Why are young people still being left in the dark when it comes to Relationships and Sex Education?

A major new survey by the Sex Education Forum shows that young people are still not receiving the comprehensive and quality Relationships and Sex Education (RSE) they were promised when the subject became mandatory over 18 months ago. Brook reflects on these findings and what more needs to be done to support young people.

Basics are still not being covered in lessons  

Despite young people under 25 experiencing the highest rate of unplanned pregnancy and accounting for nearly half of all new cases of sexually transmitted infections in England, one in three (33%) said they didn’t learn about how to access local sexual health services.  

This echoes Brook’s own findings from the 2020 report ‘Lessons for the New Era of Mandatory RSE’. This report explored the ways that LAs support schools with providing RSE, how they support sexual and reproductive health services and how they support links between schools and sexual health services. A key recommendation was for local services to be supported to visit schools in order to describe what their services can offer, provide a clear expectation of what it is like to visit the service, and reassure young people about their rights to confidential support.  

It’s no surprise to us that the SEF poll found that the topic least likely to be discussed was sexual pleasure, with 46% of young people reporting they learned nothing about this. 

Educators need access to training and resources to build confidence in teaching these more challenging subjects, which is why our self-directed Brook Learn courses on the topics of consent and pleasure are free to access.  

There is good news in that the traditional topics of RSE, including puberty, pregnancy, and condoms, are among some of the most likely to be discussed in RSE lessons with schools getting the scientific element of RSE right.  

There have also been some improvements in consent being taught, compared to the 2019 polling. This is encouraging, and in 2020 we launched our consent course for students. Based on doctoral research the course allows young people to explore the topic through a combination of engaging, accessible information and real world scenarios, presented in interactive modules that are unlike any other online learning you’ve seen before.  

The quality of lessons fails to improve 

The broad picture is that topics more associated with healthy relationships and the realities of young people’s lives still do not have parity with the more biological aspects of RSE.  

In 2017 we published Going Beyond Biology. Co-created with young people, this report includes the ‘Young people’s manifesto: What we want and need from our Relationships and Sex Education’, in which young people call for RSE that is taught by qualified teachers, includes them in lessons, includes our families, shows us where to go for help and reacts to their feedback. 

The SEF poll revealed that just one in five young people (20%) said they had an ‘opportunity to ask my questions and get answers’ and only one in seven (14%) recalled ‘being asked my opinion about how RSE could be improved’ over the last year. 

RSE is not being discussed at home 

The polling has also shone a light on the gap in conversations about RSE at home. For around one in four young people there has been no RSE from parents and carers; with those who did receive some reporting this was in the form of one big talk or a few separate discussions. Only one in six (17%) of the young people surveyed had regular discussions with parents and carers about RSE.  

Brook’s RSE@Home series is aimed at supporting parents and carers to have conversations at home with young people of secondary school age. Covering topics from mental health to masturbation to consent, we give parents the tools and confidence to make home a comfortable learning environment for everyone.  

Even with good support we cannot assume that all parents will provide the education we’d like them to. A recent HEPI survey of university students found that only a minority of students saw their parents as a useful source of information on relationships and sex , and this was particularly true for young people from some BAME communities and people who identified as LGBT+. It is vital that schools provide comprehensive RSE to all their students otherwise we may be leaving those most at risk of sexual health inequality without the tools to be healthy and stay safe.   

Ministers must get a grip on this RSE crisis 

It’s been more than five years since young people from Brook and other organisations were invited to Parliament to share their experiences of RSE at school and their vision of RSE for the future.  

At the time we called for urgent attention and investment to address the inconsistent RSE that young people were receiving, and now as members of SEF, we join them in calling for urgent attention and investment to address the lack of progress with delivering the mandatory curriculum. Ministers are being urged to turn this situation around by properly funding RSE training from expert organisations and monitoring progress more closely. 

Lucy Emmerson, Chief Executive, Sex Education Forum, said:

“COVID-19 has had a serious disruption to young people’s education and it has worsened the physical and mental health challenges experienced by young people. However, the poor quality of RSE has long been evidenced and yet Ministers have failed to provide schools with adequate funding to develop the skills and confidence of teachers and provide high-quality support for pupils. We know many schools are getting RSE right, but this isn’t the picture nationally, with teachers urging Ministers to get a grip of this situation, we stand with them in demanding action is taken now with proper and long-term investment in training and resources. 

Today’s polling must be a wake-up call to the Government to change course. Without an immediate intervention, we seriously risk letting down another generation of young people.” 

Visit Brook’s website to access our suite of free online resources including handouts, animations and more, and to explore our training opportunities.

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