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Having faith in comprehensive RSE

23 March 2018

The wide spectrum of organisations and individuals with an interest in relationships and sex education (RSE) is reflected in the breadth of our 80+ partners, who include local authorities, teaching unions and national charities focused on disability, health, education and children’s rights.

When the Sex Education Forum was created 30 years ago the founding group included the sexual health charity Brook and the Catholic Marriage Advisory Council, amongst others, and showed from an early stage how faith and health perspectives could work together to identify common ground. Our role has always been to demonstrate the consensus of support for evidence-based RSE and to help explain why RSE is an entitlement for every child and young person.

The Church of England recently published their response to the Government ‘call for evidence’ on RSE, and the mention of the terms ‘celibacy’ and ‘abstinence’ quickly fuelled news reports about ‘promoting’ these as ‘positive life choices’. A closer look and the word ‘promoting’ was actually inserted by journalists, a word that has a long history when it comes to discussions in the media about sex education and the kind of misunderstandings that have repeatedly thwarted the subject.

What the Church of England did say is that within their schools children are taught a Christian understanding of marriage. The emphasis seems to be on understanding a particular faith perspective. It is important that children are taught in such a way that they can differentiate between a faith perspective and other views and information. It is encouraging to see that the Church specified that pupils must be given factual knowledge about conception, contraception and pregnancy, as this contributes to a comprehensive programme of RSE.

In its ‘call for evidence’ the Government asked respondents to list the top three subject areas that should be included in RSE.  In our response, the Sex Education Forum focused on what knowledge and understanding we want children and young people to have at primary and secondary school level. Add flesh to these bones and a comprehensive programme of RSE will start to take shape.

By the end of primary school we want pupils to be:

  • Prepared for the physical and emotional changes of puberty
  • Able to recognise gender stereotypes and that everyone is unique and equal
  • To know that bodies vary and some parts are private
  • To understand the difference between safe and unsafe touching
  • To have the confidence and vocabulary to report abuse including knowing the correct terms for genitalia
  • Able to recognise types of bullying and how to challenge it
  • To appreciate that families vary but care-giving is central

By the end of secondary school pupils should be:

  • Confident in their ability to make and maintain positive relationships
  • Able to identify and articulate emotions
  • Feel in control of their sexual behaviour and decisions
  • Able to actively communicate and recognise consent from others, including sexual consent
  • Critically aware of how sexually explicit media present an unreal picture of sexual behaviour
  • Able to recognise how gender stereotypes can normalise violent or non-consensual behaviour
  • Able to take responsibility for their own sexual and reproductive health and emotional wellbeing
  • Know how and where to access confidential sexual and reproductive health advice and treatment

What mustn’t be allowed to happen is for schools to exclude particular topics or information because of the faith or beliefs of parents, or the religious status of the school. Updated government guidance must make this absolutely clear.

In making learning appropriate to the faith of pupils, the guiding principle should be that teaching is responsive to their lived experiences, and so can reflect the religious and cultural background of pupils, for example in the choices of resources and tailoring the curriculum to meet pupil needs. The difference between fact and opinion must always be made clear to pupils and information about the law and legal rights included throughout RSE.  

Religion and cultural background is one of many aspects of children’s lives. Investment in training and competent educators is essential to ensure inclusive RSE practice and a curriculum which is accessible for pupils with disabilities and special educational needs. High quality RSE fosters LGBT and gender equality and avoids making assumptions, for example in relation to intersex, HIV or the pregnancy status of pupils.

There are already many teachers and school staff with the specialist skills to deliver inclusive, high quality RSE, and many schools (both faith and non-faith) provide great RSE teaching. Where provision is outstanding the school has generally embraced the natural fit between the core values that run throughout RSE, which revolve around love, care and respect, and the ethos of their school, which tends to be the same.

While some aspects of religion, sex and relationships present moral dilemmas, we must accept that children and young people are better placed to make decisions for themselves if they have more information rather than less, and have the support and guidance of adults who are prepared to talk to them about the big issues. Parents, carers, teachers, health professionals, faith and community leaders all have a role. Sex Education Forum partners includes representatives from all of these groups, and we always welcome new partners. Have a look at our values and principles and see if you agree.

Lucy Emmerson
Director, Sex Education Forum
23 March 2018