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  • Writer's pictureSophie Manning

How to modernise relationships and sex education (RSE)

How can teachers modernise their relationships and sex education (RSE) curriculum? Here Sophie Manning, co-author of the card game Sex Ed on the Cards, sets out 4 great ideas

We can safely assume a very different starting point for our relationships and sex education (RSE) learners today than 20 years ago. Thanks to the internet, the average year 10 student now comes to class with an already advanced subject knowledge and the expectation of multimedia delivery to fit their digital lives.

They may also show a zeal for social justice that previous generations did not, and it’s their right to have that enthusiasm met with modern, inclusive and holistic materials. According to this article in the BMJ, learners want a “‘sex-positive’ approach that aims for young people to enjoy their sexuality in a way that is safe, consensual and healthy”.

No longer can we stick to well-trodden ground: the “facts of life” and the risks associated with sex (unwanted pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections). Here’s how we can go further to serve today’s young people as they grow up:

1. Go back in time – online

Studying the past can unlock learners’ most astute insights about the present. Use clips from sex-education videos from times past or try a quiz about the 20th century’s milestone laws on sex and relationships.

The internet and modern technology have unlocked this avenue for us: online we can find resources on the history of RSE and sexual attitudes to kickstart the debates our young people sorely want and need to have.

2. Be inclusive: widen the remit

The Department for Education’s 2019 guidance on Relationships Education, Relationships and Sex Education (RSE) and Health Education significantly widened the playing field for RSE educators, requiring schools to go beyond health and cover a range of topics from body image to sexual media and sexual identity. Try googling the Genderbread person for identity resources, Thinkuknow for online safety and Sex Ed Matters for friendship and bullying materials. Routledge’s new Sex Ed on the Cards resource can help by bringing all of these topics together. Is virginity a social construct? Is it sexist to say “man up” or “all girls are like that”? The cards introduce newly relevant concepts and help learners to explore the issues of the day.

3. Use play to address conflict

Today’s learners are often turned off by top-down teaching and sensitive to being patronised. Best-practice RSE is only partly about the facts and devotes as much time to values exploration and critical thinking as to information delivery.

That can feel dangerous: more than any other, this subject comes loaded with latent misunderstanding, differing religious and cultural perspectives, and even conflict. What can help facilitate open conversation?

  • Firstly, it’s vital to spend a lot of time up front on the creation of a safe space via ground rules or other messaging

  • Humour and fun are the best diffusing mechanisms. Game play allows emotions to be suspended while learners work through the issues

  • Hypotheticals are useful devices which allow learners to depersonalise difficult and charged topics. “What should Jay do?”; “What advice would you give?”

4. Let the cards do the work

Sex Ed on the Cards combines all of these suggestions and can act as a useful ice breaker or entertaining debrief in any RSE programme. It’s a conversation starter for what can be an awkward subject, bringing discussion, debate and laughter to the curriculum. It also links to digital resources and refers to online scenarios to bring together young people’s face-to-face and digital lives.

This article was originally published on the Routledge website on 12 April 2021 under the title Four Ways To Modernise Your RSE Curriculum. For more on Sex Ed on the Cards, see Confidence Tricks – How Teachers Can Talk About Sex Ed Topics by co-author Leah Jewett

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