For most of us, relationships and sex education at school was a couple of awkward afternoons of educational videos, Q&As and promising to not talk about any of it in the playground afterwards - if we ever had any at all.
But now, following changes to relationships and sex education (RSE) made in April last year, new topics have been added to the curriculum and will be taught from September onwards.
The new programme, which is mandatory for both primary and secondary school pupils as they return to school after the lockdown, will include important topics such as family structures, setting personal boundaries from a young age and how to develop healthy relationships in all their forms. It has been purposefully adapted to suit the needs of young people in a world that’s changed a whole lot since the material was last looked at.
A review of the curriculum took place most recently in 2008 and RSE was only made mandatory in schools in 2015, meaning that what is taught and the way that it’s spoken about has long since been due an upgrade.
For example, now over a third of those aged 8 to 11 years old have their own smartphones and just under 20 per cent already use social media, a concept which was completely foreign when the curriculum was first put together and certainly not as widely used as it is now. While changing social attitudes has meant that for instance, homophobic bullying has decreased in schools, but derogatory language is still largely prevalent and only three in five pupils learn anything about LGBT issues in the classroom.
In all cases, this leaves many students across the country at the mercy of what they learn about online and through their peers, neither of which are famous for giving out reliable information.
Now, schools will be encouraged to teach children about diverse relationships and family dynamics from a young age, with the more nitty-gritty coming into the curriculum in secondary school. Children will learn what is acceptable both online and in real life, that families come in all different shapes and sizes, and schools will educate all pupils more widely on recognising and challenging unhealthy behaviour in all kinds of relationships.
So what will children actually be taught in school?
What will be taught in primary schools?
The guidance for primary schools sets out that the focus should be on:
“Teaching the fundamental building blocks and characteristics of positive relationships. From the beginning of primary school, building on early education, pupils should be taught how to take turns, how to treat each other with kindness, consideration and respect, the importance of honesty and truthfulness, permission seeking and giving, and the concept of personal privacy. Establishing personal space and boundaries, showing respect and understanding the differences between appropriate and inappropriate or unsafe physical, and other, contact – these are the forerunners of teaching about consent, which takes place at secondary.”
Children will also learn that families come in many forms, “for example, single-parent families, LGBT parents, families headed by grandparents, adoptive parents, foster parents/carers amongst other structures”, and all provide a nurturing environment.
Other topics on the curriculum for children in primary school include:
- Features of healthy friendships, family relationships and other relationships which young children are likely to encounter: So that they can develop a strong understanding of relationships that are likely to lead to happiness and security and help them recognise any less positive relationships should they encounter them.
- Understanding that stigmatising children based on their home circumstances and needs is wrong, to reflect sensitively that some children may have a different structure of support around them.
- Online safety and appropriate online behaviour: How information and data is shared and used, such as understanding that many websites are businesses and how sites use information provided in ways that they might not expect.
- Developing positive character traits: such as the belief that they can achieve, persevere with tasks, work towards a long-term reward and endeavour despite setbacks. Pupils will also be taught the importance of self-respect and worth.
- Positive mental and emotional wellbeing
- How to recognise and report abuse: In a primary school setting this is done through focusing on boundaries and privacy, ensuring young people understand that they have rights over their own bodies.
The content will be taught in an age-appropriate way and while schools can include sex education and information about puberty in the discussions, they are not required to do so by law. In this case, it’s down to what the school feels is required for their students.
However the guidance says, “It is important that the transition phase before moving to secondary school supports pupils’ ongoing emotional and physical development effectively. The Department [of Education] continues to recommend therefore that all primary schools should have a sex education programme tailored to the age and the physical and emotional maturity of the pupils.”
What will be taught in secondary schools?
While in secondary school, the changes to relationships and sex education will, “Give young people the information they need to help them develop healthy, nurturing relationships of all kinds, not just intimate relationships.”
But, “It should also cover contraception, developing intimate relationships and resisting pressure to have sex (and not applying pressure). It should teach what is acceptable and unacceptable behaviour in relationships. This will help pupils understand the positive effects that good relationships have on their mental wellbeing, identify when relationships are not right and understand how such situations can be managed.”
While the curriculum is once again tailored to the individual needs of the pupils by the school, explicit information will be offered around topics like safe-sex practices, understanding human sexuality, as well as different sexual orientations and gender identities. This is not, as some criticism of the changes has suggested, to encourage teens to take part in particular activities or make decisions too early, but rather to equip them with the knowledge to make them safely if and when they want to.
