The long awaited guidance for the teaching of relationships, health, and sex education came out on 24th September 2020. The last such guidance came out in 2000: before both YouTube and YouPorn, so we’ve been waiting a long time.
Sadly, in that time, relationships and sex education has remained a low status subject in most secondary schools with most young people saying that their RSE wasn’t good enough. Rather than examining the content of the guidance; or being curious about how teachers (as workers) might be supported to deliver this; or what good RSE might look like: left twitter (which I count myself as belonging to) decided that the most offensive section of the guidance was this.
This frustrated me so much that I thought I’d ruin my Sunday and write a blog about why, although it causes me a little concern, there are plenty more things to be worried about. Here I’ll talk through some of my concerns about this ‘apolitical’ RSE, but will go on to explain what a good RSE resource / organisation should be doing, why it is that teachers need this kind of guidance, and the current state of RSE.
Note, I’m talking about RSE here because I’m referring to secondary schools, which is the age group I specialise in, and it’s secondary schools who will have to do relationships, sex, and health education. Primary schools will just have to do relationships and health education.
Also schools, yes I am a leftist but I don’t talk about party politics in my lessons and for the reasons I explain below I don’t call for the end of capitalism. Please still book me and buy my resources, thanks.
“Extreme political stance”
Firstly, I’ll cover where I agree with the discourse, before going into where I diverge from it. An essential aspect of RSE is that it is grounded in anti-oppressive practice. In order to understand so many topics relating to relationships, sex, sexuality, and gender there has to be a broader socio/political element to the lesson.
For instance, when we talk about consent, we can’t simply imagine that there exists a level playing field where everyone is equally able to ask for and have their needs, wants, and desires met by another person. If we did, that would not be apolitical, that would be neoliberalism, where we are all individuals who have the same amount of agency as each other. You don’t have to look too far for consent education materials that do just this right now. On the other hand it also wouldn’t be accurate or helpful to suggest that agency can only be collective and that it wouldn’t be possible to negotiate different wants and needs where a power imbalance or agency exists between two or more people in a relationship.
Just offering neoliberalism or communism, would not be good or helpful relationships and sex education. Really good RSE would be asking students to talk to each other about individual and collective agency with with each other. To navigate the complexities of power dynamics, shame, sexist double standards, our experiences of oppression, privilege, solidarity and understanding interlocking oppressions. Crucially, it would be real and relevant to their lives and would be meaningful and useful outside of the classroom in their relationships with each other.
Interlocking oppressions, also known as intersectionality, is obliquely referred to in the guidance and all school policies have to refer to the Equalities Act 2010. And yes, intersectionality shouldn’t have the underlying class oppressions stripped out of the analysis. My point here is that I would not be delivering effective RSE if I simply read out the Combahee River Collective statement in class and insisted that everyone agreed with it (however much I hoped that they might). It would also be wrong for a school to ban me from referring to black radical feminists calling for an end to, or a dramatic restructuring of, capitalism.
But rather than this oblique and intellectual take, I think we should be focussing on the reality for RSE and the challenges it faces.
What does good RSE look like
If you’re reading this in the UK or US it’s likely that you will have no idea what good RSE looks like or feels like. Sadly, for most young people, most RSE consists of someone standing at the front of the class showing you how to put a condom on a demonstrator, what the IUD looks like, gory pictures of tertiary syphilis, and (in the last few years) a scary film about child sexual exploitation, and a line drawing animation about tea and consent. If you only experienced this kind of RSE, without any room for discussion, critique, or real life examples for you to chew over, you had bad RSE.
Good RSE involves using different teaching techniques, employing a term I have come to know as ‘critical pedagogy’, but which I understood over 20 years ago as just ‘bloody good youth work’. It has to be about the students, not us. Pretending to be an expert in a subject where no-one is an expert does no-one any good. Doing this with the awkwardness and anxieties of the average classroom teacher who was given a lesson plan and a couple of hours training (max) at the beginning of term isn’t good.
Students need to be able to leave an RSE class a bit informed, but mostly more skilled, and to have thought about and considered their values. In a really expertly facilitated lesson, within clear group agreements and the sympathetic use of different experiential learning methods, everyone will also leave the lesson having felt empathy, compassion, cooperation, and an experience of what consent feels like.
Some schools and teachers are really good at doing this, but many are not. Many schools will be delivering the same kind of stuff that you found so unhelpful. In a minority of schools the RSE will be downright unhelpful, traumatising, partial, and contravening the Equalities Act. There’s not much in the guidance, in and of itself, that is going to improve RSE I’m afraid. It’s more of a set of bullet points to aim for rather than giving a great deal of useful advice on how to get there.
