Consent must be the bedrock of RSE curriculums

Nick Dunne is Brook’s Business Development Manager. He has many years of experience as a sexual health educator and trauma-informed counsellor. In this blog, he explains why consent education needs to be a consistent theme throughout a young person’s time at school. 

The Everyone’s Invited campaign has seen a huge number of responses from people sharing their experiences of harassment, sexual abuse, sexual assault. At the time of writing, the site has over 11,000 survivor testimonials. In a culture where rape is highly under-reported, we are seeing more people turning to social media channels as an outlet for sharing their experiences and supporting each other.  

These increasing accounts of sexual harassment and violence and have left many people feeling shocked, saddened and enraged. Unfortunately, for myself and my colleagues at Brook who deliver work around these subjects, the news is all too unsurprising.  

Our survey of 5,649 university students in 2019 painted a similar picture, with more than half of UK university students across the country experiencing unwanted sexual behaviours such as inappropriate touching, explicit messages, cat-calling, being followed and / or being forced into sex or sexual acts – with only 8% having reported an offence.  

But it is vital that we don’t get lost in stats. Each disclosure, testimonial, or admission signifies a person who has experienced significant distress and trauma. The culture around sexual assault violence, particularly towards girls and young women is one that can only be described as endemic. That’s why at Brook we continue to advocate for systemic change.   

Teaching about consent 

Brook has been at the forefront of providing relationships and sex education (RSE) to young people and training to professionals for almost 60 years.  The topic of consent, including sexual harassment, violence and gender norms, has always been a part our education and training programmes but has had a surge of interest and development in recent years. Now we are seeing more demand from both young people and professionals to help to increase awareness and challenge the prevailing cultural norms that surround the subjects of rape and sexual assault. 

Brook is currently supporting change in a number of schools that have been cited on the Everyone’s Invited website. It is important for schools to have a clear understanding of how to deliver this type of work and our professional training offer along with our education offer helps embolden schools in tackling this very real issue. 

Consent means agreeing to do something. When it comes to sex, this means agreeing to have sex or engage in sexual activity. However, conversations around consent need to be broader than simply asking whether someone is saying yes before ‘getting down to the deed’. Consent education should start early, and be applied to all areas of our lives. 

We understand that consent can be a particularly daunting topic to navigate, for young people as well as teachers. 

Teaching young people about consent equips people to have more safe, ethical and enjoyable sexual experiences. In a recent lesson with a young person discussing pleasure, I asked for ways they know if their partner is having a pleasurable experience. The response from one young person was “When I ejaculate on their face.” When I asked if they’d checked their partner actually enjoyed this sexual activity, the response was “No, that’s just too awkward to talk about.”  

I welcomed the young person’s honesty. But examples like these demonstrate the need for consent work to be framed in a broader, nuanced conversation rather than just reeling off a few slides or sitting the class down in front of a video discussing drinking tea (although this video does have some merits). It needs to be rooted in discussion and relevant legal information. It must be an exploration of values that instil confidence in young people to have these conversations and makes them aware of the serious implications if they don’t. This style of engagement is rooted in our pedagogy of education delivery here at Brook and one that in my 20-year career, I continue to see immense worth and value in.  

Mandatory RSE and Consent 

The implementation of mandatory RSE in England is a significant opportunity to challenge sexist behaviours and unhelpful gender norms that exist both in schools and in wider society. It must not be overlooked. 

We see the topic of consent as the bedrock of any RSE curriculum, across all key stages.  

Conversations about consent should begin at primary school, exploring everyday consent, boundaries, and friendships. During secondary school it must feature in lessons not only about relationships, and digital consent, but also pleasure, peer pressure, and broader sexual health and rights and responsibilities. It should never be seen as a one off, standalone topic. 

But even the best classroom practice is insufficient if the values and information being disseminated through the curriculum are not reflected in young people’s lived experience of school life. This is evidenced by the testimonies shared via Everyone’s Invited. Our advice for educational settings would be to adopt a whole school approach to the topic. 

Whole school approaches are needed to: 

  • create reporting mechanisms for those experiencing sexual harassment, bullying and violence 
  • take consistent, swift and appropriate action to address incidents of sexual harassment, sexist and sexual bullying and sexual violence 
  • identify, address and challenge attitudes, activities and policies within the school that embed or promote gender inequality 
  • actively promote gender equality and encourage young people to think critically about the limiting and dangerous impact of gender stereotyping and gender expectations on all young people 
  • capture peer to peer bullying and harassment within school safeguarding policies 

Education outside of school 

It is not just schools who have a responsibility in ensuring young people learn about consent- parents can and do get involved. In the parents’ sessions we offer, whether that be through training or our Facebook live events, they have stated that they want more confidence in discussing not just the ‘birds and the bees’ with their children, but also how they can tackle more complex topics like consent.  

It is vital that schools factor in parents when thinking about how they can have meaningful impact on the development of their students.  

It’s essential that we all understand the impact of sexual harassment and abuse, and know how to support someone who opens up about their experience. We need to recognise and acknowledge they have coped in whatever ways were available to them and take these opportunities to provide relevant, meaningful support. 

Remember, if someone forces you or a young person you are working with to do something sexual that they do not want to do, it is never your fault and it is not OK, no matter what your age or gender. Talk to someone. It should be someone that you have a good relationship with and someone who you think has your best interests in mind.  

The Department of Education has now launched a helpline via NSPCC for those looking for support or who want to report an incident. It can be reached on 0800 136 663 from Monday to Friday 8am – 10pm, or 9am – 6pm at weekends.

We have lots of further information and support about consent on our website 

Brook’s e-learning consent module was developed as part of a joint project with the University of Sussex. 

If you’d like to discuss Brook delivering professionals training or education for young people in your school, please contact training@brook.org.uk. 

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