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Relationships and Sex Education Guidance Published - Tender's Response

On Monday 25th Feb, the Department for Education released their guidance for schools on the new compulsory curriculum for Relationships and Sex Education.

The curriculum itself breaks down into Relationships Education for primary schools, Relationships and Sex Education for secondary schools and Health Education for all state-funded schools (independent schools already teach Health Education under PSHE requirements).

A previous draft of the guidance, published in July 2018, was subject to an open consultation which Tender contributed to, owing particular thanks to the End Violence Against Women Coalition for sharing their own response with other organisations working towards the prevention of domestic abuse, gendered violence and inequality.

In light of this consultation, the new guidance, published this week, has been much anticipated by Tender, and we welcome many improvements from the version consulted on last year. These include (but are not limited to):

  • A clear centering of children’s rights to accurate, age-appropriate information about their rights, their bodies and the laws in place to protect them from becoming the victims or perpetrators of harm, including:
    • The Equalities Act (2010)
    • Consent
    • Coercive control
    • Pornography and “sexting” (creating/distributing sexually explicit images of someone under the age of 18)
    • Child sexual exploitation (and other forms of exploitation)
    • FGM
    • Forced marriage
    • Hate crime
  • Clearer information and guidelines for schools regarding teaching about and preventing abuse, violence and inequality: including evidence-based awareness that these are issues which disproportionately impact women, girls and the LGBT+ community.
  • A zero-tolerance approach to victim-blaming, including improved language and guidelines relating to the teaching of consent, personal space/boundaries and healthy relationships.
  • Clearer information and signposting for schools regarding the curriculum’s accessibility for children and young people with special educational needs.
  • Explicit reference to addressing behaviour both on and offline, including educating young people about the potentially harmful impacts of pornography on self-esteem and creating unhealthy/unrealistic expectations of real-life sexual partners and behaviour.
  • Acknowledgement that teaching about these issues can result in increased disclosures from young people, accompanied by guidance for schools in responding to these appropriately and effectively.

Whilst we are extremely heartened to see these recommendations included in the new guidance, we also agree with other organisations in our sector that there could still be improvements, particularly in that the document still retains a worrying level of ambiguity regarding how and if certain issues are taught. For example, the deference to schools to determine when it is “appropriate” to teach about the existence of LGBT+ relationships is a caveat which risks both an inconsistency of knowledge and inclusion, and continuing to present these relationships as an “other”, rather than an equal: thus potentially undermining other efforts to prevent trans- and/or homophobic bullying.

We are also disappointed that FGM – a form of abuse most commonly inflicted on victims when they are of primary-school age – is still not required to be taught in primary schools, nor is the issue of forced marriage, despite the availability of effective, age-appropriate resources and training available, and the devastating impact these practices have on girls’ lives.

Tender is, however, optimistic for the potential that the new curriculum has to support teachers, parents and, most importantly, young people, to promote positive, healthy relationships based on equality and respect. There are often concerns that Relationships and Sex Education may encourage children to seek out sexual experiences before they are ready, when research has in fact proven the opposite: high-quality teaching empowers young people to make safer, more informed choices about relationships and thus usually delays their first experience of sex. Denying children this education increases the likelihood that they will seek information about these topics elsewhere and from potentially unsafe and unreliable sources such as social media and pornography: putting them at further risk of grooming, bullying and exploitation.

High-quality relationships and sex education which promotes empathy, equality and respect plays a vital role in safeguarding children and supporting parents and carers to raise confident, compassionate members of our society who are prepared for and can thrive in life: and Tender looks forward to playing a key role in that support.

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