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Questions to ask when visiting a school: sex education

When you visit a school, read a website or a prospectus or scroll through an Instagram account, everyone...

03.05.2021

When you visit a school, read a website or a prospectus or scroll through an Instagram account, everyone is on their best behaviour. But what happens if something goes wrong? How can you make a legitimate complaint? What of the recent spate of sexual misconduct scandals? What should we expect a school to do in the face of fast changing social media use?

Talking to a school about their sex education policy can often result in a sense of unease. For some, the responsibility to ensure that the facts of life have been successfully imparted remains squarely with a child’s parents. For others, the school is the chief educator and since the facts of life are only the starting point, why not leave it all in their hands? Whichever side of the line you fall on, the reality is that successfully educating a child in this area requires commitment and communication from both sides.

Relationship and Sex Education is now compulsory in schools and pastoral care is now more than ever at the heart of governance. For example, the head of pastoral care in the Thomas’s group of schools in London is also the new senior school’s vice head. This is an organisational scenario mirrored in many establishments, showing just how central to governance the subject has become.

Long distant are the days of a blushing biology teacher imparting basic reproductive wisdom to a group of giggling, young charges. If the central message then was ‘don’t get pregnant’ / ‘don’t get someone pregnant’ the level of sophistication and breadth of today’s teaching may seem alarming.

So what are the questions to ask? How can you be sure that a school has your child’s best interests at heart? Kindness and consideration may be writ large in a school’s values but is it reasonable to think that they will be remembered in the heat of the moment behind the proverbial bike sheds. 

AltPupils should be taught the facts and the law about sex, sexuality, sexual health and gender identity in an age-appropriate and inclusive way.

Since September 2020, the teaching of Relationship and Sexual Education (RSE) has been compulsory in all secondary schools in the UK. (In primary schools the focus is on solely on Relationship Education.) Despite the inevitable lag caused by a year of COVID-induced disruption, the new curriculum should be starting to find its way into all schools by now. The guidelines provided to teachers and heads are clear that this is a subject that has far wider reach than just the classroom. Indeed, it is stipulated that schools should ‘consider making a link between their values and ethos statement and their relationships, sex and health education policy.’

Amelia Jenkins, founder of The School of Sexuality Education, a body delivering RSE teaching and teacher training in schools, encourages parents to sound schools out on the way in which their RSE policy fits into the ‘whole school approach.’ She is clear that teaching RSE is a question of culture, not an add-on or a box ticking exercise and when done well, has transformative potential.

“Comprehensive and inclusive RSE aims to help young people gain a thorough understanding of consent; gives them critical thinking skills to understand gender and power; and helps young people to gain a thorough understanding of their rights, ethical decision making and bystander behaviours. All of this can help to prevent sexual violence, though it does need to be supported by a whole-school (and whole-society) approach. Schools must ensure that policies, procedures and school culture align with the messages in the RSE classroom, rather than undermine them.”

Martha Collins, head of PSHE at Acland Burghley School in north London echoes the sentiment. “The statutory guidelines are very sensible and we have to follow them.” She recognises that there can be benefits to bringing in teaching assistance from outside but feels that if RSE can be delivered in-house there are advantages. Namely, when a child wants to ask more questions or to identify a go-to person in the event of a problem.

RSE is the area that parents ask the most questions about, along with bullying. She recommends asking schools what the procedure would be if a child reported some kind of harassment and to really focus on finding on what the staff structure and communications procedures are. “In the end, it comes down to finding out precisely who is there for your child.”

Amelia Jenkins reinforces the message. “Ask the question very clearly: Will my child be taken seriously if they disclose harassment?”

Indubitably the answer, since some 16 thousand testimonies were published on the Everyone’s Invited website, is yes.

Everyone’s Invited has thrown the question of consent very much into the spotlight. What it is and what it is not, how to express it and how to withdraw it, are part of the statutory guidelines. Kate Parker, a criminal barrister and founder of The Schools’ Consent Project, a body set up in 2015 that has delivered consent-related workshops to over ten thousand students, says that young people are fascinated by the subject and want accurate and authoritative responses to their questions.

AltYou want to feel that the school’s support system is really robust.

She sees the school guidelines as being only one half of a two-pronged approach with many vital conversations happening at home. She encourages parents to ask schools precisely what they are covering so as to ensure that nothing is left out. Often, she and her team of lawyers deliver workshops to parents prior to delivering consent training to pupils. This helps to allay any fears and gives the parents the chance to understand what is at the root of common problems. “The majority of sexual harassment issues in schools today have a digital communications angle which is really hard to police. Ask the school what they think their role is in this kind of situation. You want to feel that the school’s support system is really robust.”

Giving parents access to training as well as pupils and staff is a major evolution in RSE and school pastoral care. Antony Douglas, head of pastoral care in the Thomas’s group of schools believes in providing a robust support system to parents including lectures on dealing with mobile phones and pornography. He would encourage parents to ask schools how they identify if there is a problem and even to go further – “Will you as a school help me find the answer?” He is quick to point out to a generation of parents educated in the seventies and eighties that schools have changed.

Questions he would expect to field are basic but probing:

  • Who covers the RSE curriculum?
  • Can I see the material?
  • Is the curriculum clear to you as a school?
  • Is there a ring-fenced RSE session each week?
  • How do your school values dovetail with the RSE curriculum?
  • Can I come and see you if there is a problem?
  • What is not compulsory?

And since there is no end of year exam:

  • What is the assessment process?
  • How do I know that the curriculum has been covered?

If a face-to-face meeting to ask these kind of questions feels uncomfortable, remember that all schools must have a written policy in place for the new Relationships and Sex Education curriculum. Asking to see it is the first step to understanding how seriously this vital area is being taken by a school. Ultimately, Everyone’s Invited probably came into being because thousands of young people, mostly female, felt that their schools were not listening to them or supporting them properly. Just by asking these questions we are contributing to a long overdue improvement in this area, as well as ensuring that we know how a school will react when the prospectus is long-forgotten and a problem rears its ugly head.

About the author: Kate Davis is a communications consultant. She studied French and Italian at Oxford University, was a lawyer and is now Scholato’s editor.

If you enjoyed this article, you might like to read Everyone’s Invited: how schools have responded.

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