Following recent headlines which have the potential to incite opposition to desperately needed Relationships, Sex, Health and Education (RSHE) in schools, a coalition of 54 organisations and experts in violence against women and girls have today (22nd March 2023) written an open letter to the Secretary of State for Education, Gillian Keegan MP, calling on her to ensure the upcoming review of RSHE guidance is driven by what young people want and need.
Schools are an absolutely critical site for the protection of girls. They present the best opportunity to challenge the attitudes that condone abuse and transform the long-term likelihood of abuse in adult relationships. RSHE is therefore critical and schools must be equipped and resourced to deliver quality education and hold space for young people’s learning. If the government is serious about fulfilling its commitment to tackling violence against women and girls, it is essential that the specialist VAWG sector has a central role in delivering RSHE.
Rt Hon Gillian Keegan MP
Secretary of State for Education
20 Great Smith Street
Wednesday 22 March 2023
Dear Secretary of State,
Relationships, Sex, and Health Education Statutory Guidance Review
We are writing to you as a coalition of more than 50 organisations working in the specialist Violence Against Women and Girls (VAWG) sector and in education. We have extensive collective experience of supporting survivors of all forms of VAWG, and working in schools to prevent abuse. You will know that schools are an absolutely critical site for the protection of girls and they present the best opportunity to challenge attitudes which condone abuse, and transform the long-term likelihood of abuse in adult relationships. We are, therefore, writing to seek your reassurances that the upcoming review of the statutory guidance on Relationships, Sex and Health Education (RSHE) is driven and guided by a commitment to ensuring all young people receive the education they need to thrive in life and to feel safe, and to tackle the cultural norms which underpin the epidemic of gender-based violence we see today.
In the wake of a number of devastating and high-profile murders of women, the exposure of misogyny and racism in our police forces, and the rising impact of online misogynist influencers – the government has often restated its commitment to tackling violence against women and girls. Prevention work, including RSHE, is a critical part of the government’s Tackling VAWG Strategy – which commits that the Department for Education will better support teachers to deliver the RSHE curriculum. As such, we were keenly awaiting the scheduled review of the RSHE statutory guidance, which we now understand the government intends to bring forward by a number of months.
In light of recent headlines – which have the potential to incite opposition to much needed RSHE delivery in schools, we are seeking assurances that the upcoming review will not be unnecessarily politicised, and will be focused on what children and young people need to live happy and healthy lives, and the urgent need to do more to tackle VAWG and the rising influence of online misogyny in schools.
The specialist VAWG sector – with a long history of delivering evidence-based and trauma-informed interventions with children and young people – must have a critical role in delivering RSHE if the government seeks to fulfil its commitment to tackling VAWG. As organisations developing and delivering such interventions, the quality and age-appropriateness of lessons and resources is of utmost importance to us. It is essential that the specialisms of the sector are valued and included in any future plans for the delivery of RSHE nationally.
The inclusion of the specialist VAWG sector must also be coupled with the support and resourcing teachers need. In 2019, the government announced that schools would receive access to a £6 million training and support package in the roll out of RSHE. However, we understand that only £3.2 million out of the original £6 million promised has been delivered. Furthermore, a survey by the National Education Union (NEU) in 2019 noted that half of teachers said they lack confidence to teach compulsory RSHE lessons. This picture does not appear to have shifted with recent research by Safe Lives noting that teachers felt “time, resources and school prioritisation presented major barriers to effective delivery”. It is therefore essential that work to improve RSHE is accompanied by sufficient funding and resourcing, and support for teachers.
Finally, and most critically, the upcoming review must listen to the voices of children and young people. A survey by the End Violence Against Women Coalition (EVAW) found that 80% of girls think schools need to do more to tackle sexual harassment and support young people’s sex and relationships education. In a recent Sex Education Forum poll, the topics children and young people felt had not been covered enough or at all included power imbalances in relationships (58%), pornography (58%), culture and faith-based perspectives (57%), LGBTQ+-relevant information (54%), the attitudes and behaviour of boys and men towards women and girls (55%), and what a healthy relationship looks like, including online relationships (54%). Furthermore, research from both Safe Lives and Sex Education Forum noted that children and young people want to see more open discussions in RSHE. In light of emerging evidence about the extent to which young people are being exposed to misogynistic influencers online and increasingly looking to porn to fill the gaps in sex education, we urge you to commit to providing teachers with much-needed support and resources to hold space for young people to openly discuss these themes. We cannot afford the cost to these young people, and for wider society, of shutting these conversations down.
