Where the more personal aspects of the human experience are concerned - sex, love and what constitutes a family, it was once expected of parents to teach their children. However, as time goes on, subjects like sex education and others are finding their way into school curricula. RSE is the latest such course introduced nationwide.
RSE stands for Relationships and Sex Education. The courses were expected to roll out in September 2020; however, between lockdowns and hybrid learning, it is unclear that every school has started teaching it. Whether or not they have, it is compulsory. When schools resume (in normal fashion), parents and caregivers can expect their children to receive formal education about sex and relationships.
Understandably, there is plenty of discussion about promoting understanding of the range of relationships in society today, some of which were once considered taboo. There are concerns about how such education would impact more conservative students, including those whose religious views do not mesh well with this sort of teaching. And how will be adapted to SEND students?
There are also concerns about bias in the curriculum. And, there is the substantial worry that teachers can or should guide this type of learning.
Your Superprof wants to give you some food for thought and, hopefully, answer your questions about this new, mandatory course your children will take.
The Need for Such Education
Any reasonable person who has some awareness of what's taught in public schools across the UK has cause to wonder: there's already a course to address relationships and sex (RSHE); why do we need another one?
It has never been easy to restrain the (pre-) teen population once they get the idea to test their autonomy in every conceivable way. Only now, their doing so could lead to lifelong incapacitation if not death.
Not that we're painting the past in a rosier colour than it deserves but, twenty or thirty years ago, drugs were not as deadly, AIDS was still mostly considered a disease that afflicted only a portion of the population and social media was nowhere near as prevalent.
Now, thankfully, although AIDS continues to rage, antiretroviral therapy ensures that those afflicted can enjoy a relatively normal lifespan. As for drugs, there's ketamine, ecstasy and a whole host of date-rape drugs - all destructive and all are readily available. What about social media? Virtually everyone has at least one account, including kids as young as 10.
Who could forget Gemma Watts, who targeted and groomed her victims through social media?
When the news of Ms Watts' activities hit our tellies, we were glued to our screens in horrified fascination. Horrified at how easy it is to create deceit and seduce victims. Fascinated that she managed the feat over and over. We felt sorrow for her victims and perhaps even fear that such an outrage could happen to our children.
J. K. Rowling tackled the subject of child sex in her 2012 novel The Casual Vacancy. Krystal Weedon, a secondary school pupil - arguably the character most deserving of sympathy, is raped and, later, attempts to get pregnant for all of the wrong reasons.
Drug use, sexual exploitation and easy access to vulnerable populations: all of these social ills have afflicted civilization since its dawning. Today, despite parents' best efforts at educating their kids about them, these conditions pose an ever-greater danger.
Isn't that a good reason for adding such education to schools' curriculum?
In theory, schools educating children about the intricacies of managing their private lives makes sense. If they all receive the same message, it's more likely that they will all come to the same conclusion... right?
In practice, teaching these subjects from an academic perspective seems well-nigh impossible.
For one, the prevailing educational theory in most schools across the world espouses the idea that children are merely vessels to be stuffed full of facts. To that end, the teacher faces her charges and holds forth. There are obvious flaws to this theory but, in the context of this new curriculum subject, one stands high above the others.
Will there be time for discussion, debate... the launching and answering of questions?
Standard academic classes such as maths and English don't have much flexibility built into each lesson to permit for heated argument or exploration of ideas. How are we to believe that this subject would be different? Furthermore, knowing teens' reluctance to discuss intimate matters, how can we count on their enthusiasm - or even their participation?
With all of that having been said, let's be perfectly clear: kids need to hear this information. They need to know about the risks of interacting online, sexually transmitted diseases and how to spot the signs of an unhealthy relationship. They also need to know how to maintain their physical and mental wellness.
Parents and caregivers, for all of their efforts, do not necessarily have access to the latest information, nor can they be expected to know about the latest threat to their child's safety.
We certainly don't mean to imply that this curriculum will be updated every time some new social ill or predatory behaviour manifests. However, there is a greater likelihood that all students may be more quickly apprised if the information is first distributed to schools.
What the Curriculum Contains
Before we get into the particulars of this programme, let's give some quick reassurance.
- Parents/caregivers have the right to withdraw their child(ren) from the sex education components of the programme
- Note that the Health and Relationship portions remain compulsory.
- Schools and teachers get to decide how the information contained in this statutory programme will be taught.
- Discussions over how to deliver these lessons to SEND students is still ongoing
- Personal, Social, Health and Economic education remains compulsory; this programme does not replace it.
Beyond that, you should know that RSE is a broad programme, spanning from your child's primary school experience all the way through their secondary years. Naturally, the sex education component will not be addressed in primary schools.
The topics covered in primary schools include:
- Mental wellbeing
- Physical health and fitness; healthy eating
- Health and prevention - noticing changes in eating and sleeping habits, for instance, and that they may indicate an underlying condition
- Basic first aid
- The adolescent body (focused on how their bodies are/will change)
- Drugs, alcohol and tobacco
- Internet safety
These topics are further developed in secondary school, with certain aspects of them evolving to be more suitable to their level of maturity.
