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RSHE: What is the priority?

The summer term has traditionally been a busy season for Relationships and Sex Education (RSE) lessons. This can be explained by a tendency to save RSE until after exams, when there is less pressure. It also reflects the lack of status the subject has within the overall curriculum. Sometimes the whole of RSE has been covered as a drop-down day, or a topic like puberty sped through in a one-hour talk from an external visitor.

This year is different.

Due to COVID-19, pupils have been learning at home and talks from school nurses and off timetable days have probably been cancelled. Emotional wellbeing and mental health is paramount, as well as navigating the dynamics of friendships, relationships at home and online, and potentially coping with bereavement. 

In a letter to schools, written on the 3rd June 2020, the Department for Education (DfE) said RSHE will still be statutory from 1 September 2020. However, if schools feel they have been unable to adequately meet the requirements because of the lost time and competing priorities, brought about by the COVID-19 response, they may delay teaching the new curriculum until summer term 2021.

The DfE has also adjusted their expectations regarding RSHE so that schools don’t skip vital steps such as parental engagement and curriculum planning. Schools may consider taking a phased approach if needed, and are encouraged to prioritise curriculum content on mental health and wellbeing, as knowledge on supporting their own and others’ wellbeing will be important as pupils return to schools.

Focusing on mental wellbeing

Mental wellbeing is one of the sub-sections of Health Education, and it is packed with relevant content. By the end of secondary school pupils are expected to know:

  • how to talk about their emotions accurately and sensitively, using appropriate vocabulary
  • that happiness is linked to being connected to others
  • how to recognise the early signs of mental wellbeing concerns
  • common types of mental health conditions (eg anxiety and depression).
  • how to critically evaluate when something they do or are involved in has a positive or negative effect on their own mental health and/or the mental health of others
  • the benefits and importance of physical exercise, time outdoors, community participation and voluntary and service-based activities on mental wellbeing and happiness.

Each of these areas of knowledge have obvious connections with the experience of lockdown, social distancing and the COVID-19 pandemic. Every pupil will have new, raw and individualised experiences to draw on, but they may not have found means of expressing or naming their emotions or been offered tools for reflection and critical evaluation. Some of their peers may have had similar experiences, which they might not be aware of, due to lack of communication.

Given the very mixed progress that pupils will have made with academic outcomes during school closure it may feel like a luxury to give RSHE a central place in curriculum plans, but if the mental wellbeing of pupils is not attended to there is a high chance that some pupils may not be able to re-engage with their education.   

Embedding RSHE into the curriculum

Health Education will be mandatory with no parental right to withdraw a child from lessons. The requirements to consult with parents relate to RSE, so there may be further pragmatic reasons to start with Health Education content before phasing in RSE. A substantial range of topics are included in Health Education; internet safety and harms, drugs, alcohol and tobacco, first aid, changing adolescent body. A section on health and prevention covers learning about ‘personal hygiene, germs including bacteria, viruses, how they are spread, treatment and prevention of infection’. This knowledge fits hand in glove with school policies and practices that will no doubt evolve in coming weeks as schools prepare for wider re-opening in September.

Focusing on mental wellbeing within Health Education may be a safe bet for schools ready to get started with statutory RSHE, but don’t forget there may be other gaps to fill, particularly if lessons on puberty were due to take place this summer.

No matter the order in which topics unfold there are some golden rules to making RSHE a success:

  • Time - Ensure there’s adequate timetabled time for the new mandatory subjects.
  • Leadership – Appoint a dedicated subject lead with support from senior leaders.
  • Safety – Use group agreements to establish boundaries in the classroom and make learning safe, signpost regularly to sources of help and local services.
  • Consult - What are the priority topics for your pupils? What could improve? Are they enjoying RSHE lessons? Do they feel safe and able to participate?
  • Status - Give status to the subject by celebrating and sharing learning, assessing with rigour and reporting on pupil progress.
  • Knowledge - Equip staff with ongoing training in the subjects and recognise the personal nature of RSHE and potential for distress for teachers, giving means to support their wellbeing

NCFE and CACHE – supporting you and your learners

CACHE has worked in collaboration with health experts including the NHS and mental health charity, Mind, to develop a range of high quality qualifications designed to help educators and individuals support mental well-being.

We’re also launching our new Relationships and Sex Education and Health Education (RSHE) qualifications in September 2020.

Further information and resources

The government has dedicated information online aimed at extra mental health support for pupils and teachers, and NCFE has collated a list of websites and resources that can be useful during this time.

Additional resources include:

RSE Day 2020 – get involved

RSE Day, an annual celebration of excellent Relationships and Sex Education, takes place on Thursday 25 June this year. It aims to educate children and young people about healthy relationships and positive sexual health and we encourage schools and the wider community to take part. 

Sex Education Forum has some great free resources to support schools including ’20 ideas for RSE Day for secondary schools’ and further information on how to get involved.

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