Relationships and sex education in the UK is changing, and the youth want their say

Youth volunteers discussing sex education

The UK Government has decided that Relationships and Sex Education (RSE) will become compulsory in schools in England from 2019 and is consulting parents, experts and young people on what the new curriculum should look like.

Current guidelines haven’t changed since 2000, and fail to address such issues as cyberbullying, ‘sexting’, internet porn as well as growing awareness of LGBTQ+ identities and the topic of consent. 

Sexual health charities Brook and FPA have been working with young people to find out what good RSE means for them. The result is the ‘Young people’s manifesto: what we want and need from RSE’ – an 11 point plan which outlines what is considered by young people to be the baseline for quality RSE, such as being LGBTQ+ inclusive, age-appropriate, based on facts - not opinion - and taught by trained teachers.

As part of the ongoing campaigning Brook and FPA have launched a petition to ask that the Secretary of State for Education listens to the voices of young people and includes their priorities in the new RSE curriculum.

Hannah Panes, Participation and Volunteering Coordinator at Brook, said: 

“We wanted young people to be at the centre of decisions that affect them. That’s why it was so important that the young people’s manifesto was co-produced by a group of young volunteers.”

A group of young volunteers and Brook Champions - volunteers who influence and co-produce services – were asked for their opinions about RSE and their hopes for the future.

Alex, 24, Brook Champion
Alex, 24, a Brook Champion:  “RSE shouldn’t be just about straight relationships. For me, being part of the Manifesto was about feeling heard and listened to. I want MPs to listen to young people, to what they want and what their needs are.. not what they think they are.”

Rachel, 21, a student, has seen the consequences of this at university:

“I’ve been struck by the number of friends who knew nothing about contraception or consent. Some of my friends had been sexually assaulted at uni but didn’t report it as they didn’t think they would be believed. People just don’t understand the concept of consent. It’s not just about saying ‘no’, consent is an enthusiastic ‘yes’. It’s so important that it’s on the curriculum in 2019.”

Many felt that schools taught sex education in a negative way, as a problem to be managed, rather than a natural part of life. They were disappointed with the way it was delivered, as an afterthought and often pressed on unwilling, embarrassed teachers.

Alicia, 22, thinks social media could have a beneficial role to play in sex and relationships education:

“Young people learn so much online now and RSE needs to stay on top of it. I think Youtubers and Instagram campaigns like the ones for positive periods such as Good Blood, Pink Protest can be more influential. “

Louise, 24,: “Consent is a continuous conversation. Young people don’t have the language to have these healthy conversations about consent, whether it’s a long term relationship or a one night stand. They ask: ‘How do I bring this up? What words do I use?’”
Louise, 24: “Consent is a continuous conversation. Young people don’t have the language to have these healthy conversations about consent, whether it’s a long term relationship or a one night stand. They ask: ‘How do I bring this up? What words do I use?’”

There was concern, too, that schools don’t reflect the student populations they serve. Far too many LGBTQ+ youth are sitting in classrooms where their teachers fail to address their identities and experiences.  Student Gareth, 20, who grew up in Northern Ireland, and identifies as bisexual and polyamorous, describes the sex education they received as ‘horrendous’.  

Young trans people in the group felt that their sex education, as it stands, ignores their needs. This is particularly concerning in the light of a study by campaigning charity Stonewall which found among trans pupils nearly one in 10 have received death threats at school, while 84% say they have self-harmed and 45% have tried to take their own lives.

Jade, 16:

“I feel that the RSE I had focused too much on scare stories, STIs, risks and a lack of trust. There was no discussion about the experiences of young trans people. There are only two clinics in the country which treat under 18 trans people, and first they have to find a sympathetic GP to be referred. Some friends are having to wait four years for treatment to begin.”

While RSE will be compulsory, schools will have some flexibility in how they teach it, including being sensitive to religious beliefs. It is expected that parents will still have the right to withdraw their children from lessons.

