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  • Writer's pictureLeah Jewett

State of play: how relationships and sex education (RSE) is changing – Yoan Reed interview #2

Updated: May 10, 2021

Relationships and sex-education educator Yoan Reed (pictured giving a lecture in 2017) talks to Outspoken co-founder Leah Jewett in the second of a 3-part series

The thesis you did in August 2017 to get your masters in International Child Studies from King’s College London – which received a distinction – focused on parental engagement. Is the theory you set out about parents being the missing link in their children’s relationships and sex-education learning unique to you?

YOAN It’s something that’s been there all the time – but the political discourse around relationships and sex education (RSE) has been framed very much in terms of policy and arguments about rights. Whenever you hear about sex ed, it’s put into the framework of outrage – you see all the newspaper headlines: “Teaching five-year-olds to put on a condom!”. It’s very politicised, actually, because you have a very small minority of opposing parents, and cultural or religious groups that oppose sex ed in general.

That whole argument about sexualising children through sex ed is driven by a minority and it’s ill informing the rest of the parental body. Actually it’s born out of ignorance because, as I know from having studied parents who oppose sex ed, it’s very clear to see that parents don’t actually understand what the topic is, what it encompasses, how comprehensive it is, how preventative in nature it is. So it’s very interesting to keep hearing that opposing voice and that it has got so much power still.

These taboos are so entrenched in our culture, and RSE has not been keeping up with the realities of our digital world. People are talking more about parental engagement now. Why?

YOAN Parental involvement and engagement – there’s a distinction – have always been studied and argued for. You can’t just credit the new legislation that was supposed to be coming into force in September 2019, making RSE mandatory in secondary schools and relationships education mandatory in primary schools.

Disappointingly, we learned on 27 June that there will be a delay in implementing RSE. During the Education Committee meeting, Secretary Damian Hinds remarked that RSE will be “available” to schools by 2019 and “mandatory, probably” by 2020. This just adds to the already muddled and confusing picture of sex-ed requirements.

Parental engagement in school applies to academic learning and wellbeing in general – but it’s particularly important for sex education, because although sex ed can be delivered in school it’s only really implemented well if it’s developed at home.

I think parents have got a big responsibility to convey their own values at home rather than getting angry with schools for teaching sex ed on the basis of common values. If parents have particular values they would like to shape their teaching, it’s their responsibility to do so at home.

I see a lot of parents simply saying: “No, don’t teach it at school – I will do that myself.” But they miss the point here, because they don’t actually teach it themselves – they don’t teach the comprehensive sex ed that will help their children become safe, sexually active beings.

Parental engagement is definitely hugely important in sex ed.

Are parents becoming more aware of the importance of parental engagement?

YOAN It would be nice if they were. We need projects such as Outspoken Sex Ed to feed that awareness and give parents opportunities to learn in a safe environment, a space of learning where they can actually reflect on and understand their own values in the context of RSE, with information that is correct and gives the whole scope of RSE – because then they can go home and help their children understand sex ed within their family values.

It doesn’t take anything away from parents the fact that children are learning sex ed at school; it only helps them to develop it at home. That’s why I don’t understand this opposition to sex ed, because it’s an opportunity for parents to engage well with it and help their children.

How will the new legislation affect parents and parental engagement?

YOAN So the subject of relationships and sex education is now statutory. It is excellent that its profile has been raised. This is a chance for parents to learn so much more about its comprehensive nature and to give themselves the opportunity to reflect on how they want to teach it in terms of their own values and the value they attach to it.

The new legislation is a really important opportunity that parents should harness to understand exactly what’s being taught at school and how.

I’m hoping this new profile of RSE in schools will make parents understand its importance for their children’s mental health and its importance as a safeguarding measure to keep children happy and healthy and help them to make good, informed choices about their sexuality.

I also hope it will help parents to understand and be tolerant of LGBT issues, of the diversity that we protect as a nation, the sexual diversity that we have laws to protect. RSE empowers children and young people to become safe, and safe choice-makers.

At parents’ evenings – when people will readily go to hear about what their children have learned in academic subjects, even in music and art – we need to put the same emphasis on RSE. It’s just as important as any other topic. In fact it’s hugely important for our children’s wellbeing.

What kinds of topics draw parents to presentations either at schools or in a public setting?

YOAN Sex ed talks are not popular. First, they’re not readily available, and secondly the word sex will make a lot of people not want to engage because they feel uncomfortable. It’s predominantly women who attend, although I have seen a change over the last five years with younger generations of parents. When it comes to presentations on safeguarding or child protection, the fathers show up, armed with notebooks.

Can you talk about some of the things that are driving sex ed and giving it a higher profile?

YOAN Here’s an observation I’ve made. In the early days sex ed was driven by a health-outcome and population-control perspective. Sexual-health clinics and some sex ed in school focused on contraception, STIs and HIV – those kinds of population-control measures were important.

Now there’s been a real shift towards a rights perspective. Sex ed suddenly became much more comprehensive and about children’s and young people’s rights. Leading up to that was the UNCRC – the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which underpins young people’s right to sex ed – being a real drive for the last couple of decades. The HIV and AIDS epidemic in the 1980s and other international landmarks such as the the International Conference on Populations and Development in 1994, the Istanbul Convention from 2011 – preventing and combating violence against women – are seen as instrumental in addressing issues such as gender inequalities, sexual rights and sex education in general.

Actually I see another shift now: there’s an overarching emphasis on child protection and safeguarding that is driving sex ed. We want to educate our children to look after themselves and enable them to disclose when something bad happens to them. Sexual exploitation and abuse are the red-light danger areas that appear to be pushing sex ed at the moment.

We can see it with the upcoming legislative change – it was very much informed by the rise in peer-on-peer sexual abuse, and the sexual exploitation and abuse across industries in the whole country.

How do you see statutory RSE fitting into the curriculum?

YOAN I’d like to see the subject of sex ed ingrained into the curriculum. I know there are different thoughts about making it a cross-curricular subject, because obviously RSE feeds into every subject – so there is room to teach it in every single subject – but then you risk it floating away in the masses.

My point is that if RSE is integrated into a curriculum and across many different subjects, you lose that real connection between teacher, subject, children and what’s being taught. If you don’t have a proper scheme of work and a proper way to evaluate it, then you run the risk of not delivering the subject properly.

You may find that other people disagree with that, especially if all teachers were happy to teach sex ed, if all teachers felt they didn’t have outcomes and measurements and targets to reach, that topic would be well covered in an integrated curriculum.

It’s difficult to assess learning in relationships and sex education because you can’t measure RSE – which means it’s losing a bit of its status because you can’t measure how much children are learning, or measure the children’s learning against each other and other schools, and there is no exam to sit.

That learning can, however, be demonstrated in many different ways. You can get children and young people to evaluate their own learning – to both self-assess and assess their peers. It’s a very powerful way of evaluating learning in a subject that doesn’t have a measurable outcome as such.

I would like to see RSE as a standalone subject. A) You’d get a teacher who’s trained and comfortable teaching RSE. B) You’d give it curriculum time, which is so important. C) You’d make a scheme of work and follow it. D) You could really evaluate the programme to the point of making a formative assessment of the learning that’s taken place.

For good, effective RSE, if you have a dedicated and well-trained teacher, dedicated curriculum time and a scheme of work – which is informed by needs, evaluated against its objectives and shared with parents – then I think you’ve got a perfect model.

Next week: Yoan Reed on how to approach porn and pleasure in sex education

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