The UK government is failing to deliver on its promise to teach relationships and sex education to children in England, figures obtained by VICE World News suggest.
Data released under freedom of information (FOI) laws revealed that only a tiny portion of English primary and secondary schools have downloaded official teacher training modules required to deliver relationships and sex education (RSE), which covers everything from consent and online pornography to sexual health and sexuality.
The new curriculum has been mandatory in schools since September 2020 after amendments were made to the Children and Social Work Act in 2017, making relationships education compulsory in primary schools (ages 5-11), and relationships and sex education compulsory in secondary schools (ages 11-18), for the very first time. These reforms represented the first major shake-up of RSE since 2000, which was before the advent of social media.
But experts are concerned that a lack of funding has meant that many schools have still not been able to access high quality training for relationships and sex education since the downloads became available when the curriculum launched.
The free government resources outlining the curriculum fundamentals required for teachers to deliver RSE have been downloaded only a couple of thousand times on average, with the number of downloads spanning from just 866 to nearly 5,000, when there are over 20,000 state schools in England.
A module dedicated to online relationships and media including online content and pornography has been downloaded just 1,345 times. The FOI data also reveals that the module training around intimate and sexual relationships, including sexual health for secondary school pupils, which covers sexual consent, has been downloaded 1,820 times, equating to a little over half of English secondary state schools.
Internet safety and harms, a module that trains educators to teach primary and secondary school students about internet use, online relationships and influencers has been downloaded 4,273 times, according to the data from the Department for Education.
There are 16,784 primary schools and 3,456 secondary schools in England, as well as 2,331 independent schools, suggesting that fewer than one-in-five schools have trained teachers in up to date knowledge. Many of the Powerpoint presentations include resources for both age groups, meaning that it is unclear if more primary or secondary schools may have downloaded particular modules. Some schools may have also downloaded the materials several times.
While the curriculum is mandatory, these specific online modules are not. Schools with budgets may opt to use training resources developed independently – though even before the curriculum officially changed in 2019, a survey of over 2,000 teachers found that 28% believed their school was not ready to deliver the curriculum, and 47% lacked confidence in their own ability to teach it.
All local-authority-maintained schools in England must teach the National Curriculum, but the new RSE curriculum arrived mid-pandemic, a period in which schools have incurred substantial additional expenditures. This is on top of 10 years of cuts to school funding.
In June 2021, UK schools regulator Ofsted released its findings from a rapid review of sexual abuse in schools and colleges, in which 88% of girls and 49% of boys said being sent explicit pictures or videos of things they did not want to see happens a lot or sometimes to them or their peers.
“Children and young people were rarely positive about the RSHE [Relationships and Sexual Health Education] they had received,” the report said.
Labour MP Sarah Champion, who has been vocal in her support of mandatory sex education, called the figures obtained by VICE World News “disappointing” and said it was a “dereliction of duty that teachers still haven’t had the right training or resources after four years.”
“Relationship education is vital for child protection, preventing hate crimes and creating respectful and empowered young people,” Champion said. “It is the greatest investment we can make for their future, and the costs of not doing so can be life long.”
She wrote a letter to Prime Minister Boris Johnson shortly after VICE World News shared the data, saying: “I am extremely concerned that the Government are not being proactive enough in mandating the delivery of RSE seriously.”
The figures show that a module on mental wellbeing has been downloaded 29,772 times – suggesting that schools are being better directed to training resources around mental health.
The UK government has ring-fenced funding of £17 million for mental health training in schools to help them recover from the challenges of the pandemic – possibly explaining why the mental well being module is so high.
Lucy Emmerson, Chief Executive of the Sex Education Forum which contributed to the making of the Powerpoint resources, said she was “disappointed” with the low download numbers. “Downloads is one thing, open rate is another. My starting point is have they all been disseminated in the same way? I suspect not,” she said.
“While organisations like ourselves regularly tell our members about things that are available, it’s not our responsibility. It’s the government’s.”
She added that the Powerpoints alone are important, but don’t work if schools are not also given high quality training sessions in addition to them – something she believes would require ring-fenced training money funded by the government.
In September, the school standards minister Robin Walker revealed in Parliament that four out of five schools were yet to receive any training in the new curriculum, a year after it was made mandatory.
He said that 3,800 schools had been reached in the 2020/2021 academic year, and that a further 1,000 schools were supported during a final wave of training that ended in July. “This is a cascade model of training whereby those trained are expected to share the training with other teachers in their school and wider school networks.”
The government is yet to assess how many schools have had training trickled down to them via this “cascade” model.
Paul Whiteman, general secretary of school leaders' union NAHT, said: “Work has to be done to make sure that teachers are confident and know they have the right skills to teach this content effectively.”
He added: “This really is too important a subject to get wrong."
But some educators are critical of the quality of the online resources in the first place. Justin Hancock, a sex educator who runs BISH, a website that provides resources for young people, said the training Powerpoints commissioned by government do not “even get close to meeting the needs of poor teachers in schools that are having to do this.”
He said that, given historic austerity measures on top of the difficulties of the pandemic, that “there has never been a worse time for statutory RSE to happen.”
In a Facebook group he runs which has around 2,000 sex educators in it, Hancock has not seen anybody discussing the government’s resources. “It doesn’t matter if it’s free – if it’s rubbish, it’s of no value. The very least you should expect with training is that you explore your values and you explore how your own sex ed affected you. To call these ‘training’ is an insult. Teachers can probably see through it and see these are of no value whatsoever.”
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “Since the new, mandatory Relationship, Sex, and Health Education curriculum launched in 2020, we have supported teachers via a range of training modules, programmes, and non-statutory guidance. The number of downloads of these materials is not a direct indication of how many schools are training their teachers to deliver the new subjects.
“We are continuing to support teachers, so that they can gain the knowledge and confidence to teach the new curriculum and foster open conversations with their students on important issues, such as consent.”