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RSE, consent and uncertainty – Why ‘teacher-led’ has its limits

Schools have long played a part in shaping young people’s morality, but the government’s new RSE demands risk taking this role a step too far, cautions Ian Mitchell…

  • RSE, consent and uncertainty – Why ‘teacher-led’ has its limits

From September 2021, the government’s statutory RSE curriculum for primary and secondary schools comes into effect, after the implementation deadline was moved back by 12 months.

According to the Secretary of State for Education, children need to know “How to manage their academic, personal and social lives in a positive way.” On sex and relationships specifically, RSE “should teach what is acceptable and unacceptable behaviour in relationships.”

In the light of these new requirements, it’s worth reflecting upon the limits of teacher-led lessons, as there will be many teachers – often young and inexperienced – finding themselves having to teach children what a ‘positive relationship’ is like.

‘Acceptable and unacceptable’

When planning timetabled lessons, teachers are trained to identify objectives (what the students are going to do), which are distinct from outcomes – what the learners understand at the end of the lesson. Since lesson outcomes are unpredictable at the best of times, adopting a statutory RSE curriculum is likely to prove futile at best, and counterproductive at worst.

One way in which ‘Acceptable and unacceptable behaviour in relationships’ might be explored is by examining the notion of consent in relationships. When presenting information to a large class about consent, it’s inevitable that different individuals will reach markedly different conclusions over how best to respond. Moreover, since consent itself is a difficult concept to discuss, such sessions could easily exacerbate existing uncertainties.

A secondary school teacher planning consent classes might consider showing students Thames Valley Police’s much-viewed three-minute video, ‘Tea and Consent’, which explores the importance of sexual consent via the analogy of offering someone a cup of tea.

Whilst I applaud the video’s intention and slick execution, its efficacy rests upon the assumption that consenting to sex is comparable to consenting to a cup of tea. Is the emotional significance of sex not in danger of being trivialised? There is, after all, a world of difference between consenting to a cup of tea offered to make one feel better, and consenting to sex for similar reasons.

In a climate where ‘education’ is often proposed as a treatment for wider social problems, the government should keep in mind the limits of formal education. Frankly, it’s very difficult for teachers to approach such challenging subjects in a way that promotes relaxed discussion, while at the same time clearly identifying what is ‘acceptable’ and ‘unacceptable’.

Unpredictable outcomes

Consent is straightforward enough to define on the face of it, but in real life situations, it’s infinitely harder to understand. The idea that teachers might be able to successfully ‘resolve’ relationship issues in timetabled lessons betrays a misunderstanding of what taught lessons are designed to achieve.

It can be argued that educational outcomes are just as uncertain when addressing political issues from within the academic curriculum. Indeed, that uncertainty is one of the things that makes teaching so exciting.

JB Priestley’s An Inspector Calls is a case in point. Priestley’s play features a mysterious police inspector who visits a wealthy, middle class family to confront them over their treatment of a young, working class woman. The meanings and values of the play are outwardly sympathetic to socialism, but in my experience, the play’s socialist agenda often provokes a robust defence of capitalism.

I saw for myself how An Inspector Calls isn’t guaranteed to sell socialism when a 14-year-old girl, in pondering the merits of capitalism, shrugged and asked, “But what’s the alternative?” Having introduced a ‘socialist’ play to the class, I was confronted with the sentiments of Margaret Thatcher – a vivid illustration of how lesson outcomes are rarely predictable, particularly in regard to political issues.

Clear messaging

I’m not suggesting that the RSE guidelines will only make things worse, or that schools don’t contribute to children’s moral character; reading literature, for instance, does much to help formulate our attitudes and values. Where the issue of consent is concerned, a prudent pastoral tutor would point out to their sixth form boys where the law stands regarding the age of consent.

Acknowledging what the law says sends out a clear message that’s unlikely to be contradicted by anything an equally prudent parent might say. Teaching what the law says about sex is explicit in the government’s guidance. The problem lies in the inherent difficulty of ‘teaching’ the government’s RSE objectives, since they’re context-dependent according to individual experience.

Having included scant mention of parents in its RSE document, the government has overlooked a crucial influence in every child’s life. Long before attending any RSE lessons, students will have already ‘caught’ values from their parents and backgrounds.

When the RSE curriculum states that pupils should know ‘How to determine whether other children, adults or sources of information are trustworthy’, it’s granting schools the authority to overrule other adults. In effect, the government is encouraging children to scrutinise adult opinions that will inevitably include their own parents.

For many children, the values they’ve learned from their upbringing will resist the content of their RSE lessons; for others, their RSE lessons could bring them into conflict with the values of their families.

Moral character

Schools have long been expected to help shape the moral character of their students. In presenting his 1944 Education Act to parliament, R.A. Butler claimed that, ‘Family life is the healthiest cell in the body politic. It is the Government’s desire that family life shall be encouraged.’

However, this shaping of moral character was hitherto achieved via the teaching of specific knowledge and/or implicit endorsement of family values. Supporting development is one thing; determining development is quite another.

Unfortunately, contemporary politicians increasingly see schools and teachers in the same way that Priestley saw his enigmatic inspector – as agents of morality who can explicitly put the world to rights. While flattering, I fear that teachers are no more effective at combatting social problems, such as sexual harassment, than Priestley’s inspector was at promoting socialism.

Relationships will obviously form an integral part of every young person’s future, but questions remain as to whether teachers in the decontextualised environment of the classroom can instruct children in how to be ‘good citizens’.

The truth is that education often works as an organic process, in which informal dialogue and conversations take place outside of established lesson objectives.

Impromptu discussions between lessons are far more likely to succeed in challenging some of the wider problems facing young people. If schools end up playing a role in students’ moral development, it’s unlikely to be because of weekly timetabled lessons.

Teachers have perhaps become too skilled at spoon-feeding academic material in a way that enables children to pass tests. From September 2021, I suspect that these new RSE lessons will serve to remind teachers that not everything can be summarised via a few PowerPoint slides…


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The Academy of Ideas Education Forum gathers monthly to discuss trends in educational policy, theory and practice. Find out more here.

Ian Mitchell has worked as a teacher of English and psychology for 22 years across both the state and independent sectors.

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