There was controversy this week following the announcement that relationships and sex education (RSE) will be taught in schools from age four.
Some critics say that is too early to talk about these topics with children and that it can introduce them to ideas before they are ready to understand them fully. But any intelligent person would understand that by talking about these things in an age-appropriate way, we are giving children an understanding.
In the last 20 years, access to adult content has become easier, whether that's through television streaming services such as Netflix or, more commonly, online.
This doesn't just relate to pornography. Sex is everywhere - it's in the pop videos children watch, in advertisements and on the video streaming sites they visit. Unless you have had your head wedged firmly in a bucket these last few years, it’s hard not to notice these changes.
This means our children are being ‘taught’ relationship advice through various channels. These channels are not always appropriate and certainly don’t reflect what healthy relationships look like.
The current RSE curriculum was proposed in 1999 and brought into practice in 2000. It has been periodically updated, but not enough to include online safety or consent.
So, if we want our children to have the confidence to say no, make age-appropriate decisions and have positive relationships, we need to educate them.
This doesn’t necessarily mean teaching four-year-olds about sexual intercourse, but it does mean helping young children to discuss and understand aspects of friendship and what it means to say no.
The aim should be open and healthy discussions which enable them to form positive relationships from a very early age. These will build foundations for more in-depth conversations as the child gets older.
There should also be positive talk about different types of relationships, so children who do have same-sex parents are included and their experiences are normalised. In my opinion, there is not much controversial about these things.
Since 2000, the DfE recommends that all primary schools should have a sex and relationship education programme tailored to the age and the physical and emotional maturity of the children. In early primary school years, this education is purely about relationships and needs to focus on friendship, bullying and the building of self-esteem.
So what will change? In reality, not much, there are some additions, including understanding relationships online, being safe online and cyberbullying. Lessons will now be compulsory, rather than recommended. The new draft guidance provides an overview of what should be covered.
The importance of families for children growing up; characteristics of healthy family life; varieties in family life, and how to recognise if family relationships are making them feel unhappy or unsafe; and how to seek help or advice from others if needed.
The importance and characteristics of friendships and how to recognise who to trust.
The importance of respecting others and of self-respect. Bullying (including cyberbullying), the importance of permission-seeking and giving in relationships with friends, peers and adults.
The rules and principles for keeping safe online. Online behaviour. Risk awareness.
Appropriate boundaries in peer friendships. Privacy and the implications for relationships. Personal space. Responding to adult strangers. How and where to ask for advice or help for themselves and others.
Under the current national curriculum, sex education falls under science. Schools are required to teach children about the biology of human development, which includes puberty and reproduction for older children. This aspect of sex ed is taught at the end of primary school because that is an important transition age for children and these topics should be discussed in an environment where questions can be answered well.
Unfortunately, at this time children may also be accessing pornographic material that gives a warped and unhealthy representation of sex, relationships and physical characteristics. This can cause anxieties and lead to them developing attitudes towards sex and relationships that can be damaging as they grow older. This is why it is so important to have open, positive conversations to counter the warped representations they may be seeing.
In Secondary schools, similar topics are covered but with a deeper focus on safety, consent, intimacy in relationships and aspects of managing intimacy in a healthy relationship. Alongside this, science subjects teach reproduction, including pregnancy and contraception.
Age-appropriate early years discussions about relationships will set a positive pattern that forms a foundation on which to build as the child progresses through education and comes up against more complex material.
Here at Laughology, we have always been clear that teaching children relationship skills will help develop well-rounded, happy children.
Since 2010 we have been helping schools to help children have healthy conversations around these subjects, sometimes in a way that’s fun, always engaging, but most importantly, safely.
Part of our Happy-Centred Schools programme is focused on positive relationships. So we thought we would share some of our free resources that might help you start the conversations that are so important for children.
We are working on our updated version of the programme to get ready for the new changes in September 2020. If you are already a Happy Centred School you’ll get these free updates.