Relationships and Sex education is changing in the UK

  • From 2019, in England, Relationships and Sex Education will become compulsory in schools. The UK Government has consulted parents, experts and young people to help shape the new curriculum. It is long overdue; current guidelines haven't changed since 2000.
    From 2019, in England, Relationships and Sex Education will become compulsory in schools. The UK Government has consulted parents, experts and young people to help shape the new curriculum. It is long overdue; current guidelines haven't changed since 2000.
  • UK sexual health organizations, FPA and Brook, have been working with young people to find out what good sex education means for them; resulting in the young people's manifesto: 'what we want and need from RSE'.
    UK sexual health organizations, FPA and Brook, have been working with young people to find out what good sex education means for them; resulting in the young people's manifesto: 'what we want and need from RSE'.
  • Brook champion, Alex, 24, says: “RSE shouldn’t be just about straight relationships. For me, being part of the Manifesto was about feeling heard and listened to. I want MPs to listen to young people, to what they want and what their needs are... not what they think they are.”
    Brook champion, Alex, 24, says: “RSE shouldn’t be just about straight relationships. For me, being part of the Manifesto was about feeling heard and listened to. I want MPs to listen to young people, to what they want and what their needs are... not what they think they are.”
  • Current guidelines fail to address such issues as cyberbullying, 'sexting', internet pornography, LGBTIQ+ identities and the topic of consent.
    Current guidelines fail to address such issues as cyberbullying, 'sexting', internet pornography, LGBTIQ+ identities and the topic of consent.
  • Rachel, 21, a student, has seen the consequences of this at university: “I’ve been struck by the number of friends who knew nothing about contraception or consent. Some of my friends had been sexually assaulted at university but didn’t report it as they didn’t think they would be believed. People just don’t understand the concept of consent. It’s not just about saying ‘no’, consent is an enthusiastic ‘yes’.”
    Rachel, 21, a student, has seen the consequences of this at university: “I’ve been struck by the number of friends who knew nothing about contraception or consent. Some of my friends had been sexually assaulted at university but didn’t report it as they didn’t think they would be believed. People just don’t understand the concept of consent. It’s not just about saying ‘no’, consent is an enthusiastic ‘yes’.”
  • “Consent is a continuous conversation. Young people don’t have the language to have these healthy conversations about consent...whether it’s a long-term relationship or a one-night stand. They ask: ‘How do I bring this up? What words do I use?’” Louise, 24.
    “Consent is a continuous conversation. Young people don’t have the language to have these healthy conversations about consent...whether it’s a long-term relationship or a one-night stand. They ask: ‘How do I bring this up? What words do I use?’” Louise, 24.
  • Viewed as an afterthought and given to unwilling, embarrassed teachers to deliver, the volunteers said they'd prefer to have been taught by sex educators from outside of school.
    Viewed as an afterthought and given to unwilling, embarrassed teachers to deliver, the volunteers said they'd prefer to have been taught by sex educators from outside of school.
  • "RSE was seen as unimportant...they couldn't see that it was about the well-being of students. It's about raising a generation capable of navigating all aspects of the world and relationships – not just writing essays," says school student, Elise, 15.
    "RSE was seen as unimportant...they couldn't see that it was about the well-being of students. It's about raising a generation capable of navigating all aspects of the world and relationships – not just writing essays," says school student, Elise, 15.
  • “For me one of the biggest challenges is teachers who don’t have training or desire to teach. I had a teacher who clearly didn’t want to teach RSE and was so embarrassed they weren’t able to use words to describe it.” Leah, 23.
    “For me one of the biggest challenges is teachers who don’t have training or desire to teach. I had a teacher who clearly didn’t want to teach RSE and was so embarrassed they weren’t able to use words to describe it.” Leah, 23.
  • Toby, 17, says, "I was at a Church of England school... we had experts come into school to talk to us about drugs and crime but when it came to RSE it was just the standard biology stuff. Relationships and LGBTQ+ were not touched on at all."
    Toby, 17, says, "I was at a Church of England school... we had experts come into school to talk to us about drugs and crime but when it came to RSE it was just the standard biology stuff. Relationships and LGBTQ+ were not touched on at all."
