Mandatory RSE: welcome but flawed

Brook’s Head of Education, Dougie Boyd, writes on the advent of mandatory RSE in September 2020. He tells us that while definitely welcome and long overdue, the legislation remains fundamentally flawed.

The long overdue (and already delayed) introduction of compulsory relationships education in primary schools and relationships and sex education in secondary schools from September 2020 is most definitely welcome.  For too long, young people have been let down and the quality of their RSE has been determined not by their rights and needs, but by the lottery of how good provision is in their school.  In this sense, the statutory guidance should go some way to enabling young people to access a curriculum that is facts-based, needs-led and one that the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child has highlighted as a fundamental right.

The legislation is fundamentally flawed, however, and runs the risk of forcing under-prepared and under-resourced schools into conflict with parents and campaign groups, risking fractured alliances with parents and a disparity of provision, once again making access to RSE a lottery.

The government’s decision to retain a parent’s right to withdraw their child from RSE will continue to cause significant harm to young people. 

A curriculum that allows parents to unilaterally obstruct young people from education that is factual, rights-based and has been proven to impact positively upon health and wellbeing cannot call itself a curriculum. 

Take, for example, a 15-year-old young woman who presents at a Brook clinic seeking contraception.  She is protected by both the Gillick Competencies and the Fraser Guidelines: once her capacity to consent and understanding has been established, she can be prescribed medication or undergo testing and treatment that will improve her health, address any medical concerns, and allow her an element of control over her own body. 

Yet, this same young woman can be withdrawn from all sex education by her parents until 18 weeks before her 16th birthday, without her consent.  She can be having sex, but is barred from learning about safer sex, STIs, contraception, pregnancy choices and healthy relationships.  Of course, Brook and organisations like us do our very best to undertake remedial education work with young people when they present to our clinics, but this never compensates for the education young people have missed.

The second flaw with the legislation is that it requires schools and parents to negotiate the curriculum between them through mandatory consultations.  There is scant guidance for how these consultations should be carried out, or the weighting that schools should give to the views of parents and other vested groups.  Given the pressure of the school year and the lack of funding to implement this major curriculum shift, schools could be forgiven for being daunted by consultation of this scale.  Seeing as schools have never been asked to consult on other curriculum subjects such as History or Science, this requirement will place a significant burden on schools. 

Whilst the idea of consultation may appear politically expedient, on the ground it runs the risk of pitting schools and parents against each other, a wholescale watering down of the curriculum and severely curtailing the depth and breadth of curriculum that RSE demands. 

2019 saw large protests at primary schools in Birmingham and an exclusion zone around one school in response to the No Outsiders project. The alliance between parents and schools is a precious one.  If the government were braver and clearer on the scope of an RSE curriculum, young people would be better served and potential conflict avoided.

Finally, the government has given schools the get-out of building a standardised curriculum to one in-line with their own values, meaning there will be disparity across academy chains, faith schools, church-governed schools and free schools; leading to inequality.  With no standardised curriculum content or accountability mechanisms in place, schools can create a curriculum that reflects their individual values base (no matter how narrow) and ignore the needs of their young people and their lived experiences.

Education serves many purposes: economic, societal, cultural and pragmatic.  However, education also needs to help young people create a life for themselves that is worth living and government legislation should support and not hinder this. 

Mandatory RSE is definitely welcome, but schools and young people need our government to be better.  Brook stands alongside them in this.

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