Fifteen years ago Kauser Jan, assistant headteacher at Bankside Primary school in Leeds, created a relationships and sex education (RSE) curriculum for years 4 to 6 that addressed the needs of her multicultural school community. Because she consulted with parents, a local health centre and community and religious leaders, her bespoke approach continues to be relevant today, especially in light of recent protests about LGBT inclusivity.
A teacher for over 25 years, Ms Jan won the 2019 Blair Peach Award for her equality and diversity activism and helped bring the Leeds Lives Not Knives campaign into schools.
Her approach with parents is to be proactive and responsive – she builds trust, challenges any misconceptions in a mindful manner by explaining the real content of lessons and discusses the fallout of withdrawing children from sex-ed classes. Her approach with children is to be straightforward: her lesson topics include consent, grooming, rape, FGM, LGBT issues and domestic violence. The end result: her students are remarkably open and confident.
Here Ms Jan talks through some of her rules of engagement…
As teachers we’re fortunate to be at the forefront of change and development. We educate and empower ourselves about relationships and sex education (RSE) then we deliver it to the children. But who’s doing that with the parents?
At our school we offer parent wellbeing classes. We also help parents who don’t understand RSE, and/or who need support about it, to go on a journey and realise that RSE is a good idea. It’s relevant to all schools, no matter what their demographics are.
It takes a village to raise a child. Parents are instrumental – but their relationship with schools is often fractured because of schools’ cloak-and-dagger approach of hiding information and being evasive. Parents feel ignored; they think things are being done to them, not with them. It’s about the development of trust. I’m a reflective teacher – if I have opposition from parents, I ask myself how I am going to take them with me and build that bridge.
Consultation should include educating parents. If parents have information about RSE lessons half a term before it’s delivered to their children, then they can assimilate it and get back to the school with any issues. RSE lessons should be delivered at the beginning of term so the children can process the content and put their questions in an Ask It Basket. If it’s delivered on the last day of term, the school is opening a Pandora’s box: where can the children go to ask questions and who can they talk to?
The core issue of the furore around LGBT content in lessons is that parents are aggrieved. Some feel that there have been lots of events related to Pride but not to religious festivals.
When defending LGBT content in lessons is presented as: “This is our British way of life and part of our fundamental values”, it rattles me – because it’s human values we advocate.
I tell parents who want to withdraw their children from RSE lessons to come and see me. They sometimes say: “I know better. I know my child.” I say: “If your child doesn’t attend, aren’t they going to rely on asking other children what went on? If you are not going to talk to them, and I’m not, then who is? And what are they going to hear?”
Often parents are speaking from a perspective of what they don’t understand – and we fear what we don’t understand. They think: “I don’t know what the issues are. What is trans? What’s gender reassignment? How can I say I’m homophobic if I don’t understand it? Where are the spaces to have safe conversations without having fingers pointed at us?”
When I ask them what they think I’ll be covering in RSE, they have all kinds of misconceptions – that lessons will encourage promiscuity, that seven-year-olds will be watching gay sex: “I heard it on the media.” Some parents didn’t get past having “sex” in the title. Often it’s because they don’t know how schools function, or they come from abroad, or they didn’t have RSE themselves.
We’re trying to break taboos! We can’t assume that parents know the real terms for genitalia. With children I model the vocabulary: “I say vulva, you say vulva.” In year 4 we think of all the names and nicknames we can and have a good laugh; by year 5 it feels normal; in year 6 they’re telling a visiting police officer: “FGM is when the clitoris is cut” or they’ll explain to me about rape: “Miss, it can happen with a boy and a boy or a girl and a girl.” They get it; they have an informed perspective. We cover consent, sexual violence, grooming, healthy relationships. They draw upon the life lessons we’ve taught them in school, and they’re aware of world we live in.
Children deserve the full entitlement of education. Education is empowerment. The government has a lot to answer for – they should make it statutory that kids cannot be opted out. Otherwise we are denying children their right to education and giving it to parents. As we know, some parents do not talk or discuss relationships with their children. And anxiety and mental health issues are increasing.
But there is hope. If my 80-year-old mother can say: “Where do people get off thinking they can tell another person who they can love and who they can’t?”, then there’s hope.
I asked my students: “Should all kids have this kind of relationships and sex education?” One said: “Of course, Miss.” I said: “Justify it.”
And they said: “If we don’t understand relationships, how do we engage with people? If we don’t know what the dangers are, how do we protect ourselves from them?”
My work is with the children’s voice, with children. I have great hope in them.