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.

Current UK guidelines on relationships and sex education (RSE) haven’t changed since 2000; a review is long overdue. In 2019 relationships and sex education will become compulsory in schools in England.   

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. Brook and FPA volunteers want more than that – they want to see issues like consent, support, and mutual respect included and discussed in an open, frank and positive way.

Photography © IPPF/Laura Lewis