Lisa Handy, Relationships Education Development Manager reflects on the implications of government draft guidance on Relationships Education for children and schools.
Coram Life Education works in partnership with 1 in 9 primary schools every year. And it is through the special relationships we have built with our schools to meet their needs and hear their concerns that we are able to give an informed response to the DfE Relationships Education, Relationships Education and Health Education draft guidance consultation. It is pleasing to see that so much of what the Government is proposing to make statutory as part of Relationships Education and Health Education is covered by Coram Life Education’s (CLE) core programmes and its new Relationships Education content.
However there are also areas of the draft statutory guidance where statements are open to interpretation and opportunities to update and bring Relationships Education into the 21st century have been missed or given very little emphasis. The last guidance is 18 years old. A lot happens in 18 years; a sperm cell and ovum become a fully-fledged adult, with all the rights and responsibilities that brings. But without the appropriate and relevant education how can we ensure those adults are ready to exercise their rights whilst at the same time ensure they meet their responsibilities in allowing others too, to exercise their rights?
Whilst CLE agrees that the principles outlined in the draft guidance are welcome, as they focus on positive relationships, living life on/off line, mental wellbeing and individual rights, there are areas where the guidance hasn’t listened to its own advice. The guidance refers to the subjects being delivered in a carefully sequenced way (or as the sector calls it a spiral curriculum) and proposes that primary schools use the term 'permission-seeking' but then introduces the term consent in secondary, yet they mean different things. Permission is given by one with authority to one who does not have the same position of authority whilst consent is an agreement between two parties of equal authority. A spiral curriculum needs to use a common language to reinforce the same key messages.
It is important too that the guidance is based on what we know as best practice and current research. We know from research that over 90% of children are sexually abused by someone they knew. This makes the sentence that pupils should know 'how to respond safely and appropriately to adults they may encounter who they do not know' a little outdated and suggests it should be reviewed in recognition that a child who is or feels unsafe is more likely to be unsafe in the context of an adult they know. In a primary setting it would be important for children to learn how to recognise and report feelings of being unsafe or feeling bad about an adult - known or unknown.
The draft guidance states that ‘teaching about families requires sensitive and well-judged teaching based on knowledge of pupils and their circumstances… to avoid stigmatisation of children’, yet it makes no explicit reference to children growing up in families with parents of the same gender. In fact, sexual orientation and gender identity is not mentioned in the draft guidance until the secondary section. If we are to avoid stigmatisation then children must be able to recognise themselves and their circumstances in the lessons they are being taught, so that they can see their own lived experiences validated and valued. We live in the 21st century where same sex marriage has been legal for 4 years and civil partnerships for 14 years (recognising that same sex relationships outside of a legal framework have been around for a lot longer). Some children raised in these families will be leaving school by the time the draft guidance becomes statutory. Shouldn’t our Government ensure the next generation of children see their lives explicitly validated and valued in the education they receive?
The DfE statutory guidance 'Keeping children safe in education' states that ‘Governing bodies and proprietors should ensure that their child protection policy includes… recognition of the gendered nature of peer-on-peer abuse (i.e. that it is more likely that girls will be victims and boys perpetrators)’. It states that ‘Opportunities to teach safeguarding may include… covering relevant issues through Relationships Education’. However in the draft guidance when specifying ‘the importance of respecting others even when they are very different from them’ it fails to mention gender. In today’s society with the Equality Act some may assume we have gender equality and that all genders enjoy the same rights, resources, opportunities and protections. Yet when we see campaigns like ‘Everyday Sexism’ and #Me Too we are reminded that there are still many people who behave in a way that is both morally and socially unacceptable towards people who are female or are perceived to be feminine.
Society appears to have accepted that girls can be ‘tomboys’ although the word in itself raises issues (summed up in the article Why we need to stop calling girls tomboys) but what about boys? How do they define themselves when they don’t fulfil society’s preconceived ideas of what it is to be a boy? The guidance misses the opportunity to include important positive action such as working with boys to reduce harmful behaviour, by challenging toxic masculinity, stereotyping and unhealthy relationships and power imbalances. So when the draft guidance fails to mention gender, it fails to challenge the messages children are growing up with and neglects to acknowledge gender fluidity and with it the freedom we give children to just be themselves.
We’ve known for a while that the government was planning to make Relationships Education statutory in primary schools but not Sex Education – although we believe it should. But what still isn’t clear even with the release of the draft guidance is what is meant by this ‘Sex Education’ that is not statutory and what exactly does it include?
The guidance tells us that maintained schools are required to teach the national curriculum for Science. At Key Stages 1 and 2 this includes teaching about the main external body parts and changes to the human body as it grows from birth to old age, including puberty. We know evidence supports the naming of genitalia in embedding accurate terms, reducing shame in discussing body parts and potentially leading to more disclosure of sexual abuse (e.g. see the Cochrane Review). We can also see that puberty is made statutory as part of Health Education. And then if you look closely you can also see that it says ‘The Department continues to recommend… that both boys and girls are prepared for the changes adolescence brings and – drawing on knowledge of the human life cycle set out in the national curriculum for science – how a baby is conceived and born’. Whilst the DfE has made it clear through various spokespersons that many primary schools teach Sex Education well and they see no reason for that to change, it is a missed opportunity to give this paragraph so little emphasis, and therefore undermine the confidence of so many schools in choosing to teach Sex Education.
Assuming the government does not intend to make Sex Education statutory in primary schools, at the very least there should be an onus on discussing a decision made by a parent who exercises their right to excuse their child from the sex education element of the curriculum (other than science). We agree that offering parents an opportunity to discuss what is being taught, and inviting them to find out about the shape of the final curriculum is important. However the guidance is based on the assumption and model of an effective parent. For many children – and for a variety of reasons, the parenting they receive comes nowhere near to this model. A whole raft of reasons, from religious and cultural beliefs and practices, to parental efficacy and their level of awareness of children's needs, can lead to children being unprepared and not having the information which should be their entitlement. This further emphasises the importance of reviewing the automatic right to excuse children from sex education, because it can't be assumed children will receive adequate education and preparation for puberty and healthy relationships at home.
Coram Life Education welcomes the guidance and believes that Relationships Education and Health Education represent a significant opportunity for schools to embed wellbeing within the statutory curriculum and across the school. However, whilst the expectations of schools are clear and it's apparent that the Government is looking to strike a balance between dictating content and providing local flexibility, we are concerned that schools will find the new requirements overwhelming, particularly with their time and resources being so limited. Even the expectation of a senior leader with dedicated time to lead specialist provision, whilst positive, in reality may add further burden and lead to insufficient development of the curriculum.