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Date Published
May 20, 2024

After over a year of speculation in Parliament and the press, the government has now (16th May 2024) published its draft Relationships, Sex and Health Education (RSHE) guidance and announced an 8 week public consultation.

Last year, the government announced its plans to review RSHE guidance for schools and teachers following claims made in Parliament and the media – claims which have not only been criticised for being fuelled by anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric, but have also been contested as factually inaccurate.

With over 50 experts and organisations tackling VAWG, we wrote to the Secretary of State for Education, Gillian Keegan MP, calling for this vital education to not be politicised, and to ensure RSHE guidance is driven by what young people want and need.

Quality relationships and sex education based on consent and equality is a crucial part of preventing violence against women and girls (VAWG); giving young people the knowledge and skills to navigate romantic relationships in a healthy and respectful way. We’re deeply concerned that with its draft guidance, the government is failing young people in a number of ways:

  • Shutting down conversations about relationships and sex to supposedly ‘protect children’, when we know that conversely, this stops children from being able to identify unhealthy relationships, pushes sexual abuse into the shadows and leaves children less able to find help if they need it. Stopping younger children from having guided, informed discussions about sex and relationships will only put them at risk. There is overwhelming evidence that by giving them the support, skills and knowledge they need to navigate the world they live in, quality RSHE helps protect children’s rights and freedoms to a childhood free from abuse.
  • Worrying denial of LGBT+ lives and realities, reminiscent of section 28. Allowing primary schools the option not to include same-sex parents when discussing families, and banning any discussion of gender identity for all young people, is not only harmful to some of the most marginalised children, but it is illogical given it does not reflect the world around us – in our homes, communities, and wider culture – or many children’s lived realities.
  • Lack of an intersectional approach to RSHE, despite the specific ways Black girls are subjected to racialised sexual harassment, violence and abuse, and the disproportionate punishments meted out to Black children. There is an overall absence of analysis of inequality and discrimination and the ways in which these intersect and impact children’s experiences. This not only fails to reflect Black children’s daily realities but also presents a missed opportunity to inform and protect those who are disproportionately subjected to violence and abuse, and face the greatest barriers to support and justice.
  • An overall lack of coherence in what can be taught, and when. While porn, image-based sexual abuse and sexual harrasment can be taught from year 7, sexual acts, sexual violence and domestic abuse cannot be taught until year 9. Given image-based sexual abuse is a form of sexual violence, and it is clearly impossible to teach about porn without being able to reference sexual acts, we’re concerned that these new age restrictions are not only incoherent and confusing for teachers and their pupils, they may deter schools from teaching RSHE at all. In addition, separating forms of gender-based violence in this way means teachers are unable to show how these acts are all connected, with their roots in the male power and entitlement that inequality produces.
  • A failure to take a preventative approach. RSHE is the cornerstone of work to prevent violence against women and girls. The government’s proposed age restrictions come with a caveat: teachers can address ‘prohibited’ subjects with younger students if an incident has taken place. Waiting until after the harm is done violates children’s rights to a safe childhood free from abuse.
RSHE must respond to young people’s needs in an increasingly online world

In an increasingly online world lived via apps and social media, young people are exposed to a greater risk of harm than ever before. As tech companies prioritise profit over safety, access to violent pornography (often depicting sexual offences) has never been easier, sex offenders can access and manipulate children online, and young people are among those most affected by cyberflashing and image-based sexual abuse (so-called ‘revenge porn’).

This crisis is made worse by the increasing popularity of misogynistic influencers who are negatively shaping attitudes to sex and consent – undoubtedly contributing to a worrying regression in young people’s views – bucking the trend of social progress with each new generation.

Young people deserve to be equipped with all the tools available to safely and confidently navigate the pressures of our modern world.

Parents and teachers are an essential part of the same team

Parents are a crucial part of the school community. Working in partnership is essential to children’s education, wellbeing, and the functioning of a Whole School Approach to violence against women and girls. We’ve long called for teachers to have more support, resources and training to deliver this education to the standard children need, which will only happen if the government makes it a priority and provides adequate funding.

However, instead of elevating the importance of quality RSHE, we’re concerned the government is pitting parents against schools in order to undermine support for this education. Our specialist members report that parents are overwhelmingly supportive of RSHE when efforts are made to engage them. As well as parents, we must also be centering young people and what they say they want and need – inclusive and high quality RSHE.

In addition, there are a great many children for whom home is not a safe place. School must be somewhere children are protected, free to disclose violence and abuse to a trusted adult, and supported to explore their worries and concerns. Teachers are often those best placed to identify signs of abuse, and are frequently the trusted adult that a child feels able to confide in. This must not be put in jeopardy by fear of restrictions on what teachers can or cannot discuss.

EVAW will be supporting our members to submit a response to this consultation, which will highlight the detrimental effect of these proposals on our young people and the adults of the future.

Rebecca Hitchen, Head of Policy & Campaigns at the End Violence Against Women Coalition (EVAW), said:

“The government’s new age restrictions do not appear to be evidence-based, and will stop teachers from being led by the real needs of their pupils. Not only harmful, its proposed new guidance is confused and incoherent. Blocking teachers from talking about the very behaviours that need preventing until after many children will have been exposed to the realities of abuse is illogical, and cannot be classed as prevention.

EVAW members have long delivered quality and age appropriate RSHE, and helped schools respond to children’s needs and lived realities. We all know we need to talk to young people in age appropriate ways – the VAWG sector is already doing it, and has been for some time. This guidance, on the other hand, does not reflect the knowledge and expertise of those whose work is informed directly by young people’s needs and experiences.

Children in primary schools are already on TikTok, YouTube and other platforms the adults in their lives may not have even heard of. We know they are viewing harmful content, so to create an environment in which their questions and concerns are shut down is incredibly dangerous. In an absence of quality RSHE and an open space to discuss these issues with trusted adults, children turn to social media to seek information and answers about the world around them. While there is a lot of positive content out there, much of it is harmful, and it is the latter which is pushed onto their feeds by profit-driven algorithms.

We must create space for open, honest and educational conversations from a younger age if we are to see a sea change in the societal attitudes that tolerate and normalise violence against women and girls.

Education is not dangerous. Abuse is. These proposals sadly appear to have lost sight of this.”

Media contact

Sinead Geoghegan, Head of Communications,

Date Published
May 20, 2024
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