RSE: What’s your evidence?

Written by: Lucy Emmerson | Published:
Lucy Emmerson, coordinator, Sex Education Forum
All this bureaucracy is unnecessary. Why don't you focus on teaching the kids - most are ...

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Why basing relationships and sex education on fact rather than opinion is more important than ever...

There’s nothing like a radio phone-in to underline just how much passion the issue of relationships and sex education (RSE) can generate – and how easily the evidence, along with children’s best interests, can be lost among the clash of values and feelings.

As I took to the airwaves on Radio 4’s You and Yours last month to explain what’s changing in RSE, I was glad to have an evidence-based approach to RSE as my guide, along with the knowledge that young people, teachers and parents had joined the Sex Education Forum’s call for every child to have a statutory right to high-quality RSE.

RSE in the digital age

The strength of feeling from members of the public, including from young people (who are not so well represented in radio phone-ins) reflects the reasons why it was so important for RSE to become statutory – and for the guidance around it to be updated.

The Collins Dictionary “word of the year” for 2017 was “fake news”. In this digital age children and young people are confronted with information from all kinds of sources – some credible, some false; some based on research evidence, some based on personal or institutional values. How do they know which to trust?

Gathering the information they need is a risky business for children and young people, especially if adults are not prepared to be pro-active in talking to them about relationships and sex.

The last statutory guidance on RSE was issued in 2000 – so teachers have also been left without up-to-date advice.

This is why it is a triumph that all schools in England will now be required to provide RSE. And why that education must be carefully constructed to help children navigate their way through the challenges and opportunities presented by the digital age.

A call for evidence

It is welcome news that the Department for Education (DfE) has opened a “call for evidence”, running until February 12 to help shape the new statutory guidance.

It is a call for our personal and professional views on how this guidance should be updated, and includes questions about which subject areas should be prioritised and how schools should consult with parents about RSE.

While this latest call for evidence can help shape the detail of the updated guidance, it is useful to remember that there is sound research evidence showing the benefits of RSE for children and young people.

The government is now acting on this and designing RSE that “should equip children and young people to have safe, fulfilling and enjoyable relationships and learn to take responsibility for their sexual health and wellbeing”.

Core principles

The Sex Education Forum has produced a set of 12 core principles which we believe should be at the heart of every school’s commitment to teaching good RSE.

These are based on research evidence and supported by our host charity, the National Children’s Bureau, along with five education unions and other major children’s charities including the NSPCC, Barnardo’s and the Children’s Society.

The principles are designed not just as an expert overview for you to consider as you submit your own evidence to shape the statutory guidance. They are also a tool to help schools take action right now to be ready for the changes starting in September 2019.

The Sex Education Forum invites schools to commit to RSE which:

  1. Is an identifiable part of a PSHE curriculum, with planned, timetabled lessons across all the key stages.
  2. Is taught by staff regularly trained in RSE and PSHE (with expert visitors where appropriate).
  3. Works in partnership with parents and carers, informing them about what their children will be learning and how they can contribute at home.
  4. Delivers lessons where pupils feel safe, using a variety of teaching approaches to enable them to take part.
  5. Is based on reliable sources of information, including about the law and legal rights, distinguishing between fact and opinion.
  6. Promotes safe, equal, caring and enjoyable relationships and discusses real age-appropriate issues such as friendships, families, consent, relationship abuse, sexual exploitation and safe relationships online.
  7. Gives a positive view of human sexuality, with honest and medically accurate information, so that pupils can learn about their bodies and sexual and reproductive health in ways that are appropriate to their age and maturity.
  8. Gives pupils opportunities to reflect on values and influences that may shape their attitudes to relationships and sex, nurturing respect for different views.
  9. Includes learning about how to get help, treatment and information from a range of reliable sources.
  10. Fosters gender equality and LGBT+ equality and challenges all forms of discrimination in lessons and in everyday school life.
  11. Meets the needs of all pupils with their diverse experiences – including those with SEND.
  12. Seeks pupils’ views about RSE so that teaching can be made relevant to their real lives and assessed and adapted as their needs change.

