RSHE: Teaching sensitive topics

Written by: Rachel Coathup | Published:
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Consent, misogyny, sexual harassment, healthy relationships and much more – the list of sensitive topics within RSHE is long and tackling these issues can be daunting for unprepared staff. Rachel Coathup offers some tips


Statutory relationships, sex and health education (RSHE) was enacted to help solve many crises among our younger generation, from widespread misunderstandings about consent to LGBT+ inequality and battles with mental health.

The new curriculum (DfE, 2019) became statutory in September in England, updating previous guidance that was published in 2000. Given this significant time gap, it is perhaps not surprising that the overhaul brought forward a lot of changes.

The RSE element is no longer a clinical exploration of anatomy, sex and menstruation for which boys and girls are separated to limit embarrassment. Rather, RSE has evolved into a politically charged, empowering and crucial dissection of foundational topics spanning consent, equality, sexism, respectful and healthy relationships, trolling and personal safety, which all students discuss together.

By the end of secondary school, students should have engaged with and understood a plethora of important issues regarding six key topics. These include families, respectful relationships (including friendships), online and media, being safe, and intimate and sexual relationships, including sexual health. This is a vast amount to cover.


Teacher training and support

But of course, a new curriculum is just the start. If RSE is taught badly or if teachers are embarrassed or inexperienced about the topics that they are expected to teach, then it is likely that such embarrassment will spread among students who may misunderstand vital topics as a result.

This will not only be harmful to the individual students but it will be counterproductive to the entire curriculum overhaul.

We all know that teachers should receive support and training in order to teach a subject well. Yet, 82 per cent of teachers expected to deliver RSE did not learn about the subject during their teacher training, 63 per cent of these teachers have not received training within the past two years, and 29 per cent had never had any RSE training at all (SEF, 2018).

This puts teachers in a compromising position as they are challenged to teach a curriculum they may not have had any training in. Teachers welcome support in delivering a challenging curriculum.


Why RSE is so crucial in secondary schools

As students go through puberty, RSE is particularly crucial in secondary schools. Recent research (Hillman, 2021) shows us that students often leave school with serious misunderstandings about key topics like consent. It found that 35 per cent of university students had learned “more about sex from pornography than from formal education”. Furthermore, only 14 per cent of university students have been taught what safe, intimate sexual relationships look like online.

As a result, we have seen a sharp rise in discussion about sexual harassment and abuse in secondary schools and universities. Much of this has gone under the radar for decades. At the time of publication, the student-led movement Everyone’s Invited has collected around 50,000 testimonies of sexual harassment, abuse and rape culture from educational institutions in the UK (see also SecEd, 2021).

Consent, and equipping young people with the knowledge and skills they need to keep themselves and others safe, is a key foundation effective RSE. Consent means creating an open environment to ensure other people feel confident and able to say no to any act. This is most often taught in relation to sexual acts, from touching hands and kissing all the way to intercourse, but it also applies to everyday situations like catcalling and street harassment.

Now more than ever, we need to facilitate these open discussions. When talking to students about consent, I would recommend focusing on unpicking what they already understand and investigating what further learning they can do themselves, and how this can be done most effectively. This will help students to be self-reflective and to think of consent as an on-going conversation they need to pursue with themselves and those around them.

The tips below are based on my time in schools as well as our work with expert Rebecca Jennings on the free video resources Respectful Relationships and Respectful Intimate Relationships (see further information).


Teaching sensitive topics

Step 1: The first step for teachers is to work with the parents. A YouGov survey, commissioned by ClickView earlier this year, showed that while 85 per cent of British parents are confident about supporting their children with the facts around the realities of sexual relationships, 30 per cent said that “signposting to resources and services that they can use” and “general support from their child/children’s school” would be helpful to them when discussing relationships and/or sex at home. This is also an important process for ensuring teachers are aware of a student’s home situation, so that they can act and support appropriately.

My advice would be to work with parents as much as possible. There needs to be an on-going partnership between home and school to keep communication open and ensure students are confident about RSE topics.

This can be achieved when schools keep parents updated with what is going to be taught each week. Parents can then prepare for any questions their children may have and they can ask for any support they may need.

This is an important process for ensuring teachers are aware of any student home situations too, so that they can act and support appropriately.


Step 2: Ensure students are offered a level of anonymity. Going back to the previous point, some students may not be comfortable participating in a discussion on a particular topic or may have questions that they feel embarrassed or awkward asking in front of their peers. Setting up a private and secure “question” box in a quiet area of the school is a good idea.


Step 3: This leads me to how we plan the lesson structure. Because of the potential variety of past experiences and backgrounds of the students and of course the teachers, we recommend that even if the school has created learning content for each class to use, the teacher should review the lesson in advance and think about whether any of the issues being raised could leave particular students feeling uncomfortable or anxious.

Having standardised, ready-prepared learning content can make the lessons easier for the teacher to deliver and potentially more effective. But whatever content you use, it is important to get the right balance between being light-hearted but also delivering the key messages.


Step 4

Another best practice is to agree acceptable behaviour before the class starts. Rebecca Jennings recommends beginning the lesson developing a “contract” with the students of what questions, types of comment, behaviour are acceptable and what are not. For example, agreeing with them that personal questions shouldn’t be asked avoids the teacher and other students potentially being asked about their personal experiences. If the “contract” is broken by a student, they should be reminded of the agreement before continuing with the lesson.


Step 5

Another piece of advice from Rebecca is to start the lesson by talking through the related vocabulary, include slang words and the accepted or “correct” terms. While this part of the lesson will initially attract a lot of laughter, it introduces a need for respect and the lesson can then move on.

Investigating the origins of slang words and why we use them can also help to bring the curriculum to life. For example, when teaching about periods, teachers can explore how some traditional terminology for menstruation might deepen the stigma around periods. They may unpick whether the term “menstrual hygiene” may suggest that periods are unhygienic.

Teachers could explore why using straightforward terms such as “period” or “menstruation” can help to expel the period taboo. Investigating terminology can help students to understand the politics behind RSE topics and their relevance to everyday conversations.


Conclusion

When delivered effectively, RSE should get children thinking seriously about the impact of people’s actions, from a simple joke to abuse. It’s about giving them the confidence to “see” the issues from a broader perspective, develop a respect for how others may feel and acquire the tools necessary to address issues in their future lives.

  • Rachel Coathup is a former educator who is now a learning advisor at ClickView.


Further information & resources


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