Relationships and Sex Education (RSE) in secondary schools and Relationships Education (RE) in primary schools will become compulsory from September 2020 in England. UK Government guidance for schools was issued in February 2019 and much welcomed by academics, teachers, regulatory bodies (e.g OFSTED) and young people who had criticised current provision, delivery and content of school-based sex education, for being ‘too little and too late’, and out of date, given the significant societal and technological changes that have taken place since the previous guidance issued in 2000. Importantly, the new guidance seeks to ensure that all future provision is compliant with the Equality Act (2010) by including all relationships and relevant protected characteristics.
Above: Social Policy MRes students presented their findings on teachers’ readiness in Sheffield schools to at a Workshop event on Wednesday 10th July 2019.
In January 2019, Sheffield’s multi-disciplinary RSE task group * commissioned researchers at Sheffield Hallam University to find out whether teachers in Sheffield were ready to implement the new guidance and what support they might need. This task group is keen to create a ‘Sheffield Way’ to support school leadership teams and teachers to work in partnership with parents and community groups to deliver sex education to children and young people that is inclusive whilst remaining respectful of the diverse communities in the city. To this end, the researchers gathered views from teachers and other stakeholders using an online survey (150 responses), face to face interviews and a workshop at the Hallam Festival of Education. Key findings show that (i) there is a lack of awareness about the new guidance, (ii) teachers have not received training on the new guidance, (iii) a high number of teachers do not feel ready to teach age appropriate lessons on subjects such as pornography and sexual harassment, (iv) teachers are not sure how to ensure their teaching is inclusive, specifically for pupils with special educational needs and disability, and those who identify as LGBTQ+, (v) teachers and senior leadership teams are unsure how to work in partnership with parents/carers, and (vi) there is a crisis of funding and resources that results in many schools being unable to offer training for staff.
A recent BBC Panorama programme ** identified dilemmas faced by schools when trying to accommodate the beliefs and cultures of their pupils and their parents whilst ensuring they are meeting the requirements around inclusivity as described in the Equality Act 2010. Highlighting the case of Parkfield School in Birmingham, the programme also identified that once protests by parents were featured in the media, the Department of Education put the school under pressure to suspend its programme, ‘No Outsiders’ which sought to “teach about equality in a way where no one [is] left out” *** . Like teachers in the Panorama programme, our research found that teachers are anxious but keen to find ways of working with parents that utilise up to date resources that can provide a more inclusive and positive sex education for all.
It appears likely that a very small number of individuals will remain unwilling for their children to participate in sex education – mostly on religious grounds, regardless of what schools and teachers do. In order to mediate the impact of negative publicity in the media, schools need to work in partnership with parents and community groups to provide them with factual information and resources so that parents are confident and reassured about the content of sex education lessons and are able to complement school-based provision with communication at home.
This research was carried out by three post-graduate students, Chloe Froggatt, Tracey Holland and Becca White who are on the MRES Social Science course at Sheffield Hallam University; they were supervised by Prof. Julia Hirst and Dr Cinnamon Bennett. The students held a dissemination event to launch their report and findings on the 10th July 2019, which was attended by more than 40 people.
* The Sheffield RSE Task Group is a sub-group of the Sheffield RSE Forum and comprises stakeholders from Sheffield City Council, SAYiT, Learn Sheffield, Sheffield Hallam University and Sheffield NHS Teaching Hospitals, School Nurses, CREST and the University of Sheffield.
** Kotecha, S. (2019). Sex Education: The LGBT debate in schools. Retrieved: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m0006w9l
*** For more information about the ‘no outsiders’ initiative in Birmingham – see The Guardian