  • Alicia, 22, says, “Young people learn so much online now and RSE needs to stay on top of it. I think Youtubers and Instagram campaigns like the ones for positive periods such as 'Good Blood', 'Pink Protest' can be more influential."
    Alicia, 22, says, “Young people learn so much online now and RSE needs to stay on top of it. I think Youtubers and Instagram campaigns like the ones for positive periods such as 'Good Blood', 'Pink Protest' can be more influential."
  • “We covered STIs, pregnancy risk – you know, the condom on the banana bit - but it lacked the human element, it wasn’t positive about pleasure or consent.” Eli, 18, is a graphic designer.
    “We covered STIs, pregnancy risk – you know, the condom on the banana bit - but it lacked the human element, it wasn’t positive about pleasure or consent.” Eli, 18, is a graphic designer.
  • “I feel that the RSE I had focused too much on scare stories, STIs, risks and a lack of trust. There was no discussion about the experiences of young trans people. There are only two clinics in the country which treat under 18 trans people, and first they have to find a sympathetic GP to be referred. Some friends are having to wait four years for treatment to begin.” Jade, 16.
    “I feel that the RSE I had focused too much on scare stories, STIs, risks and a lack of trust. There was no discussion about the experiences of young trans people. There are only two clinics in the country which treat under 18 trans people, and first they have to find a sympathetic GP to be referred. Some friends are having to wait four years for treatment to begin.” Jade, 16.
  • Gareth, 20, identifies as bisexual and polyamorous, describes the sex ed he received growing up in Northern Ireland as ‘horrendous’. “It started at 18 or 19 – so far too late as most people had started having sex by then. It was focused on marriage and babies – very black and white. Abortion was wrong. Women in short skirts were putting themselves at risk. The teaching was stuck in the 1980s. I stood up in class and said ‘what you’re teaching is damaging’”.
    Gareth, 20, identifies as bisexual and polyamorous, describes the sex ed he received growing up in Northern Ireland as ‘horrendous’. “It started at 18 or 19 – so far too late as most people had started having sex by then. It was focused on marriage and babies – very black and white. Abortion was wrong. Women in short skirts were putting themselves at risk. The teaching was stuck in the 1980s. I stood up in class and said ‘what you’re teaching is damaging’”.
  • Zoe, 23, is a youth worker and Brook volunteer. “RSE should be on the curriculum. 11 and 12-year olds have iPads and smart phones, so it’s easier than ever for them to see porn. People who oppose sex education because they want to ‘keep children innocent’ as long as possible are not facing reality.”
    Zoe, 23, is a youth worker and Brook volunteer. “RSE should be on the curriculum. 11 and 12-year olds have iPads and smart phones, so it’s easier than ever for them to see porn. People who oppose sex education because they want to ‘keep children innocent’ as long as possible are not facing reality.”
  • Inspired by other countries, Alicia, 22, thinks Britain could learn from the Dutch approach: “They focus on emotions and building connections with people. They answer questions frankly and directly. The result is that they instinctively know about consent as they have been talking about it all through their school life.”
    Inspired by other countries, Alicia, 22, thinks Britain could learn from the Dutch approach: “They focus on emotions and building connections with people. They answer questions frankly and directly. The result is that they instinctively know about consent as they have been talking about it all through their school life.”
  • The young volunteers are optimistic - good quality inclusive RSE could be a powerful force for good, reducing bullying and discrimination, promoting healthier relationships and challenging negative attitudes in society to sex.
    The young volunteers are optimistic - good quality inclusive RSE could be a powerful force for good, reducing bullying and discrimination, promoting healthier relationships and challenging negative attitudes in society to sex.

How does RSE in the UK compare with other countries?

Young people referred to Holland -where sex education and information about sexual diversity are compulsory in all secondary and primary schools – as a leader in the field. Holland has one of the lowest teenage pregnancy rates in the world. Studies have shown that well-designed and well-taught sex education can support positive sexual health outcomes, such as reducing teenage pregnancy and sexually transmitted infection rates.

There's a lot at stake, but after years of campaigning young people are helping to shape Relationships and Sex Education.
 

Recently updated International Technical Guidance on Sexuality Education launched by UNESCO and supported by IPPF and a number of other UN agencies, shows strong evidence for the international importance of Relationship and Sex Education.