Catherine Hine is the CEO of FASTN, a charity which campaigns for Relationships Education and champions healthy, dependable nurturing families for all. Catherine has two young daughters, one of primary school age. Here, she explains why teaching children about relationships is no longer up for debate.
I am pretty passionate when it comes to banging the drum about the benefits of positive relationships. It’s not only within my role as CEO of FASTN, the Family Stability Network, but something that matters to me as a mother, partner, friend and daughter.
After all, relationships affect every single one of us. They are in our homes, in our workplace, they are in the streets where we live. They are inescapable. And, crucially, relationships are about more than sex. Yet recent, heated, debates about teaching the new Relationships and Sex Education(RSE) curriculum seem to be reducing our relationships to just that.
More about that shortly, but first, let’s look at what we really mean by relationships.
From the minute we are born we are learning about relationships – picking up signs and signals that enable our brains to grow and develop. So great is this capacity to learn through relationships, that by the age of three, a brain is 80% of the size of the adult brain.
The connections built between our neurons during our early years are our most basic form of ‘hardwiring’. Once our environment takes in the school system, experiences of relationships inevitably increase as peer and educator influence comes into play. However, children’s experiences of relationships can vary wildly from positive to negative, having major, long-term effects, lasting well beyond our childhood years.
Researchers* have shown that developing relationship skills in childhood, when the brain is at its most flexible, can have a positive impact on academic performance, employment, both physical and mental health, the ability to manage stress and conflict, as well as having fulfilling relationships in later life.
Recognising the vital role of relationships education in all our lives, MPs voted overwhelmingly that, rather than leaving the future generations to chance, from September 2020 all primary children will receive Relationships Education and secondary students will have Relationship and Sex Education in schools. By doing so, new standards and consistency will be brought to the informal relationship education which is already taking place in schools everywhere.
Yet ugly scenes in Birmingham, coupled with a degree of scaremongering, indicate the disconnect between perceptions and the reality of the new RSE curriculum.
FASTN’s polling demonstrated that despite strong support for relationships education that supported children in family, friend, work as well as sexual relationships, almost 50% of parents don’t know what RSE is. I strongly recommend taking a look at official RSE resources issued by the Department for Education, specifically for parents, which outline what the new curriculum will entail.
In the meantime, here’s a quick guide to some of the common misconceptions that seem to be getting people so hot under the collar:
Myth 1: Primary children are now going to be taught about sex
Sex education (which goes beyond the long-standing existing curriculum for science) is not compulsory in primary schools under the new guidelines. What WILL be introduced, is teaching Relationships Education to all primary pupils.
This is a major development as it will provide a crucial foundation to children’s learning, helping them understand key concepts such as respect, listening and empathy – essential to helping children and young people contextualise more complex concepts in secondary years, such as consent and coercion.
The curriculum will enable children to recognise and manage healthy relationships, which will be explored through a range of subjects, such as different types of family, friendship/ bullying and safety (including online safety).
Healthy relationships may also be modelled to children across the entire (or ‘whole’) school system, e.g. through how challenging behaviour is handled, how school leadership and teachers interact with pupils and parents or as FASTN found out, even through team sports.
Myth 2: Children should be left to learn about this stuff at home
Given how the brain develops, learning takes place in all parts of our lives, whether we like it or not. In an ideal world, all children would have a heady balance of clear and effective formal education, coupled with a wide range of fantastic role models, who not only demonstrate exceptional relationship skills, but are also always on hand to have open and informative discussions.
As a parent with two small children myself, I know I’m not always available or the most skilled or most informed to help my children in their relationship learning. What’s more, parents/ families (for a multitude of reasons) may feel uncomfortable, incapable, or even opposed to, discussing relationships. Sadly, for some children, home is where they experience abusive relationships. These are just a few of the reasons why schools play such a key role, which will now be explicitly overseen by school inspection and supported by teacher training.
Myth 3: What my children are being taught is inappropriate
We know that children and young people are exposed to information about relationships and sex that extends far beyond the school gates, or the home. The influence of peers and the exponential rise of social media are just a couple of examples of this, plus area specific issues in local communities can be a major influence too.
The new guidelines stipulate that RSE must meet the needs of all pupils and all relevant school decisions/ policies should consider the age of the pupils, as well as how the activity will affect people who have protected characteristics, e.g. race, religion and belief, sexual orientation etc.
Schools now have a brilliant opportunity (one which FASTN is seeing great examples of in some schools already) to reach out to parents and local communities, in order to build a programme which recognises, and responds to, the specific needs of children and young people in their catchment. The guidance also makes clear that schools are expected to have clear policies, curricula in place and to engage with parents on these. If you have any questions or concerns about what is being taught to your child, it is important to talk with the school directly.
There is no denying this topic evokes strong opinions and a lot of questions. As I mentioned above, our own research** at FASTN, has shown that when asked, parents and teachers are in fact overwhelmingly supportive of relationships education in schools.
It’s not just parents and teachers championing this either. An earlier study*** by FASTN reveals over 80% of teenagers want help from schools to understand what healthy and unhealthy relationships look like.
The writing is on the wall. Young people want this education, parents and teachers want them to have it and recognise that schools have a key role in working with them to deliver it.
Now, crucially, all parties – schools, parents and local communities – need to work collaboratively together to deliver relevant relationship education for the children and young people in their own areas. Only by doing so will we ensure that young people are getting the education they deserve, which will ultimately give them the best possible start in life.
FASTN is the national champion of family stability and committed relationships for all families and individuals. It brings together a wider range of relationships and RSE practitioners to campaign on Relationship Education in schools.
FASTN has been working with teachers, schools and practitioners across the country to gather stories about RSE in Action. The stories aim to inspire and spark a debate about how we can make the most out of RSE.
Follow them on twitter: @fastn_org
** The Survation poll on RSE surveyed 1015 parents of children currently in a primary or secondary school in the UK interviewed online between 3rd – 11th June 2019 and 507 teachers currently teaching in a primary or secondary school between 4th – 10th June 2019.
***Source: Survation Poll of Young People for FASTN. Sample size: 1,011 children aged 14-17. Date: December 2017.)