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When RSE goes wrong

It’s no secret that Relationships and Sexuality Education (RSE) is an important part of helping young people understand healthy relationships and make informed decisions about their bodies and sexual health. However, it’s important to understand that there are many ways in which RSE can go wrong if it is not approached in the correct manner. In addition to the danger of teaching pupils in ways that go against the guiding principles of RSE, there can be extreme backlash from the public and the media, resulting in distress for pupils, schools and parents.


In this post, I will explore two examples of where the delivery of RSE has received negative press attention, and what we can learn from these cases.

 

The Principles of Effective RSE


The RSE frameworks in England Wales outline clearly the principles of effective RSE.[1],[2]

In both frameworks the guiding principles focus on:

  • Content being age appropriate and developmentally appropriate

  • The importance of sensitivity and inclusion

These two principles seem simple and easy to achieve, however as we will see from recent cases, when these tenants are broken, this results in teaching that can be construed as inappropriate, often resulting in public backlash. This is particularly dangerous at the moment, at a time where RSE is being increasingly scrutinised and when backlash happens, increasingly extremist views are presented.


Pornography as homework[3]

In a Secondary school in Hull in 2020, homework was sent out in which year 8 pupils were given a passage to read and then a list of terms to define. These terms included phrases such as ‘revenge porn’, ‘hardcore porn’ and ‘transvestite’. The intentions of the end objectives were sound; to help young people understand that pornography can be damaging. The average age that a young person now sees pornography is 12[4] and so it’s vital that our young people are educated on how pornography does not represent healthy romantic or casual relationships. However, this activity quickly resulted in headlines across the UK of inappropriate work being set for our young people.


So where did this go wrong and what can we learn?

There are two main issues with this RSE task, age-appropriateness and setting RSE tasks as homework.


Firstly, in order to teach 13 year olds about pornography being inappropriate, there is no need for them to learn about offensive historical words such as ‘transvestite’, or to know what ‘hardcore porn’ is. The lessons at this age should focus on the basic concept that pornography does not represent real life. Although RSE frameworks outline the need for this education, it’s also important that schools map the exact expectations in each year group, to ensure that these well intentioned mistakes do not occur.


Secondly, sending RSE work such as this home is a recipe for disaster. Although the task required the students to read the passage to find the definitions, of course teenagers are going to search for the terms online, opening up the risk of them being exposed to extreme pornography. Also, we have no idea where the students will find their definitions from, leading to them reading potentially inappropriate, inaccurate or misleading information. To ensure that lessons are appropriate, we need to deliver them in controlled situations, where we minimise the risk of a causal chain leading to them accessing potentially damaging content.


Finally, we need to consider this from a parents’ perspective. Many parents might not be comfortable talking about these concepts or are unsure of how to talk about these issues with their children. Whilst we must always be transparent about what we are delivering in school, we should not put parents in this type of situation.


Lessons to learn:

RSE should be taught in the classroom and not sent home

Schools need to map out the content for each year to prevent age-inappropriate content

The purpose of each lesson needs to be clear


Isle of Man suspends RSE [5]

Whilst this article is being written, this case is still being covered in the media In February 2023, a petition was launched to suspend RSE in the Isle of Man, due to exposure to what had been deemed inappropriate material by the parents of the school. The complaints included the fact that a drag queen delivered the lessons, that a pupil was sent out of the lesson due to a disagreement on the number of genders, and that pupils were shown graphic images of gender reassignment operations. These allegations are now being investigated by education authorities.


So where did this go wrong and what can we learn?

The two issues here are with age-appropriate content and the method of delivery.


The first thing to say is that I have no issue with drag queens going into schools. I am a supporter of Drag Queen Story Hour and know many drag queens who do amazing work in schools. The important thing is that anyone who goes in to do work in schools, whether a drag queen or not, should be DBS checked, have experience and training in the areas they are delivering, and understand good practice in the area. Just because I am gay, does not mean that I am qualified to delivery LGBT+ workshops, my experience, research and training in this area is what qualifies me to do this.


Now, we don’t know the specifics of the story, as the drag queen has not been identified and the school have not released details about the individual, but if the reports are to believed, the facilitator argued with a student about how many genders there were, and as a result, sent the pupil out of the room. If this report is accurate, it demonstrates an issue with the delivery of RSE. Many areas of RSE are contentious issues and have a wide array of beliefs and opinions. Effective RSE delivery should centre on educating about different viewpoints and ideas; and unless the view is phobic against a protected characteristic, we should not be stating that one view is correct and another is not. Stating that someone is wrong in an issue as complex as gender is not a way to educate, and borders on what some opponents of RSE would label as ‘indoctrination’. RSE should be about discussing different viewpoints and empowering our young people to make decisions of their own.


Secondly, the year 8 pupils were allegedly shown images of transgender surgery. As we don’t have access to the curriculum or resource itself, it’s difficult to know how the school arrived at the decision to show this. Although it’s important that young people understand that there are transgender people in society, I fail to understand why any of them would need to see these images. This comes down to a lack of detailed planning and mapping, or a misinterpretation of the curriculum.


Lessons to learn:

Schools need to map out the content for each year to prevent age-inappropriate content

Staff delivering the more sensitive aspects of RSE should be trained and experienced in the delivery of sensitive content.


Conclusion


These two cases are the most high profile in the last few years and in my experience, in no way represent the vast majority of schools. However, opponents of RSE and LGBTQ+ inclusive education will often use these to push an agenda to ban all RSE; this would be incredibly damaging to both our schools and young people. The most common thread between most cases of backlash to RSE is deviation from age-appropriate content. It's so vital that schools are very clear on expectations in every year group and that policies support the delivery of RSE.


It is clear that there are a number of ways in which the teaching RSE can go wrong. Therefore, it is essential for educators to ensure that they are providing accurate and age-appropriate information in a non-judgmental way. Additionally, it is important to ensure that RSE is inclusive of all sexual orientations and gender identities in order to ensure the safety and well-being of all young people.


If you need help to develop your RSE curriculum to ensure that it is age-appropriate and that your policies protect pupils and staff, please get in touch.


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