Ultimately though, “It should enable them to know what a healthy relationship looks like and what makes a good friend, a good colleague and a successful marriage or other types of committed relationship.”
Why are the changes in relationships and sex education necessary?
By making the changes to relationships and sex education inclusive and recognising publicly that not every child grows up with or will go on to have a traditional, nuclear family, schools can emphasise that whatever a child’s situation or personal identity, they are just the same as others in their class and deserve to be treated with respect and have the same opportunities as anyone else.
Kitty Winfield is a teacher to year three children in London. She says, “Children deserve to see themselves represented in what is taught. Not only will children feel they belong and are accepted but it helps educate children of other family structures.”
Kitty says that for instance, according to recent statistics, 42 per cent of marriages in England and Wales end in divorce. “This could mean that almost half a class come from a family of divorce, [so] not only should children be educated that their feelings around this issue are valid but it’s also not an uncommon situation.
“Schools prepare children for life. Knowing how people are different will prepare them to embrace and celebrate the differences in our society.”
But that’s not the only reason these changes to relationships and sex education are necessary.
“None of us are given education around how to handle relationships, yet it’s one of the most important things in life and one of the things that can cause the most happiness, the most unhappiness and the most stress.” Carole-Ann Rice, the UK’s leading life coach says. “It’s about children learning boundaries with others, what’s acceptable and what’s not.
“People pleasing, when you remove your own needs because you put other people’s needs before you, can actually lead to a lot of low self-esteem and being walked all over by other people. So to learn and have self-awareness at an early age I can only see to be absolutely brilliant. None of us, no generation, ever has been taught these basic human rules.”
By offering detailed and accurate information surrounding relationships and sex, young people are not only more prepared for interactions with friends, family and potential intimate relationships later in life. Giving young people the knowledge and confidence to make their own decisions will ensure that they’re prepared to for whatever new relationships and situations unfold in the next couple of years, as they head into the ‘real world’ of higher education and the workplace.
How can parents support their children’s learning?
While it might not be a conversation parents want to have with their children, learning about the birds and the bees is all part of life. As children come home from school, they’re bound to have questions.
The best way to handle these is to be open and sensitive to them, Carole-Ann tells GoodtoKnow. “As much as we want to, we can’t protect our children forever. Certain subjects will come up and instead of brushing it away and saying, ‘we don’t talk about that’, sit down and make it non-threatening and have a sensible chat with them about it.”
The best way to do this is to make it a safe environment for them, she says, and try the following…
- Don’t sit directly opposite them: “Sit next to them on a sofa, in the car side-by-side or in a cafe side-by-side. That makes it less confrontational.”
- Ask them what they are thinking: “If the child has brought this [topic] up, say to them ‘what do you want to know about it?’, ‘what’s worrying you?’. Ask them what they are thinking.”
- Allow an open door for them to come back and discuss: “Remind them that you’re always there to listen,” Carole-Ann advises.
“To not do it is to not prepare your child. To just say, ‘I’m not ready for this’ doesn’t mean that your child is exempt.” Carole-Ann says, “It becomes a no-go area and the child will think ‘I can’t come to mum or dad about this now because they don’t want to talk about it. It may mean that there’s a loss of innocence but by hiding it, you’re not dealing with it.”
To help all these conversations along, there are always sex education books for children of varying ages, that they can use to find answers to some of the more awkward questions.
Can parents opt their children out of relationships and sex education (RSE)?
While the government recognises that families are the primary teachers of these topics, the relationships and sex education changes aim to “complement and reinforce this role” with schools building on what pupils learn at home, to deliver a well-rounded education.
This means that on the whole, parents and carers have to roll with the guidance on RSE as it’s part of the national curriculum and as such, will be taught in all schools by summer next year at the latest. The only exception to this, however, is for parents of primary school-aged children who don’t wish for them to take part in any sex education lessons just yet. They have the right to remove them from this, but all children have to take part in relationships education.
Health education, including topics such as puberty, is also mandatory and will be taught as part of the programme in all state-funded schools.
While it may be a big jump forward for some families, it’s important to be aware that these lessons are about preparing children for the outside world and managing expectation of life, above all else. As Carol-Ann says, “I think that’s one of the things that causes the most problems in relationships – what you expect of someone and who they really are and so, it’s about having healthy expectations of others. This [RSE education] could help them with that.
“And it’s also for them to learn about developing their own lives – it’s not all about relationships, it’s about enjoying your own life as well.”