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Young people turn to online sources for RSE information

11 April 2024

MEDIA RELEASE - 11 April 2024

  • 50% of young people report their RSE provision as good or very good – the highest number since polling began
  • Yet only 43% of students feel personally represented and included by RSE

  • Young people are turning elsewhere to learn: 22% say online options are their main source of information on pornography; 15% say their main source is pornography itself

  • Young people are calling on Government to improve teacher confidence in provision (57%) and flexibility for schools to cover topics at the age that their students need (52%)

A nationwide poll of young people’s experiences of Relationships and Sex Education (RSE) in schools shows quality is improving, but a lack of consistent inclusivity drives many to online sources for information. 

Thanks to the continued attention and efforts of educators, 50% of students now rate their Relationships and Sex Education (RSE) provision as good or very good, the highest number since polls began. While this number is up from 40% in last year’s poll, Government still has a long way to go to deliver on their promise of inclusive, robust RSE for young people - a measure backed by the overwhelming majority of MPs in 2019.

What RSE does well – and where it falls short

While the research, delivered by Censuswide polling 1,001 students in England aged 16 – 17, shows an upward trend in students’ satisfaction with RSE, not all topics are equally or adequately covered. Pupils report that the topics they learn enough about are how babies are conceived and born (79%), puberty (75%), understanding sexual consent (71%) and sexual harassment (64%).

Yet only half or fewer of students say the same for learning enough about cultural and faith perspectives on relationships and sex (50%), how to access local sexual health services (49%), power imbalances in relationships (47%), pornography (45%), or sexual pleasure (34%). 

RSE needs to stay one step ahead of the internet

With such gaps in RSE coverage, it is no surprise that young people are turning to other sources for information about relationships and sex. Social media (30%) is ahead of school (25%) as the main source of information about sexual orientation and gender identity. Over a fifth (21%) say that the internet (social media and websites) is the main source of information about unhealthy relationships, and 18% say this is true for information about healthy relationships, as well as for sexual health. 

Twenty-two percent report their main source of information about pornography is social media and websites, though only 20% say their main source is school. Another 15% declare their main source of information about pornography is pornography itself. 

The need to improve inclusion in RSE

What’s more, not all students feel included in RSE lessons. Only 43% of pupils report feeling personally represented and included in their school RSE, which plummets to just 29% of lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer and questioning students. 

This disparity is true across topics as well. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer and questioning students also relate less satisfaction with RSE provision when compared to their counterparts. For instance, 36% say they learned enough  about accessing sexual health services – thirteen percentage points lower than the average across all students (49%). 

What young people need – in their own words

When it comes to improving RSE, young people say the most important actions that need to flow from the updated Government RSHE guidance - which is expected later this year - are to provide teacher training to improve confidence with RSE (57%), have flexibility for schools to cover topics at the age that their students need (52%), and for schools to ask for student feedback on RSE to improve lessons (51%). 

Yet currently, only 39% of students say that their school asked for their opinions on RSE, and a little over half (56%) said they had enough opportunity to ask questions and get answers in RSE.

Many young people also report that expanded provision would be helpful. Fifty-six percent of students agree that RSE beyond 16 years old would be beneficial to their development and well-being;  currently, mandatory provision stops at this point. 

Additionally, nearly four out of 10 respondents (39%) think it would have been better if RSE had started earlier in their life. Young people are also advocating information about critical topics starting in primary school in a way that is relevant for age and stage. Key areas that young people agree should be included in primary school RSE are consent (81%), the harms of pornography (73%), questioning and challenging stereotypical ideas about how girls and boys should behave (69%), examples of same-sex relationships (56%), and learning what trans and non-binary mean (53%).  

Lucy Emmerson, Chief Executive of the Sex Education Forum, says, “The Sex Education Forum is heartened to see the highest-ever percentage of young people reporting good relationships and sex education (RSE) provision. Yet this is no time to pause and celebrate: a year after announcing a review into RSE, the Government has yet to publish its efforts. In the meantime, Government has failed to address the gaps even as young people cry out for support with significant issues like harms linked to pornography, rising rates of STIs, lack of LGBTQ+ representation, and power imbalances in relationships.

"Echoing the calls of young people and cross-party groups of MPs investigating shortcomings of RSE provision, we urge Government to put pupils’ needs at the heart of its updated guidance. This means prioritising flexible ‘age and stage’ relevant content and providing teachers more training to confidently deliver lessons. Neglecting young peoples’ views does the next generation a disservice by leaving them dependent on potentially untrustworthy online sources for information and ill-equipped for healthy relationships."

About the research
Research conducted by Censuswide, on behalf of Sex Education Forum between 16 and 26 February 2024. The sample included 1,001 young people aged 16 and 17 in England (who attend/ed school). Comparative data from previous polls is drawn from research conducted by Censuswide between 2 and 13 December 2022, with a sample of 1002 young people aged 16 and 17 in England (who attend/ed school). Censuswide abides by and employ members of the Market Research Society, which is based on the ESOMAR principles. Censuswide is also a member of the British Polling Council.

The data regarding topics young people feel are taught not at all or not enough has been combined from the two original polling categories for the related question of “I learnt some but not all I needed to” and “I didn’t learn about this at all.”

Read the full report