Relationships and sex education: Too many still not being taught the basics

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Too many young people are still not being taught the basics of relationships and sex education despite the subject having now been mandatory for 18 months.

New research finds lessons are inconsistently delivered, with few opportunities to ask questions, and with students having little influence over how to improve things.

And at a time when peer-on-peer sexual abuse and harassment is a significant problem, young people are not being taught about healthy relationships or to recognise grooming behaviour.

Research involving 1,002 young people aged 16 to 17 has sought to shine a light on their experience of RSE. Published by the Sex Education Forum (SEF, 2022), the report says that better training and long-term funding are urgently needed to support teachers to deliver comprehensive and quality RSE.

Statutory RSE in secondary schools and relationships education in primary schools should have been delivered from September 2021. Schools are expected to follow statutory RSE guidance (DfE, 2019) which sets out a range of topics.

However, many young people report still not receiving the basic information they need about mandatory topics, such as how to recognise healthy relationships (28 per cent), attitudes of men and boys towards women and girls (26 per cent), or indeed topics such as FGM (40 per cent), and feelings and emotions to do with relationships (25 per cent).

Young people under-25 account for nearly half of all new cases of sexually transmitted infections in England, but 33 per cent said they didn’t learn how to access local sexual health services. And the topic least likely to be discussed was sexual pleasure, with 46 per cent reporting they learned nothing about this.

Missing education: The SEF polling asked young people which topics they were taught about and which they had learnt nothing about (source: SEF, 2022)


More “traditional” sex education subjects continue to be tackled, including puberty, pregnancy, and condoms, showing that schools are getting the scientific element of RSE right.

The survey also finds that there have been “some improvements” in issues of consent being taught when compared to the SEF’s 2019 report, with only nine per cent now saying they were not taught about this.

However, despite this, the SEF survey found that 37 per cent of the young people have learnt nothing about “power imbalances in relationships”, 29 per cent have not been taught how to recognise grooming for sexual exploitation, and 36 per cent have learnt nothing about pornography.

This is crucial given that Ofsted’s review last year (Ofsted, 2021) uncovered an epidemic of sexual harassment and abuse targeting girls in schools and colleges. Inspectors found that nearly 90 per cent of girls (and nearly 50 per cent of boys) said being sent explicit pictures or videos of things they did not want to see happens a lot or sometimes to them or their peers.

The review reported: “Children and young people told us that sexual harassment occurs so frequently that it has become ‘commonplace’. The frequency of these harmful sexual behaviours means that some children and young people consider them normal.”

Ofsted recommended that the RSE curriculum should be carefully sequenced with time allocated for topics that children and young people find difficult, such as consent and sharing explicit images. It also called for high-quality training for teachers delivering RSE.

But the SEF survey finds that there has been no overall improvement in the quality of RSE when compared to its 2019 research. Only 35 per cent of young people rated the quality of their school’s RSE as “good” or “very good”.

The situation is being compounded by the fact that RSE is not being discussed at home either. The survey finds that only 17 per cent had regular discussions with parents and carers about RSE. Worryingly, one in five respondents said they do not have any trusted adult with whom they feel comfortable discussing matters relating to relationships and sex.

The survey also asked students which topics they would have preferred to have been taught about earlier. It reports: “The highest demand for earlier coverage centred on a cluster of relationship topics, with 17 per cent of respondents wanting to have learnt earlier about ‘how to get help if you were sexually abused or assaulted’; ‘how to tell if a relationship is abusive (including online)’; ‘how to tell is a relationship is healthy (including online)’; and ‘sexual harassment’.”

Lucy Emmerson, chief executive of the SEF, said: “Relationships and sex education lessons became mandatory in all schools because it was the right thing to do after decades of inconsistent delivery, but this new polling shows the extent to which young people are continuing to be failed.

“Even the basic building blocks of RSE are still being missed and the knock-on effect is young people lacking the skills and knowledge for healthy and respectful relationships.

“The poor quality of RSE has long been evidenced and yet ministers have failed to provide schools with adequate funding to develop the skills and confidence of teachers and provide high-quality support for pupils.

“We know many schools are getting RSE right, but this isn’t the picture nationally. The polling must be a wake-up call to the government to change course. Without an immediate intervention, we seriously risk letting down another generation of young people.”


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