Sexual harassment: The role of RSE in responding to Ofsted’s review

Written by: Lucy Emmerson | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

The shockwaves of Ofsted’s review of sexual harassment and abuse in schools can still be felt. Schools are now responding. Lucy Emmerson looks at the role of effective RSE as part of this response


The findings of the review of sexual abuse (Ofsted, 2021) are an alarming wake-up call about the normalisation of sexual harassment and abuse among young people and the extent to which this affects every school.

All schools in England are now required by law to deliver a robust programme of relationships education in primary school and relationships and sex education (RSE) lessons in secondary school.

Government guidance (DfE, 2019) provides a broad and full range of content to cover, but how do schools know if their curriculum goes deep enough in addressing sexual harassment and abuse?

Young people have repeatedly called out the gaps in their RSE (and indeed poor RSE was reported by many students surveyed for Ofsted’s review). Key information about what a healthy relationship looks like, discussion about pornography and sexual pleasure are frequently neglected or missed altogether.



ON THIS TOPIC: Further reading & listening from SecEd



RSE: What works

Reviewing the list of topics that are covered in the RSE curriculum and ensuring that sufficient time and skilled teaching resource is available are both vital steps to take. However, even an experienced teacher of RSE may feel that the list of things to teach about is overwhelmingly long and will not fit into their programme.

Step back and spend some time considering the evidence-base around what we know works. Research shows that RSE is more effective when it uses participatory, learner-centred approaches, and when it is responsive to the realities of children and young people’s lives, with scope to explore their views, attitudes, and norms (SEF, 2015).


Power and Gender

A study by Nicole Haberland (2015) found that RSE has better outcomes for young people’s health when it addresses power and gender directly. These are not topics to be covered purely with a set of facts or figures, they are deeper themes that need to be threaded throughout RSE and frequently made visible.

One of the first ways to do this is to help children to notice gender stereotypes and to give them space to challenge them. In addition to covering this in RSE, there are many opportunities to get into this habit across curriculum subjects and through whole-school life.


Language

A second area to focus on is language. Modelling a consistent approach to using correct terms in relation to our bodies, including genitalia, is a really helpful starting point. It shows that both female and male bodies can be discussed with the same confidence and accuracy.

Using correct terms school-wide contributes to safeguarding, as every child will be understood if they need to explain something about their bodies. It is essential that children know about bodily privacy and basic rules about consent.

To know “that their bodies are their own” is mandatory content in primary relationships education, as is learning how to get help in the case of abuse.

Double standards to do with gender are often reflected in language around what is considered acceptable or unacceptable behaviour. Children are alert to what is fair or unfair and can be supported to notice and challenge inequalities by reversing the gender roles in a fictional situation and asking: “Would it have been the same if he was a girl/she was a boy?”

With older learners, a lesson which includes understanding the risks of different sexual activities may reveal a dominant view in the group that the same activity is judged differently by gender – for example, seeing masturbation as something that is fine for boys to do but “dirty” for girls.

The role of the educator is to pick up on this expressed view and respond with factual information (stating that it is a normal sexual activity for both girls and boys), challenging the unequal view and unpicking the values. This can take a bit of practice, which is why training and support for teachers of RSE is so important.


LGBT+

Care needs to be taken not to reinforce a heteronormative or binary approach and to be inclusive of LGBT+ experience. Throughout RSE and whole-school life, consistent standards of respectful behaviour should be explained and upheld, including that it is wrong to tease or bully and specifically in relation to sexist, homophobic, biphobic and transphobic bullying.

This needs to be revisited regularly at a developmentally appropriate level. Plan activities that allow students to identify different forms of power and influence on relationships, consent, and sexual behaviour, and give time and space to reflect on gender and power dynamics in their own lives and context.

Haberland’s research, referenced above, found that RSE was more effective when it helped participants value their own potential as individuals and as change agents. Lessons exploring gender and power will often feel necessarily serious, but end on a positive note, with creative activities that enable youth advocacy and voice.

Students will have ideas about the changes they want to see – about how their parents, carers, teachers and wider society can engage with and support them to establish healthier norms and happy relationships.


Further information & resources

  • DfE: Statutory guidance: Relationships and sex education (RSE) and health education, June 2019: http://bit.ly/2kQwtgL
  • Haberland: The case for addressing gender and power in sexuality and HIV education: A comprehensive review of evaluation studies, March 2015: https://bit.ly/3m1fa8n
  • Ofsted: Review of sexual abuse in schools and colleges, June 2021a: https://bit.ly/3gDRW6t
  • SEF: SRE – the evidence, March 2015: https://bit.ly/3ud93l0
  • SEF: The SEF is running a webinar entitled Teaching about Gender, Power and consent in RSE. It next takes place on October 13. Visit https://bit.ly/3lSApZQ


Comments
Name
 
Email
 
Comments
 

Please view our Terms and Conditions before leaving a comment.

Change the CAPTCHA codeSpeak the CAPTCHA code
 
Sign up SecEd Bulletin