SPHR researchers at the University of Bristol have worked with young people, schools and Relationships and Sex Education (RSE) providers to develop guidance to ensure young people across the country receive RSE that is effective and acceptable to them.
In September 2020, RSE became compulsory in all secondary schools in England. RSE is regarded as vital for improving young people’s sexual health and keeping them safe from harm but previous research showed that a third of schools in England lacked good RSE. So, how should it be taught and what does successful RSE look like?
The research team developed a set of guidelines based on what research shows works in practice to help educators of secondary school students plan and deliver effective RSE. The guidelines focus on three core areas; curriculum model, content and delivery.
RSE should be appropriate for secondary school students’ culture, age and sexual experience, and should continue throughout compulsory schooling.
Young people should have regular RSE lessons as well as the opportunity to take part in special projects and events. The curriculum should be adaptable and feature a set of core and secondary topics which are explored in a logical way that avoids repetition. Individuals delivering RSE should use a range of interactive and participatory educational strategies and activities to actively engage young people.
RSE should always be sex-positive and taught in a way which is open, frank and informative. RSE programmes should always be developed with young people and should not focus on abstinence. Lessons should discuss emotions, relationships, gender and sexual identity. Young people should be taught about issues such as consent, sexting, cyberbullying, online safety, sexual exploitation and sexual coercion. Lessons should also provide impartial information on contraception, safer sex, pregnancy and abortion.
Our guidance recommends those responsible for the delivery of RSE should be trained educators, have expertise in sexual health and be enthusiastic about delivering RSE. School teachers delivering RSE should be willing to work in partnership with external sexual health professionals who should also be involved in delivering RSE in schools. Ideally schoolteachers should not be familiar to the students as this protects student confidentiality, privacy and boundaries. Our research showed young people found it ‘awkward’ to be taught RSE by teachers they already knew. They also commented that many teachers delivering RSE were often embarrassed, judgemental and unable to discuss sex frankly. Our research found young people were more trusting and likely to believe lessons were confidential if they were delivered by a person external to the school: this could be a teacher from another school. Schools should also have good links with local sexual health and advice services, including through school-based services, as this can be effective in improving sexual health outcomes.
Case study: Hull
SPHR researchers found some great examples of RSE across England and were particularly impressed by Hull City because Cornerhouse, a young people’s health service organisation, works in partnership with secondary schools to deliver RSE.
Young people receive a standardised package of RSE lessons delivered by teachers and peer educators from Cornerhouse. At the end of each year Cornerhouse work with schools to develop any ‘add on’ bespoke packages that feedback from young people indicates are required to ensure lessons are relevant to their students’ needs.
The success of this approach has led to Hull seeing one of the biggest reductions in teenage pregnancy across the country and provides a good example of practice which accords with our evidence-based guidance.
To find out more about our research and Hull’s approach to RSE watch the video below.