of the Sex Education Forum, a charity working to achieve quality relationships and sex education. Visit

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