The anti-RSE movement brings with it chilling echoes of the political discourse that led to the introduction of Section 28. Laura Coryton on why the politically motivated RSE row threatens the safety of our students
The new relationships, sex, and health education (RSHE) curriculum (DfE, 2019) was established in 2020 to keep students safe, after decades of campaigning.
For the first time in UK history, it ensured important topics were mandatory in all schools, including consent, body autonomy, and how to recognise and combat coercive behaviours.
Many schools have worked so hard to embrace this curriculum. However, teachers have been put in a challenging position as a political “row”, fueled by the media, has unnecessarily jeopardised this curriculum and compounded prejudices – and in doing so has risked the safety of young people across the country. Here’s how teachers can overcome this.
What is the RSE ‘row’?
Some politicians and mainstream media outlets have highlighted a few relationships and sex education (RSE) lessons that have upset students or parents, painting a picture that these rare exceptions are indicative of deep-rooted flaws in the wider RSHE curriculum and within the sector. What is worse, these claims are often unfounded and the way they are presented aim to shock and anger, rather than shine a light on a genuine problem.
This unjustified attack on RSE has culminated in a report produced by Miriam Cates MP and her organisation, the New Social Covenant Unit (2023), which makes extremely negative and sweeping statements about RSE, with limited evidence, that in my view are politically and religiously motivated and largely inaccurate.
Fear is often fueled by the unknown – so let’s take a look at three key falsehoods which underpin the anti-RSE movement, what dangers they pose, and what we can do as educators.
Falsehood one: The RSHE review confirms its flaws
Some people have claimed that when prime minister Rishi Sunak said he would review the RSE curriculum in response to a question from Miriam Cates at PMQs, this therefore proved that the supposed flaws in RSE are genuine. This line of thinking is misleading.
When RSHE was introduced, the government promised to update the curriculum every three years to ensure it stays up-to-date with the RSE challenges students face. As such, a review was due to take place this autumn.
Indeed, education minister Nick Gibb confirmed this review long before Mr Sunak in an answer to a Parliamentary question in January (UK Parliament, 2023).
And in his recent SecEd article, Geoff Barton pointed to a Department for Education blog published shortly after the exchange at PMQs which explained that a consultation on the review will begin later this year (DfE, 2023). As Mr Barton wrote: “This seems very close, if not identical, to the original timetable.”
So, this review is a longstanding commitment that should be viewed positively as a mechanism to boost student safety and the curriculum’s relevance so it can adequately tackle the ever-evolving challenges students face.
As Lucy Emmerson wrote in SecEd recently: “For educators working in RSHE, this review is a timely and welcome opportunity to monitor the roll-out of mandatory provision.”
Falsehood two: If students don’t have RSE at school, their innocence will be protected
We often hear suggestions that if RSE is rolled back in school, then the innocence of students will be protected. However, this is flawed logic for many reasons. First, RSE does not take away the innocence of students. It is always tailored to the age of the students.
Moreover, we know that students will always go somewhere for their sex education. This is something we cannot control. The part we can control is the education we offer them.
If it doesn’t come from schools, it will come from other far less reliable sources such as TikTok (Cookson, 2023), pornography, or radicalising influencers such as Andrew Tate.
This can cause students to internalise damaging falsehoods which are very difficult to unlearn, such as that those who experience sexual violence should “take responsibility” for “putting themselves in that position”.
Falsehood three: Students want less RSE
Some critics question whether students want less RSE, and particularly if they want less at a primary age. However, many surveys into student opinion give us a clear answer to this question.
For example, in 2022, the annual Sex Education Forum polling showed that across all RSE topics, students would like education to start at an earlier age so that falsehoods don’t need to be unlearnt before healthy understandings are taught (SEF, 2022).
This is particularly important as one in five students feel they don’t have a single trusted adult they can turn to for RSE advice or support (SEF, 2022), which suggests that if they do not get high-quality RSE in school, they will turn to some of the sources I mentioned above with dangerous consequences – for them and others.
The consequences of limiting RSE
If we listen to policy-makers such as Miriam Cates MP and those who follow her, we risk systemic consequences for many children and young people in the UK, especially those who are part of the LGBT+ community, and for progress in this country and our freedoms at large. Here’s why.
A consistent theme in the backlash against RSE is the idea that sexuality is over-taught, which – the argument then goes – has caused an inorganic spike in students identifying as LGBT+ who otherwise would not have.
This was a strong theme within the Cates report. However, what we see in schools is a very different reality. We see students learning new language and ideas about sexuality and gender and using this to help them express their identity in a way that helps them understand themselves and others around them. Think of when the clinical definition of autism was developed. This resulted in people being diagnosed with autism. That’s not to say more people became autistic, it is just that the updated terminology helped to identify those with existing autism so they could better understand themselves and the world could appreciate their viewpoint.
This is the same as terminology relating to sexuality or gender. Language has always helped us express and understand ourselves.
Yet, the negative way this is portrayed by critics, including in the media, has contributed to a spike in homophobia and LGBT+ hate crimes. Indeed, Home Office statistics show hate crimes against people based on sexual orientation have doubled in four years (Home Office, 2021). This puts LGBT+ children and young people at even greater risk given the many other threats they face to their wellbeing and safety. More systemically, the RSE row chillingly echoes headlines published just before Section 28 was imposed in the UK, devastating many lives.
Section 28: This 1987 Conservative election poster came before the introduction of Section 28. The arguments bear chilling similarities to the current row over the RSE curriculum
We can already see history repeating itself in America. In Texas, the so-called Don’t Say Gay law has prohibited the teaching of gender and sexuality in schools and enables schools to discipline LGBT+ teachers simply for revealing their sexuality (see Nguyen & Melhado, 2023).
Teachers are working hard to embrace the new RSE curriculum, so it is particularly frustrating the see a politically motivated row jeopardise these efforts and the ability of the curriculum to boost student wellbeing and safety.
I hope that by exploring these falsehoods, teachers can continue to deliver the RSE curriculum with confidence.
Further information & resources
DfE: Statutory guidance: Relationships and sex education (RSE) and health education, June 2019: http://bit.ly/2kQwtgL
DfE: What do children and young people learn in relationship, sex and health education, March 2023: http://bit.ly/3mXHOLM
Home Office: Hate crime, England and Wales, 2020 to 2021, October 2021: http://bit.ly/3JJfIvq
New Social Covenant Unit: What is being taught in relationships and sex education in our schools? (a report commissioned by Miriam Cates MP), 2023: https://bit.ly/3Fv01qr
Nguyen & Melhado: Two Texas bills would restrict lessons about sexual orientation and gender identity in public schools, The Texas Tribune, January 2023: http://bit.ly/42DWqjO
SEF: Young People’s RSE Poll 2021, February 2022: https://bit.ly/3ZfSv9P
UK Parliament: Relationships and Sex Education: Reviews, Question for Department for Education, January 2023: https://bit.ly/3FPqdvX
This was originally posted by SecEd