Reported by Kaisa Juosila (Policy Fellowships Coordinator)
Relationships and sex education has undergone significant changes in recent years. Legislation has now been passed by Parliament making relationships education compulsory in primary schools and relationships and sex education obligatory in secondary schools. Prior to the new legislation, the guidelines had not been updated since 2000 and did not include consent or other issues such as sexting, online grooming and pornography.
With a minority of teachers believing that their school will be ready to deliver the new sex and relationships education curriculum in September 2019, there are a number of pressing issues to explore around educating young people about sex, relationships and consent.
On 11 July 2018, CSaP organised a Consent Education Policy Workshop with Dr Tom Dougherty from the Faculty of Philosophy who is currently working on an AHRC-funded project "The Ethics of Communicating Consent”. The workshop brought together policymakers, practitioners and academics to discuss the future of relationships and sex education and to create connections for those involved in the curriculum design, with a focus on consent.
The Department for Education has been running a large-scale engagement exercise with several representative groups and received 23,500 responses to the call for evidence. The results show that consent is one of the topics on which there is significant convergence in views.
The workshop participants discussed what the curriculum should cover so that it is relevant to the concerns of young people in the 21st century. Biological aspects of the curriculum, e.g. preventing sexually transmitted infections, should not be stressed over relational and emotional ones. It is important to support young people navigating their way in the current complex societal landscape, where pornography may be changing the conception of consent, and where social media is increasingly magnifying peer pressure. It was suggested that topics such as sexual harassment need to be talked about much earlier.
Workshop participants agreed that the internet provides easy access to useful information as well as harmful materials. Most young people are aware that there are good sources of information online but cannot always distinguish them from unreliable sources. While the internet is important, students do not necessarily want it as their main source of information. Surveys have shown that young people primarily want information from their schools, family and health professionals. It was suggested that schools need to equip students with the right ‘filters’ through which to interpret the information they are fed. It was also proposed that consent education could also go alongside education about alcohol and drugs since problems related to these are strongly linked. Participants discussed the importance of including LGBT+ issues throughout relationships and sex education and not just as an add-on. It was argued that if designed age-appropriately, consent education could begin much earlier than it currently does. For example, primary school students can be taught the concept that their bodies are their own alongside teaching them basic human anatomy.
A problem identified is that there is currently poor teacher training regarding consent and related issues in relationships and sex education. A curriculum covering all these complex issues taught by teachers without much additional training is a risk. It was suggested that relationships and sex education must be backed up by the culture throughout the school.
The practitioners and policy professionals agreed that researchers can support the development and delivery of good consent education. Research can provide a clearer understanding of the relational preconditions for consent, how consent-giving behaviour develops throughout life and how to best teach about consent and encourage supportive attitudes in schools.
Banner image from Fraser Elliot under Creative Commons 4.0