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Let’s talk about sex! Or is it just relationships?

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Let’s talk about sex! Or is it just relationships?

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Danielle Marron has been a school governor for almost 10 years and is currently vice-chair of a primary school with link responsibilities for EYFS and SEN/D as well as a director of a multi academy trust made up of 10 primary and 1 secondary Catholic schools within Middlesbrough. As part of her employment as a graduate tutor at Teesside University she is studying for a PhD in Psychology. 

Relationship education – a future obligation for schools

Sex and Relationship Education (SRE) for adolescents has been the topic of debate for numerous years, with all aspects from who should provide it to what should be included gaining attention. Government agencies as well as parents, teachers and school governors have expressed concern that the current provision is not preparing children well enough for the future. For the first time in 2017 the government passed legislation which means that, as of September 2019, all primary schools in England will now have an obligation to provide what has been termed relationship education for all their pupils, a major shift from the previous guidance that allowed primary schools the choice of providing an SRE curriculum.

So what will this change mean? Some may argue, very little, the majority of schools already provide a program of SRE and will continue to do so with very little change for teachers and governors. However, the changing world that we now live in and the increase in access to technology have prompted the shift in thinking with regards to the need to provide a much more robust and relevant SRE curriculum for younger children. SRE is much more than informing children of the mechanics of sexual intercourse and the preaching of an abstinence is best approach, with the change in legislation not expected to take effect for just over a year, there is still work to be done to ensure that children get the vital messages they need to help them to grow up safely in a modern world.

So why bother?

Surely we should just allow children to be children and as adults we should be protecting their innocence and not making them grow up too soon? A real concern that many parents and teachers have expressed, however, who is this approach best for? The numbers of children who fall victim to sexual abuse and/or sexual exploitation are on the increase (Barnardo’s, 2017; Bentley et al., 2017; Radford et al., 2011). Over 54,000 sexual offences against children were recorded by the police in the UK in 2015/16 (Bentley et al., 2017). In 2017 Barnardo’s reported a huge rise in the number of children being sexually exploited; in the year 2014/15 the children’s charity was supporting approximately 3200 children of whom had been the victim of child sexual exploitation – an increase of some 49% on the previous year.

In 2016 14% of the total contacts to the NSPCC’s helpline, in excess of 8000 calls, were concerned with child sexual abuse (Bentley et al., 2017). Radford et al. (2011) report that one in twenty children in the UK have been sexually abused, with over 90% of these children abused by someone they know, staggeringly one in three of these children do not report the abuse that is happening to them, Radford et al. (2011) suggest the reason for this is that the children do not realise that what is happening to them is in fact wrong and that they are actually the victim of a crime. However, it is worthy to note that not all child sexual abuse involving a child victim is committed by an adult, figures suggest that around a third of the sexual abuse of children is committed by other children and young people, children and young people whom themselves often do not see their behaviour as a criminal act (Hackett, 2014).

Compulsory SRE?

Although a move towards some form of compulsory SRE for children of primary age has been called for, as already suggested many primary schools are in fact already offering provision of some kind (Ofsted, 2013). Differing opinions have been expressed in regard to the proposed content of SRE for primary age children. Charities concerned with the safety and wellbeing of children have expressed the need for a focus on appropriate and inappropriate behaviour, respect and healthy relationships as well as equipping young people with the information they need to keep themselves safe – information that would enable them to identify and protect themselves against potential abusive relationships (Barnardo’s, 2017).

In contrast Ofsted (2013) have raised concerns that by placing too much emphasis on friendships and relationships that pupils are being left ill prepared for the physical and emotional changes that they will experience during puberty. The introduction of statutory SRE as part of the curriculum only takes away the choice that primary schools previously had as to whether to provide a program of SRE or not, it does not address the issues in relation to the quality, quantity or the content of the provision already being provided, this can only be achieved by investigating what these issues are and addressing them accordingly. With the increase in numbers of children falling victim to crimes of sexual abuse and sexual exploitation, it is the responsibility of the adults that care for them to protect them from such horrific acts. One way to do this is by providing them with the information they need, in an age appropriate way, to help support them in keeping themselves safe from harm.

