2020 is set to see the introduction of a new and updated RSE (Relationships & Sex Education) curriculum in primary and secondary schools in the UK.
Primary school children are to be taught about their own wellbeing through acts of simple self-care, such as teaching the importance of sleep and spending time outside with friends and away from screens. However, the new curriculum will acknowledge the prevalence of electronic devices in young pupils’ lives. Primary school students will be given education about how to use the internet, how to respectfully interact with others online, and the steps to take if they feel uncomfortable with an experience that they have had online.
Secondary school RSE will introduce health education with a focus on mental health. Students will be taught how to recognise the most common signs of depression or anxiety in themselves and their peers and how to access professional resources should they require them. The mental and physical health impacts of using drugs and other substances will also be discussed.
Students will also receive internet education, which will teach them how to be safe online and navigate topics such as the sharing of private photographs online. Additionally, new topics will be introduced to the RSE curriculum, such as teaching about FGM, abuse, and LGBTQ+ people and their experiences. It has also recently been announced that it will be compulsory to teach menstrual health and consent in both primary and secondary schools by 2020.
RSE lessons will be compulsory for all students. Parents may withdraw their children from them up until the age of 15 but it has been indicated that the parents of these students will be spoken to, made aware of the benefits of these lessons and discouraged to withdraw their children from them. It has been suggested that schools should make decisions about what content is appropriate to teach their students and at what age, considering the backgrounds of their students. However, some parents argue that they should be able to educate their own children in line with their religious faith.
I spoke to committee members of UEA Sexpression who deliver training in schools about consent and healthy relationships and asked them what they thought of the changes.
Sexpression President George Pitt commented that ‘I think any change in the curriculum is a step forward… but I think so much more can be done. If you look at the draft and listen to concerns from teachers, a lot of them have no idea how to actually approach RSE… so I really think the document needs to outline with increased clarity what teachers can do. Looking at the guidelines, a lot of the phrasing is quite sex negative as well… which fuels the negative perception of RSE.’
One concern with the new curriculum is whether or not teachers will teach these issues in an appropriate and sensitive manner. It has been stated that funding will be set aside to give training to RSE teachers – a promise that must certainly be delivered.
Sexpression committee member Merri Dodds spoke to me about the value of RSE education in schools: ‘Relationships and sexual education in schools is vital in protecting children from harm and empowering their choices. In delivering training about consent and healthy relationships, children have come forward at the end of our sessions to disclose or explore personal situations which allow us to safeguard and signpost them for help. Without this education, these children may accept their situations as normal and not access help.’
Dodds hits exactly upon why RSE education is so important: without the correct education, children may accept unusual and dangerous situations as the norm and fail to seek help for their negative experiences. The proposed changes to the RSE curriculum would have a positive impact on the upcoming generation of students, teaching them from a young age how to handle their mental health, and normalise discussions about common experiences that currently go unaddressed.