Last term I asked my daughter (who was in year 6) the usual question when picking her up from school: ‘How was your day?’ Her response however, was anything but usual: ‘Don’t ask mum, I am TRAUMATISED!’ with all the dramatic intonation an 11 year old is capable of. The reason, I discovered, was that the school had had their year six science lesson on sex education, changing bodies, menstruation and all things physical development my daughter might be facing in the near future, as well as the mechanics of how children are brought into this world.
Relationship Education (RE) and Relationship and Sex Education (RSE) lessons and what and when to teach them has had a lot of press recently, particularly due to the legislation on a new RE/RSE curriculum being passed in March this year which schools will be required to teach from 2020. In particular, new guidelines say that parents cannot withdraw their child from RE in primary school (it is possible to withdraw them from the sex education element in secondary school up until they reach 15). Some schools have chosen to introduce elements of the new curriculum already, but some parents have not been happy with what their children are being taught about relationships. This has led to significant conflict in some areas.
So how can schools and parents move forward? These five points below can help schools make a smooth transition into the new curriculum and develop a partnership approach with parents in our children’s education.
1. Be transparent about the new curriculum
Be open and share what you intend to teach. Many schools already do this well, for example by inviting parents to view videos or resources used in lessons and sharing details in letters closer to the relevant sessions. This helps parents get a better understanding of the content.
2. Manage Parent Expectations
The guidance for RE and RSE sets out what the curriculum should contain. It also sets out that parents should be consulted on any new policies related to RE & RSE. But what impact can these consultations have if the curriculum is already set? Be very clear with parents which elements (e.g. specific content) schools have a legal duty to follow and therefore cannot be negotiated, and which elements (e.g. when and how content is taught) schools can consult on.
A very clear understanding of limits and flexibility - especially with the legislation being new - is important to avoid misunderstanding and confusion.
3. Make information accessible
How often is important information buried in a policy, which is in turn buried on a website or steeped in jargon that is hard to understand? Although policies absolutely have a very important role to play (high praise from someone working on policies daily) they are not always the most accessible documents for average Joe or Sue. Pick out your three to five main points and highlight them in a newsletter, on the webpage, on a noticeboard or wherever else it may be seen by parents. Keep the information simple, make sure that language is accessible to parents with different levels of English or reading levels - in fact, keep reading levels at age 12-15. This information is important to help reach as many parents as possible.
4. Involve parents
This is required in the new guidance but it is truly worth doing for its own sake. A parent forum or council meeting that is clear about objectives and is representative of the parent community can do wonders. Add some food and interactive activities that allow for exploration and discussions of concerns and a collective effort on how these can be overcome. Yes, it can be worrying and concerning as a school to open up to this kind of dialogue with parents, but, for inspiration, have a read of this case study of a school which bit the bullet, started a parent council and has never looked back. Our website also contains resources for schools on starting conversations with parents and enabling parent voice
5. Involve the wider community
No two schools’ communities are the same. They can vary greatly in family demographics. You will already have a good sense of the makeup of your school’s community and it is important to understand that different groups of parents will respond differently to the new RSE/RE curriculum.
Engaging with community leaders that reflect your parent population can be a great way to support your engagement with different families - be it your local priest, pastor, rabbi, imam or other religious leader, or indeed a leader of another local cultural or ethnic community group. A dialogue with community leaders to collaborate, highlight challenges and ways to overcome them can be a great support for a head teacher or senior leadership of a school. With a good understanding of the diverse issues and needs of their community, they can be more accessible or approachable for some groups of parents, delivering information sensitively and with a good awareness of the different dynamics and concerns in the within the community. This can provide a long term positive engagement for the school far beyond the RE & RSE curriculum. For more information on engaging with the wider community check out section 5 of our blueprint for parent-friendly schools.
I am happy to report my daughter’s trauma lasted no more than 5 minutes and her school did a good job of trying to engage and inform me of the lesson content, and is most likely representative of many schools up and down the country who do this well. If I could have made one little request, it would have been to have had a bit more time to watch the video before the lesson. As a working parent it can be hard to squeeze in school appointments and I would have felt a tad more able to support at home. Overall though, it was a job well done and with the relevant sensitivity for a mainly Catholic school environment.
The importance of collaboration, transparency and sharing of information between home and school cannot be underestimated. Building a relationship of trust and partnership as well as managing parents’ expectations when teaching a topic that crosses the boundary between home and school and is deeply entrenched in the values we hold as families, at school, within our community and wider society, has to be at the core of this curriculum implementation.