SRE and governance

As school governors we are tasked with the responsibility of ensuring that an SRE policy is drawn up in consultation with all stakeholders and that it is available for parents to access. Previous research has found that both parents and teachers are keen to engage in a collaborative approach in relation to SRE, however, findings in relation to what should be taught and when are often mixed, with teachers feeling they should not provide certain information as this would go against the wishes of the parents and parents stating that they would prefer teachers to provide some of the more sensitive information as they themselves feel unable to do so, be that due to a lack of knowledge or feelings of embarrassment.

A consistent finding in the literature is that many adults are unsatisfied with the SRE they had as a child and would have liked it from an earlier age, they are keen to improve this for their own children and report that they do indeed intend to provide better, however, when questioned deeper they often report only reactively engaging with their child in communication of SRE topics. A pertinent question is: how can adults provide better for children today if they do not know how to communicate these messages, which messages should be communicated and at what time in the child’s life.

Before SRE can be implemented effectively at primary I feel it is important that we have a deeper understanding of the barriers and facilitators that may impact upon the successful implementation and we must start by investigating what can impact on the actual communication of SRE topics between an adult and a child. Furthermore, it is essential that we have an understanding of the topics that adults deem important, and if these topics are in line with child sexual development, we can then use this information to address the gaps in curriculum that may exist. As governors it is important that we have an awareness of these changes in legislation and how they impact upon not only the children in our schools but on the staff who are expected to deliver these sometimes sensitive messages with little or no specialist training, whilst at the same time being mindful of the parents’ wishes and beliefs.

Research in this area of relevance to governors

My name is Danielle, I have been a school governor for almost 10 years and have undertaken many varied roles and responsibilities throughout this time. I am currently Vice Chair of a primary school LMB with link responsibilities for EYFS and SEN/D as well as a director of a multi academy trust made up of 10 primary and 1 secondary catholic schools within Middlesbrough. As part of my employment as a graduate tutor at Teesside University I am studying for a PhD in Psychology. My research is looking into the barriers and facilitators that could impact the effective implementation of ‘Relationships Education’ (previously known as Sex and Relationship Education) taking into account the recent changes in legislation which means it will become compulsory for all primary schools in England to provide Relationship Education for the children in their care as of September 2019. I will be investigating the views of parents, teachers and school governors.

I believe as school governors – who are expected to engage with all stakeholders in relation to policy development – it is important that our views are also investigated and taken into consideration. Completing the questionnaires linked to below will enable those involved in governance to have a voice in this process.

The first questionnaire (Sex and Relationship Education Content Questionnaire) will gather your thoughts on the content of Relationship Education and age appropriateness of potential topics to be covered in the curriculum. The second questionnaire (Sex and Relationship Communication Questionnaire) will investigate individual’s perceptions and beliefs in relation to the communication of topics that could be covered in the relationships education curriculum.

It is hoped that the information gathered from the questionnaires will be used to aid the development of an intervention that can be used to improve the communication between adults and children when discussing sensitive topics, as well as provide information that could be used to develop a training session to support governors in their role of policy development in relation to the changes in legislation in preparation for the introduction of compulsory ‘Relationships Education’ in all primary schools in England from September 2019.

If you have any questions regarding the research or you would prefer a copy of the questionnaire as a word document by email please do not hesitate to contact me via email at b.marron@tees.ac.uk.

Questions for your governing board

  • What is the current policy in our school – and what is the programme of SRE?
  • How is our school preparing for the changes in legislation – what involvement will governors have in this?
  • How does our school plan to implement a collaborative approach to SRE?
  • What CPD is offered to ensure teachers in our school are able to communicate sensitive topics in an effective manner?
  • How do teachers assess children’s understanding of key messages especially when this is not an area of formal assessment? Is this reported back to governors?

References

  • Barnardo’s (2017). Intro to CSE. Retrieved July 14, 2017, from www.barnardos.org.uk
  • Bentley, H., O’Hagan, O., Brown, A., Vasco, N., Lynch, C., Peppiate, J., … Letendrie, F. (2017) How safe are our children? The most comprehensive overview of child protection in the UK 2017. London: NSPCC.
  • Hackett, S. (2014) Children and young people with harmful sexual behaviours. London: Research in Practice.
  • Office for Standards in Education. (2013) Not yet good enough: personal, social, health and economic education in schools. Retrieved July 13, 2017, from www.gov.uk
  • Radford, L., Corral, S., Bradley, C., Fisher, H., Bassett, C., Howat, N., Collishaw, S. (2011) Child abuse and neglect in the UK today. London: NSPCC

Image credit: Love Locks in Graz by Thomas Quaritsch on Unsplash


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