Start now

We have turned these principles into a handy poster which you can use to develop conversations about RSE in your school, whether that’s discussing them at a governor meeting, communicating with parents and carers, auditing existing RSE provision, reviewing school policies, or considering appropriate staff models and CPD requirements.

The principles can also help you to map the relationship between RSE and whole-school approaches on areas such as bullying, safeguarding, pastoral support and the Equality Duty. This process will reveal just how multi-faceted the benefits of good-quality RSE can be.

  • Lucy Emmerson is coordinator of the Sex Education Forum

Further information

I have always taken a very strong interest in sex education in schools, particularly when my children were of school age and first made my objections public many years ago. This included arranging a public meeting in our town with Mrs Valerie Riches as guest speaker from Family and Education Trust (formally Family and Youth Concern) as I had serious objections to ‘others’ talking with my children and/or showing them explicit videos without my express consent or knowledge and, effectively, usurping my position as a mother/parent.

Around this time a local School of Nursing used to be invite me to speak on subjects such as Breastfeeding, and also Fertility Awareness, to nurses who worked in various capacities, e.g. school nurses, midwives, health visitors, etc. It soon became obvious, i.e. via their questions, that as females, they did not understand their own fertility and that most of the ‘advising’ they gave to school children and teenagers was about contraception, sexually transmitted diseases and/or abortion; their total lack of knowledge meant they really couldn’t advise anything else!

Once alerted and for my own private interest, I decided to carry out primary research in the form of evaluation forms which were completed at the end of every session, thereby enabled an almost 100% return. I repeated this a number of times resulting in a small, meaningful and enlightening result.

In 1997, to complete a Social Work degree, I was able to use this primary research and completed a dissertation entitled,
‘Fertility Awareness: An investigation of health professionals who work in the areas of family planning and school sex education, and their ability to convey vital information to service users; with particular reference to comparative provision for pregnant and schoolgirl mothers’.

It was no surprise that my hypothesis was confirmed, i.e. that health professionals lack fundamental knowledge of fertility. The research also highlighted the lack of uniform response to schoolgirl pregnancy and discriminatory welfare provision. I also learned that many/most sex education programmes were value free and interfered with a child’s natural sexual development. Instead of being valued, fertility seemed to be, ‘a force to be repressed rather than a force to be understood.’ (Freely, M & Pyper, C. (1993) pg 136). Additionally, I questioned the aptitude, knowledge base and values of the ‘sex educators’ – how were/are they better qualified? I truly believe that should a survey be repeated, a similar result would emerge. I have no hesitation in stating that, in my experience, most females, health professionals or otherwise, do not understand their own fertility. Every female, sexually active or not, would benefit from knowledge of their own fertility, i.e. to interpret the various types of vaginal mucus, fertile and infertile type, and understand what these cyclical changes mean and how they aid fertilisation. Surely its a basic right? I also believe that school children would benefit from observing mothers breastfeed their babies as a natural part of child rearing and a wonderful role model.
Irrespective of their age, my experience is that once women learn and fully understand the signs and cycle of their own fertility they develop a remarkable respect for their own body which may well contribute positively to future decision making.
I was going to say that nothing has changed since 1997 but, in fact, it has and promises only to get worse.

Whilst my children are now adults, I fear for my grandchildren and the impact on our Nations children in general.

Posted By: ,
All this bureaucracy is unnecessary. Why don't you focus on teaching the kids - most are illiterate and are picking up all sorts of junk off the internet. I left school at 14 years 11 months old to work as a junior secretary. I could also cook, make my own clothes, and had top marks in biology, english, art, domestic science, history and geography in fact the Nuns turned out young women fit for both the workplace and marriage. I would strongly object to anyone pushing their LGBT standards on my kids. I am a christian and it is against the precepts of my faith I would not have exposed my children to sex education and interference from the State and the other perversions that are included in the agenda. Perhaps my final word will be
"as you reap so you will sow" - God help us all.

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