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Reflections on the DfE Draft Relationship and Sex Education Guidance from our Youth Collective

By Will Dawkins and Molly Cowell (Amnesty Youth Collective)

“He said sex!” Growing up in the early days of internet access was a cornerstone of primary school sex education for me. Information came from the one child in the class that had unrestricted access to the internet, and this would trickle down through the playground through the rest of the class as we discovered through one plucky internet explorer about being gay, having sex and pornography. Inevitably, this was not accurate, but being too embarrassed to ask adults for clarification on topics, much of this was not rectified until well into secondary school, with my own, unrestricted internet access. This is a familiar story to anyone growing up in the age of the rise of the internet.

With the development of sex education in the last decade, we have had opportunities to create informative and safe spaces for these conversations. The 2020 Relationships and Sex Education curriculum made huge strides in this regard, with notable specific foci on age-appropriate and inclusive teaching. However, the 2024 RSHE consultation this month stands to undermine this strong development in children’s rights to education, and the protection that this education offers them.

This post will highlight the range of issues raised by the consultation, and encourages you to stand alongside Amnesty UK in our stance against the 2024 RSHE consultation, which attacks children’s right to education, and the rights of LGBT students, whose experiences are politicised and removed from the curriculum in this proposal.

What is the RSHE consultation?

This consultation is on changes to the relationships, sex and health education curriculum in England. This decides the basic outline of the curriculum in England, and the legal duties of schools of which topics to cover and at what length, outside of which there will be flexibility for teachers and schools. In reducing these duties, and introducing outrights bans on teaching, such as on the discussion of gender identity, discretion and bans leave a lot of room for teachers and schools to avoid key topics and produce unbalanced teaching on the topics of relationships, sex and health education.

To give an overview of these changes from the 2020 to the proposed 2024 curriculum, we will highlight the bans on discussing “gender identity” in the 2024 proposal, as well as the introduction of age limits on teaching specific content which we feel are the main, unproductive propositions in the 2024 RSHE consultation, which we hope will inspire you to voice your concerns on this topic, to ensure a well-rounded education for school children in the UK!

To take a closer look at this document for yourself, you can find it here.  

Banning ‘gender’ content

Another key change away from the 2020 curriculum is the rolling back of the progressive aspects of LGBTQ+ education. This curriculum proposes an outright ban on teaching about the broader concept of “gender identity,” which encompasses questioning your gender identity, and being transgender. The consultation presents gender identity as a “highly contested and complex subject,” which may confuse children and that schools should avoid creating oversimplified concepts for children, through diagrams or cartoons. One such example is the notion that “gender is a spectrum.”

These proposals reinforce harmful gender norms and erase the diverse history and existence of transgender individuals from the curriculum. This exclusion fuels ignorance about gender and identity, harming all pupils. By ignoring transgender individuals, these reforms deprive trans students of the knowledge necessary for their safety and understanding of their health and identities. This promotes a culture of ignorance among their peers in schools that are often already non-inclusive for LGBT people, perpetuating often false stereotypes.

As someone who left secondary school in 2020, just before the initial RSHE curriculum reforms, I have witnessed the profound ignorance that a lack of inclusive teaching can foster. This lack of information inevitably impacts young people's mental and sometimes even physical health. Intense bullying, along with misinformation about identity, sexuality, and gender-affirming care, all contribute to dangerous cultures. If left uncorrected, these harmful attitudes and misconceptions can persist into adulthood and permeate wider society.

The curriculum changes also emphasise a taboo surrounding all members of the LGBT community. For example, point 63 on page 17 states, "Schools can most commonly refer to families with a mother and a father when discussing families, but should be sensitive to pupils’ circumstances, recognising that some children may have a different structure of support around them." This echoes the spirit of Section 28 under Thatcher, promoting the restriction of information on LGBT lives and relationships. While the consultation does acknowledge the existence of same-sex parents, it is concerningly vague. The enforced emphasis on heteronormativity represents a troubling regression to harmful and outdated norms that have historically nurtured homophobia and similar hateful behaviours.

Safeguarding and Age Limits

One of the most important aspects of relationships sex and health education is safeguarding, regardless of the age of the students.

Effective teaching on consent, abusive relationships, and sexual health helps safeguard young people and encourages them to communicate with trusted adults about abuse or health concerns. The consultation proposes to age-limit large amounts of content. This excludes children from vital education that provides the foundations of tolerance, respect and health. Thus, children are likely to look to less reliable sources for this information.

When I was in primary school, it was my class’s understanding that hugging another classmate was how people became pregnant. Not only is this ignorance easily exploited by those with malicious intent, but it also does little to address the fears and confusion that many children experience around their bodies from very young ages.

The consultation states that education in primary schools will be reformed to allow students to understand the violation of boundaries “without getting into the detail of sexual acts.” (page 17). It also explicitly states that concepts of stalking, sexual harassment, grooming, forced marriage and sexually explicit photographs without consent should not be taught about before year 7 (see page 27). The current curriculum is already superficial at best, especially at primary age. Further reform to this may endanger children.

There is a clear oxymoron here. How can children comprehend physical boundaries, sexual assault, and consent without understanding sexual acts and the consequences of physical intimacy? Children need basic knowledge to report abuse and recognise when it is happening and its potential consequences. The DFE argues that withholding this information protects children's innocence; however, for many children, this innocence will be violated regardless of whether they understand what is happening, what it means, and how to stop it. This lack of understanding breaches children’s rights to safety and the knowledge they need to access their right to privacy, health and education.

Concerningly, these age limits also only limit access to accurate and safe teaching, not to sex education altogether, as many children have access to the internet and contribute to subsequent rumours, with many easily accessible online commentators taking advantage of such ignorance and preaching hate and misinformation.

Inclusive content is essential for promoting tolerance, countering online hate, and teaching modern scientific understandings of gender, sexuality, and the body. It protects young people's mental health, reduces hate crimes and bullying, and helps them recognise and report abuse. Ultimately, it aids in their understanding of bodies and identities, which is crucial for well-rounded childhood development.

What now?

Reach out and start talking about this! The consultation window is shorter than it typically is, at only four weeks, meaning we have to work harder to spread awareness of the potential reduction to the RSHE curriculum.

About Amnesty UK Blogs
Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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