As the Secretary of State for Education, we look forward to hearing from you regarding the Department’s plans for RSHE and we would be keen to meet and discuss this with you further. We are asking for a commitment that RSHE guidance will be shaped by the voices and needs of children and young people, informed by the participation and expertise of the specialist VAWG sector, and will ultimately help to deliver the ambition of ending gender-based violence.
- Andrea Simon, Director, End Violence Against Women Coalition
- Farah Nazeer, Chief Executive, Women’s Aid Federation of England
- Jayne Butler, Chief Executive Officer, Rape Crisis England & Wales
- Ruth Davison, Chief Executive Officer, Refuge
- Selma Taha, Executive Director, Southall Black Sisters
- Nadia Baksh, Senior Policy and Projects Coordinator, Imkaan
- Sara Kirkpatrick, CEO, Welsh Women’s Aid
- Neil Blacklock, Head of Young People’s Services, Respect
- Jemima Olchawski, Chief Executive, The Fawcett Society
- Liz Thompson, Director of External Relations, SafeLives
- Professor Vanita Sundaram, University of York
- Professor Marianne Hester, University of Bristol
- Dr Fiona Vera-Gray, Deputy Director, The Child and Woman Abuse Studies Unit, London Metropolitan University
- Professor Jessica Ringrose, UCL Institute of Education
- Professor Miranda Horvath, Director of the Institute for Social Justice and Crime, University of Suffolk
- Professor Aisha K. Gill, Ph.D CBE Professor of Criminology, Centre for Gender and Violence Research, University of Bristol
- Emily Setty, Senior Lecturer, University of Surrey
- Anthea Sully, Chief Executive, White Ribbon UK
- Yasmin Rehman, Chief Executive, Juno Women’s Aid
- Naana Otoo-Oyortey, Executive Director, FORWARD
- Gemma Tutton, Co-founder, Our Streets Now (OSN)
- Sheila Coates, Director, SERICC
- Kirsten Westlake, Chair, LMK – Let Me Know
- Sharon Erdman, CEO, RASASC (Rape Crisis South London)
- Sarah Hill, Chief Executive Officer, IDAS (Independent Domestic Abuse Services)
- Maureen Connolly, CEO, Birmingham and Solihull Women’s Aid
- Janet Dalrymple, CEO, Safer Places
- Ruth Norman Mason, Director of Training and Innovation, AVA
- Dolly Padalia, CEO, School of Sexuality Education
- Claire Bloor, CEO SARSAS (Somerset and Avon Rape and Sexual Abuse Support)
- Medina Johnson, Chief Executive, IRISi
- Emma Slinn, UsToo, Association For Real Change (ARC)
- Bekah Legg, CEO, Restored
- Jackie May, CEO, The Women’s Centre Cornwall
- Zlakha Ahmed, CEO, Apna Haq
- Halaleh Taheri, Founder & Executive Director of Middle Eastern Women and Society Organisation-MEWSO
- Jabeer Butt, CEO, Race Equality Foundation
- Elizabeth Crompton, Founder and CEO, Allyship
- Alison Boydell, co-founder, JURIES
- Sarbjit Ganger, Director, Asian Women’s Resource Centre
- Molly Lawrenson, CEO, Young Abuse Support
- Gurpreet Virdee, Co-Director, Women and Girls Network
- Bernadette Keane, Interim CEO, Solace Women’s Aid
- Mia Hassenson-Gross, Executive Director, René Cassin
- Lucy Emmerson, Chief Executive, Sex Education Forum
- Fizza Qureshi, CEO of the Migrants’ Rights Network
- Diana Nammi, Executive Director, IKWRO – Women’s Rights Organisation
- Natasha Eeles, Founder, Bold Voices
- Andrew Copson, Chief Executive, Humanists UK
- David Wright, CEO, SWGfL
- Sonia Jalal, Founder, Hull Sisters
- Vicky Marsh, Safety4Sisters
- Andrea Kilvington, CEO, Standing Together Against Domestic Abuse
- Susie McDonald, CEO, Tender Education and Arts