So what is the issue?
Lack of money, staffing, infrastructure, and support services. You know, the kinds of things that your average leftist should care about. When I began doing relationships and sex education work in 1999 I did so in a local authority youth service, where I received high quality free training. I joined the specialist youth work team where I took the reins of a sexual health project for care leavers and unhoused, before starting up some projects myself, supporting schools, delivering RSE all over the city, creating specialist outreach services etc. I was managed, had supervision, had wonderful colleagues, received even more training, there was a library of the top resources. Now there is not only not a specialist youth work team there, there is no youth service there.
This has been replicated in many parts of England (in particular, Wales and Scotland have done a better job of prioritising this kind of work). The bloody good youth workers who were doing some of this work in schools (even with the limited resources that youth workers had then) are mostly not around anymore (shout out to you if you have managed to stay in the sector all these years).
On top of this, once the Teenage Pregnancy Strategy money started drying up a lot of the public health and PCTs who were doing specialist sexual health work in the 2000s had to stop or switch priorities. Post 2008 cuts to local authority budgets meant that projects had to be scaled back. One successful project I was working on in an inner London borough, for a leading sexual health charity, had our funding cut in half so I lost half my hours. When this was happening across the board, the charity I was working for had to restructure and so asked me to take a 20% pay cut, before I lost my hours altogether.
Back in the day there were charities and organisations with innovative outreach workers who also developed fantastic resources and training for teachers. Many of these no longer exist or, where they do exist no longer have the funds to do much of the innovative pioneering work that helped me so much when I was starting out.
I’m now completely freelance and my website for young people is sponsored by Durex (and Patreon, if you feel that uncomfortable about one of the leading relationships and sex education websites for young people is sponsored by a multinational giant). Without selling my labour to a huge company I would not be working in this sector.
Also for free RSE resources (which I co-wrote) check out DO…RSE for Schools (sponsored by Durex) which has lots of guidance, self-reflection tools, and lesson plans for delivering RSE for over 14s.
Teachers and schools
So it’s teachers and schools who are having to bear the responsibility for delivering RSE. Where they can’t deliver it themselves they will get people in, however the financial reality for schools is that they have to find organisations who are free or very low cost. Some of these are great, but many of them will be relying on unpaid volunteers, given the parlous state of the voluntary sector I’ve mentioned above. Much of the wealth of expertise and experience has been decimated due to politics over the years (don’t get me started on young people’s sexual health services). All of these organisations will need to be vetted.
Check out the Sex Education Forum who can help with this.
Even then this won’t be enough, teachers will need to be delivering more comprehensive RSE from this year, more topics and more lessons, in an increasingly busy timetable. It’s a low status subject and even though being a PSHE co-ordinator sounds prestigious, it’s actually just a lot more work, in a tricky area, for not a lot of pay and not a lot of status. Until PSHE co-ordinator has the same prestige as head of modern languages, the subject isn’t going to improve a great deal.
Sadly many if not most English schools don’t send their teachers to training. They either can’t afford the (modest) fees (many local authorities now have to charge schools for training via their own social enterprises) or they can’t afford the cover. Even then a teacher attending the training might only get one day, and they might be expected to use their training to train up 6 or 7 other teachers after school.
Sometimes (though increasingly rarely) I get to run a training course with teachers at a school (usually fee paying). The teachers are lovely, and keen, and really want to do a great job. I admire that they are stoically taking this on, amidst their ever increasing workloads and responsibilities. The first activity we do asks them to reflect on their own relationships and sex education and yes, you’ve guessed it, it was as shitty and unhelpful as yours probably was. So teachers are being asked to deliver a subject where they have not only not received adequate training but also have not even received good RSE themselves.
Back to the beginning
We’re in an era where there aren’t the support services, charities are stretched to the limit, and schools don’t have money for RSE. In this climate teachers are often wading through free resources they find on the internet. And yes I think that it’s too much to say that resources shouldn’t be anti-capitalist, but if it was a good RSE resource it wouldn’t be explicitly anti-capitalist anyway. I also think that this is relatively small potatoes when we think of what’s at stake. This is about young people’s learning about consent, healthy relationships, safety, care, cooperation, compassion, solidarity, inclusion – the big topics that should matter to all of us quite frankly. So far it’s a shame that the left don’t seem that interested in talking about this.
copyright Justin Hancock, 2020