It's good to talk

Doreen Massey on the wider importance of teaching relationship and sex education in schools

From September this year, all primary schools will have to teach about relationships, while secondary schools will also have to teach about sex.

I welcome this move, which finally recognises that RSE (relationships and sex education) makes an important contribution to the emotional and social education of children and young people. Indeed, it has also been shown to improve academic performance. But such teaching must also be part of any strategy to improve sexual health and avoid the risks of unprotected sexual activity, including unwanted pregnancy and infections.  

RSE is much broader than what used to be called ‘sex education’, with its undertones of something risqué – something that saw it either ignored, or delivered by insinuation, at home and in the classroom.

As a teenager, I remember having one such lesson in school – delivered to the girls only, by the “domestic science” teacher. We had to knit, on four needles, a uterus, using coloured balls of left-over wool. Having produced multi-coloured, oddly shaped organs, we then had to push a tennis ball through to show how a baby was born. I remember no proper discussion of this but recall giggles, puzzlement, and an association of shame.

Nowadays, there is extensive guidance from the Department for Education, which schools are expected to follow. Also, times and teaching methods have changed – along with more openness about sex and relationships. Young people are asking for realistic teaching, and their parents have justifiable worries about the over influence of media presentations of relationships and sex. Children and young people need a safe place where they can explore feelings and discuss what constitutes healthy relationships. School is often that place. 

Of course, RSE must be appropriate to age. Young children learn about relationships in different settings – home, school, with friends, through the media. Knowledge and experience expand as they mature. Understanding how bodies function is useful. More important is a child’s own development, dealing with anxieties, and treating yourself and others with respect. It is also vital to enable youngsters to gain self-esteem to protect themselves from unwanted and pressurised relationships. 

Such concepts of RSE are well supported by parents, NGOs, Mumsnet, the Mothers’ Union and young people themselves. 

So, beyond age appropriate teaching, what might constitute a compulsory curriculum? Maths starts with simple concepts and continues to develop its complexity. So should RSE and schools should plan accordingly.

It should also not be confined to a single subject. Biology, English, History, and Social Studies, for example, can all be fruitful in encouraging young people to make discoveries through asking questions and developing skills and attitudes. For older pupils, “controversial” issues, such as same sex relationships, abortion, and pornography should not be dodged. Under the new guidance, teachers must acknowledge the existence of these matters or concepts while also being able to say that their faith disagrees.

Schools will be able to tailor RSE to their pupils’ needs, with parents made aware of what is being taught. But to deliver properly on the curriculum, schools will need resources, supportive leadership, discussions on policies, and training – either in school or from outside specialists. Indeed, teachers may wish to bring in help from school doctors or nurses, social workers, NGOs, and former pupils. They may also want to use TV programmes or other media.

I was a teacher for many years. It is exciting and invaluable to engage with children and young people in discussing topics that matter to them, that they are inquisitive about and which are important to their future lives. RSE can develop such learning.

Baroness Doreen Massey of Darwen is a Labour Peer

Published 12th May 2020

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