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Our experience also shows that specialist teacher training is required, as relationship issues are a key concern for children

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By John Fenna

From September 2020, RSE will be compulsory in secondary schools and Relationship Education will be compulsory in all primary schools. The aim is to put in place the building blocks needed for positive and safe relationships of all kinds.

RSE can be seen as a more complex or nuanced part of a child’s education than the traditional subjects such as geography or science. However, teachers who are introducing it are quick to be cheerleaders for the benefits. One said - if children can’t relate to others, control their emotions, share and be respectful then they will struggle to learn. Another believes RSE is the most important subject of all – saying how in times of emotional stress, you won’t care about square roots or punctuation, you will need strong relationships skills.

Why does Tavistock Relationships think RSE matters?

Although we specialise is working with adult couples and individuals, it is in childhood that our notions and understanding of family, love and partnerships are hardwired. And it is these experiences, of course, which fundamentally shape how we relate to others as adults and as parents.

Research has shown that developing positive relationship skills during childhood improves the ability to manage stress and conflict. It will also help us to have fulfilling relationships in later life.Prioritising support to help children develop skills for positive relationships can therefore make a significant change for the better – not just for the children but for society as a whole.

The negative headlines about RSE might lead you to think people are against it – but that’s not the case. Children want RSE and the majority of teachers and parents support it too.

  • For years, children have been telling us that relationships are a topic that is deeply important to them. For example, ‘family relationships’ is the only problem category that features in the top three difficulties for all age groups of children contacting ChildLine

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  • FASTN surveyed over 1,000 14-17 year-olds and 72% of them wanted relationships education to help them build healthy and lasting relationships in adulthood. They also wanted help dealing with the relationship issues they are facing now. Almost 78% said they considered a lasting relationship to be as important as their career ambitions. They recently surveyed parents and teachers too – the vast majority said school had an important role to play in helping children understand relationships.
  • Furthermore, a survey of nine clinicians working in an inner London CAMH service, covering 313 cases, revealed that inter-parental conflict had contributed significantly to the mental health difficulties of the child or young person for nearly half of all cases.

What do we want to happen next?

Tavistock Relationships, along with a group of other relationships-focused organisations (links to FASTN here), wants teachers to feel supported and trained so that they can make the most of RSE. At Tavistock, we deliver training that helps teachers recognise and work with pupils adversely affected by the impact of parental conflict. Through this we find that school staff are very keen to talk to a counselling professional about gaining skills.

The requirements of support and training will be varied – some teachers may want help to have sensitive and difficult conversations with parents. Some may need support to feel confident to deliver the lessons. Whatever the training involves, we would like it to include helping teachers to recognise those in their classroom who want to talk about problems at home.

We also want to see a focus on the positives of relationships. RSE shouldn’t just focus on conflict and issues – it should look at the opportunities and happiness that they can bring. We want RSE to get young people thinking about a range of things:

  • Why do people choose the partners they do?
  • What are the important things that relationships give us?
  • Why is parenting such a major, exciting, life-changing event?
  • ‘How does my behaviour affect my girlfriend/boyfriend’
  • ‘What type of sexuality are there?’

How can we assess the success of RSE?

We think Ofsted needs to be creative and assess RSE as a whole school approach – not just as a subject. We would be concerned if the Inspection Framework’s ‘quality of education’ judgement failed to recognise how relationships are modelled and experienced throughout the school.

Relationships Education cannot stop at the classroom door. Neuroscience tells us we learn about relationships from experiencing them. We need pupils to be surrounded by healthy relationships at school. Ofsted must develop systems to evaluate the implementation of RSE in schools. Key performance indicators could include:

  • Evidence of viewing behaviour as a symptom.
  • Is peer to peer learning used?
  • Is parent engagement encouraged?
  • Is there competent management of relationships under strain?

Finally, take the time this RSE Day to think about how we can all help make it a success. As parents and carers are we getting behind RSE and supporting the teachers? Children will benefit if we do. Let’s not waste this opportunity, let’s work together and put relationships at the heart of everything we do.

You can read more about our schools training here.

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