For instance, students will learn how to do CPR and operate a defibrillator, delve deeper into aspects of adolescence and puberty and maintaining a positive body image. They will be guided deeper into the virtual world - how to spot scams, trolling and phishing online, how to avoid bullying and how to resist the siren call of influencers.
Suitable for All?
All of that sounds pretty good, doesn't it? Especially the consideration given to SEND students and how those pupils might receive and process all of this information.
The exceedingly brief description above belies the programme's complexity so, now, we go into specifics of what this curriculum entails.
From a Gender Perspective
Traditionally, sex and relationship education reflected family and local societal values. For instance, if a family (or the community) believed that a such a social unit must consist of a male and female parent, they might be less inclined to acknowledge that families led by two females or two males could be considered legitimate.
This programme's guidelines emphasise that teaching curriculum segments addressing sexual orientation and gender identification/reassignment must comply with the Equality Act 2010, meaning that any commentary on what was formerly considered illegitimate parenting will not feature (save maybe from a historical perspective).
Beyond that general admonition is the instruction to integrate such content into the programme rather than broaching topics of sexuality as standalone subjects.
As an overly simplistic example of that distinction: "Ok, we're done teaching about body image, now let's talk about how transgender people view their bodies."
This curriculum is meant to be inclusive of all orientations and gender identities. Thus you will not hear any gender-group called out or given any particular attention.
From a Religious Perspective
Again: this curriculum is designed to fully comply with the Equality Act of 2010. That means that, if a student's religion prohibits the discussion of sensitive, intimate or private matters with people outside of their faith or family unit, that student may be excluded from study units that run contrary to their religious doctrine.
However, considering the breadth of the curriculum and the many aspects it touches on, students seeking exemptions on religious grounds can only be excluded from those segments deemed offensive to them. Note that, as mentioned earlier, that possible exclusion only covers those parts of the curriculum dealing with sex.
That sets up an uncomfortable and difficult scenario. First, because their parent(s) must validate that their religious beliefs require that their child not be exposed to such information and, second, because that child will now be excluded... from a programme that is meant to include everyone.
The Department for Education does not make it clear how such exemptions should be handled. They would be hard-pressed to outline those step anyway, seeing as each school has the liberty to administer the programme as they see fit.
Surely, as the programme rolls out, parents, religious leaders, teachers and administrators will work out those kinks.
Tips for Talking About Relationships and Sex
As we mentioned at the start of this article, typically, parents usually undertake the most intimate of their children's sex and relationship education. At least, we like to think so.
Some parents feel uncomfortable with this subject matter. As society becomes more tolerant, its broad embrace of relationship and gender diversity drive that discomfort. Still, time moves on and not everybody has the knowledge, experience and/or tolerance required to talk with kids about these subjects with authority and conviction.
Some people do not want to acknowledge certain aspects of our evolving society.
Others believe that too much information given to those too young to understand it, or too comprehensive in relation to older children's experiences does more harm than good. They may even believe that talking about sex and relationships too early encourages sexual or relationship behaviour that would not otherwise have been part of their kids' lives.
Research suggest that this is not the case. The unanimous consensus is that children should have this information to develop their understanding of relationship and sexual matters as soon as they exhibit curiosity about those topics.
Not only should children be able to manage their own sexual and relationship orientations and experiences, but they should be enabled and empowered to make informed and assertive choices about their sexuality and the types of relationships they are interested in pursuing.
To provide that empowerment, parents should inform their kids so they can better understand the diversity of relationships that make up contemporary society.
They should encourage their children to have more solidarity with people who are different from themselves and empathy when people are treated badly due to personal factors out of their control - say, their skin colour or their visible identities.
Finally and most importantly, children need to feel they are supported and accepted should they feel different from the mainstream perceptions of the community (and family) they live in.
In RSE classes, pupils will be taught about the many types of relationships - about lesbian and gay relationships, same-sex parenting, and about gender identity. They will be treated to a clinical dissection about the harm of gender stereotyping, bigotry and exclusion.
The idea is to encourage an open attitude towards the range of relationships across society, to be able to talk about them in a safe and healthy environment, and to promote inclusion.
For as open and inclusive as we are today - at least in the bigger cities, there still exists a climate of judgement and discrimination towards those who have relationships that differ from what some consider the norm. Many attribute that intolerance to the lack of education and/or understanding of gender identity outside of the traditional binary perspectives.
Unfortunately, we cannot disregard the unwillingness of some to acknowledge the variety of characters that make up modern society. This can make some feel isolated and alone.
If our youngsters’ education is going to be complete they need to know about diversity without judgement.
Just as children learn about different ethnic groups, cultures and communities, it’s also important that they learn about sex, relationships and gender diversity. Then, they’ll have the knowledge and vocabulary to discuss these issues comfortably.
They will be able to build and reinforce a healthy attitude towards their own and others’ sexual experiences and preferences without anyone feeling guilty, ashamed, isolated or marginalised.
So, however uncomfortable parents’ initial reactions are - either with their children's onset of puberty and the vital discussions that will necessarily follow or with this curriculum, everyone can get on board.
Parents and children, teachers and school administrators - even the religious community should be involved through frank discussions and activities that support this type of learning.
Embracing RSE as part of students' formal learning, whether through home education or in school could be one of the best social wins of all.