The Prime Minister announced on 8 March 2023 that the Government will review their statutory guidance on Relationships, Sex and Health Education (RSHE) this year. The timetable is in-line with the three-year review cycle promised when the RSHE guidance was published in 2019.
The Sex Education Forum welcomes the Government review of the guidance. Monitoring the implementation of mandatory RSHE is essential to ensure that guidance stays up to date. Together with our Partners we are committed to supporting a review based on sound evidence, not misinformation. We are very concerned by some misleading reporting of RSHE provision which pays no regard to the needs expressed by young people themselves.
Young people’s experiences must be central to the RSHE review
We know from our survey of a representative sample of over 1000 young people aged 16 and 17 (SEF, 2023) that there are significant gaps in provision in schools with several mandatory RSE topics such as ‘how to tell if a relationship is healthy, including online’ covered inadequately or not at all. Only 40% of young people rate their RSE as good or very good.
The national and international evidence is clear that comprehensive RSE safeguards children and young people’s physical and mental health. RSE contributes to tackling violence against women and girls, addressing the health disparities experienced by LGBTQ+ and other marginalised young people, improves sexual health and results in earlier disclosure and help-seeking in cases of child sexual abuse. The current RSHE guidance was developed in response to this rigorous evidence base and the realities that children and young people navigate daily both online and offline. It therefore includes a broadly comprehensive range of topics.
The RSHE guidance received overwhelming cross-party Parliamentary support, with 538 MPs voting in favour of the 2019 guidance and the subject continues to have overwhelming and consistent support from the public (YouGov Polling). School leaders gave their backing to mandatory RSHE, but many teachers feel they haven’t received the training and support they need to teach the subject confidently. When the RSHE guidance was introduced, Government didn’t follow through with the investment they had promised. This shortcoming must be acknowledged in the review.
A developmentally and age-appropriate approach to RSE is recommended in the current guidance. More detailed advice for schools on what this looks like in practice, informed by research about child development would be useful. Teaching materials are important too. Teachers want to make careful judgements when they create lesson content and consider which resources to choose and how to use them. Further guidance on sequencing learning will support this. The voluntary sector produces a wide range of RSE resources, which many teachers use skilfully to enrich their curriculum.
Crucially, young people must be heard as part of the review process. Through its regular RSE polling, and consultation activities, the Sex Education Forum has a proud track record of engaging with young people and identifying where the gaps are in RSHE provision. So far young people’s voices have been absent in the recent media and political interest in the review, that needs to change, and Government has a responsibility to meaningfully involve the people whom this review will impact the most.
Young people must receive the information they need to ensure RSHE lessons are effective
Our word of warning at the outset of the review is caution against approaches that prohibit information relevant to promoting physical and mental health and equalities. The safeguarding and health consequences are grave when children and young people’s questions are stifled, and they turn to the “wild west’ of the internet for answers.
Young people know what changes would improve RSE at school, highlighting the need for proper lesson time and trained, specialist teachers. Young people identified open discussion as a format for RSE that they wanted more of, followed by exploring scenarios and real-life examples and considering different points of view (SEF, 2023). These discursive approaches to RSE depend on skilled facilitation from trained confident teachers.
Parents and carers are crucial partners in providing effective RSE. Forty-two percent of young people surveyed (SEF, 2023) feel that schools are not informing their parents enough about RSE, and 23% of young people have received no RSE from parents (SEF, 2022). Many parents are looking for support to fulfil their role with RSE at home.
We believe the Review should ask parents what further support they need to complement RSE in school, and that updated guidance should seek to communicate the health and safeguarding benefits of high quality RSE, sustain transparency and promote good practice on information sharing with parents.
When more information is shared about the review, the Sex Education Forum will work with Partners and Educators to provide evidence and engage with this process.
Lucy Emmerson, Chief Executive of the Sex Education Forum said:
“Too often, RSE has been high jacked as a vehicle for political agendas. Like Section 28, which prohibited the teaching of LGBT+ relationships, it’s high time we consigned misinformation and manipulation of information about RSE to history.
We call on the Government to carry out their planned review of RSHE by building on the research evidence they have already established, attending to the current training and support needs of teachers and keeping young people’s views and experiences at the heart of the process. An effective review will add to the legacy this Government has created of legislation that recognises children and young people’s entitlement to preventative education that reduces violence and creates better health.
The Sex Education Forum looks forward to engaging in this review, which must turn the dial on RSHE so all schools have the support to deliver effective and inclusive lessons for all young people.”
Further information from the Sex Education Forum
- FAQ: Choosing and using resources
- Guidance on working with external agencies
- Guidance on transparency and communicating with parents
- Briefing: RSE the evidence
- Young People's RSE Poll 2021 (Published 2022)
- Young People's RSE Poll 2022 (Published 2023)