Last year marked a major reckoning for the nation when it came to gender-based violence and discrimination. The tragedy of Sarah Everard’s murder unleashed an outpouring of anger and frustration, with responses including the launch of Everyone’s Invited.
The spotlight this platform trained on secondary school environments, and Ofsted’s subsequent report on the prevalence of sexual abuse in schools prompted many headteachers like myself to reflect on the role we wanted to play in being part of the solution to this societal problem..
The same report found Relationships, Sex and Health Education (RSHE) – for which a new curriculum was published just before the pandemic hit – was given insufficient priority nationally. But whatever your starting point, however strong and consistent your approach is when it comes to (RSHE), there is always more work to be done. That’s why last year my colleagues and I decided to review and enhance our RSHE strategy. We wanted to ensure we were offering the most useful, inclusive and engaging curriculum possible; one that both pupils and staff could truly get behind and benefit from.
As with all such endeavours, there’s no silver bullet. Nor is there the perfect place to start. But you have to start somewhere. We held a special assembly where several members of our staff recorded short video clips talking about their own experiences – covering issues from gender-based discrimination to lessons they’ve learnt about relationships. Feedback from staff and students was hugely positive. They liked that the videos were honest and represented diverse experiences. And, crucially, this set the tone for an open conversation across the whole school about RSHE issues and helped build momentum behind our desire to be part of the solution at such a critical time.
We capitalised on this positive start by empowering our pupils to shape the direction of the new curriculum. By providing them with structure and clear areas to focus on, backed up by a healthy understanding of how to respect and challenge peer ideas and discuss them constructively with staff, our student representatives came up with brilliant initiatives. Their thoughts shaped a poster campaign which went up around school, sparked ideas for future assemblies, and helped us authentically expand the areas our new curriculum covered. Crucially, this meant thinking about RSHE in the round and looking at ways learning could be woven into the wider fabric of the school’s ethos, rather than just being confined to scheduled RSHE class time.
When it did come to the structure of RSHE lessons, however, we took a fresh approach here too. We enlisted the help of Life Lessons, an organisation which uses the voices of young people to create evidence-based lessons and videos covering a wide range of important topic areas. Through them, we were able to access lesson plans which included content and associated talking points to guide discussion among students. These offered pupils the structure they needed to speak openly and collaboratively about crucial issues; from consent and contraception, and from allyship to abuse.
Engaging with these new tools has not only helped students, it has also given teachers the confidence they need to deliver this vital education effectively. All RSHE strategies should be mindful of bringing staff on the journey as well. By default, experience of issues around sex and relationships are subjective and, sometimes, generational. Engaging staff in the tools and objectives you’re introducing while creating avenues to have open conversations about why and how you’re doing this can lay the groundwork for an inclusive and effective roll-out at all levels.
We’ve also been using surveys and conducting student polling to track the efficacy of our new approach. Without data collection, we won’t know it’s working; our school has therefore made a real effort to gather feedback as we go and iterate the strategy accordingly.
There’s no perfect solution to address the complex set of topics covered by RSHE. But schools have a vital role to play in equipping our young people with the tools, information and confidence they need to lead happy, healthy lives. As educators, we have a responsibility to reflect on how we do this and explore ways of doing it better.
And there’s no one right way either, so there will be stumbles as you figure it out. But the most important point is to commit to a culture of continuous learning. After all, this in an area of development which will fundamentally shape the adults they go on to become. And there’s plenty of room for improvement on what came before.