Young people’s suggestions for Relationships and Sexuality Education in Northern Ireland
Consulting with young people regarding their preferences and requests for Relationships and Sexuality Education (RSE) helps to ensure that teaching is relevant and engaging, focuses on up-to-date issues, combats common misconceptions, and adequately meets the needs and rights of all pupils.
In Part 1 of this longer read, I explored the quantitative findings from my mixed-methods doctoral research on Sixth Former’s Views on RSE in Northern Ireland (NI), focusing on student perspectives of the content and quality of RSE teaching. In Part 2 I outline some of the qualitative findings around participants’ suggestions and preferences.
What do we know already?
In surveys and focus groups, young people consistently report that school-based RSE comes “too little, too late” (Adler, 2003, p. 62), is too focused on biology (DiCenso et al., 2001), and is often delivered by uncomfortable teachers (Ezer et al., 2019; Lodge et al., 2022). Young people report disengaging from RSE which focuses primarily on risks or negative experiences, or adopts a moralistic, sex-negative stance (Pound et al., 2016). Study participants frequently express a desire to have frank and open dialogues, to be recognised as emotionally and sexually mature and to cover a wider range of topics (Waling et al., 2021).
Compared to the rest of the UK, there has been limited research on Northern Irish students’ views and experiences on school-based RSE. In a youth-led survey of 770 16-25 year olds, the Belfast Youth Forum (2019) found that most participants described their school-based RSE negatively with the most frequent descriptors of “basic”, “unhelpful”, “useless” and “biased”.
Quantitative findings from my study highlighted that while the science and biology of puberty and conception is generally well covered in NI schools, there are significant teaching gaps around the social-emotional aspects of personal, intimate relationships and identity. For example, fewer than one in six respondents reported learning about healthy relationships (16%), LGBTQ+ issues (16%) and diverse identities (11%) in their school-based RSE. More inclusive teaching on the social-emotional aspects of RSE is a common request from young people in the UK and around the world (Pound et al., 2016; Waling et al., 2021). However, the very low levels of coverage reported here indicate a selectivity or even a silencing of important topics in Northern Irish schools stemming from NI’s flexible, non-standardised approach to RSE curriculum content.
To create meaningful RSE change, we need an understanding of the current challenges and a vision of what we are working towards. In this blog, I explore participants’ suggestions and ideas of the steps needed to improve RSE content and delivery in the words of young people themselves.
How this research was carried out
An anonymous online survey was disseminated to all mainstream post-primary schools in NI, to cascade to their sixth-form students. A total of 604 pupils completed the survey, of which 75% (450) wrote at least one detailed response to three optional open-ended questions, resulting in 1042 qualitative survey responses. Eight students took part in follow up individual or friendship-paired interviews.
Qualitative data from the open-ended survey questions and the detailed interviews were analysed using Reflexive Thematic Analysis (Braun & Clarke, 2019).
Give RSE greater importance
Young people felt that RSE offers an important contribution to their learning and development but that it is not (yet) fully meeting their wants and their needs. Many wanted RSE to go beyond the “bare minimum” with proper time and space in the curriculum to fully explore important concepts such as consent and healthy/unhealthy relationships. Various suggestions were put forward for timetabling including:
- having a dedicated RSE class
- topics discussed more frequently in a ‘little and often’ approach
- the use of spiral curriculum to build on existing knowledge rather than one-off assemblies or external speaker events.
We had around 2 lessons rushing through the basic biological aspects and the basics on contraception. I think we need to take the time to destigmatise issues around sex and intimate relationships because we’re doing a disservice to all young people. The basics of relationships and sex and consent is all we’re asking for.Amy*, 16, bisexual, Catholic Grammar school
it would be good if the people that came in to teach us about sex-ed, actually taught us anything apart from what a condom was then peace out after that. It would be much better if they would teach us about toxic relationships, good relationships, anything else that can be useful.Ben, 17, heterosexual, Integrated Secondary school
Make it LGBTQ+ inclusive
Many students strongly advocated for more consideration and time be given to discussions on gender identity, sexual orientation and LGBTQ+ specific content. Participants were keen for RSE to be more inclusive and affirmative for queer pupils rather than always being taught from a heteronormative perspective with only negative or tokenistic LGBTQ+ representation.
Participants highlighted how inclusive RSE could have wide-reaching impacts on the mental health and wellbeing of LGBTQ+ youth, reduce health disparities, increase understanding and compassion for others, and create safer, more accepting school environments for everyone.
DEFINITELY LGBTQIA+ AS A STARTCara, 16, lesbian, non-denominational Grammar school
Create a set curriculum so that everyone gets the information they need regardless of school and to make people more tolerant towards other genders and sexuality as well as more comfortable with themselvesDani, heterosexual, Catholic Grammar school
Create emotional safety and non-judgement spaces
Participants wanted educators to acknowledge potential awkwardness and discomfort when discussing sensitive or taboo topics within the classroom, with efforts made to de-stigmatise these issues. There were mixed opinions on who was best placed to deliver RSE, with pros and cons put forward for being taught by a familiar class teacher, an external organisation, or peer educators. However, the key characteristics of a ‘good’ RSE educator seemed to be the same – educators who can create safe non-judgmental classroom spaces to talk openly and honestly, have respectful and nuanced conversations, and provide accurate information free from personal or institutional bias, stigma, shame or judgement.
allow pupils to make their own opinions, rather than presenting the topics as “sinful” or otherwise tabooEthan, 18, bisexual, Integrated Secondary school
Be more inclusive of peoples opinions and beliefs even if it doesn’t match the schools ethos…Consent and protection should be explained without people feeling judgedFran, 18, heterosexual, Catholic Grammar school
Use Interactive and Engaging Teaching Methods
Young people particularly disliked didactic teaching methods where they felt “lectured at” or simply given worksheets to complete. Participants showed a strong preference for interactive and creative pedagogies that allowed for more active class participation such as whole class (or small group) discussions and case-based learning using realistic scenarios.
Crucially, the success of these interactive techniques was dependent upon the skills of the teacher in first establishing ground rules, boundaries and confidentiality to allow all pupils to participate and engage in learning without fear of shame, judgement or embarrassment.
Instead of lecturing students on the topic, it should be more interactive, making it feel more natural to talk about in schools and gradually helping to remove the stigma around talking about these “taboo” issues that are clearly very important for young people.Gael, 16, heterosexual, Controlled Grammar school
It needs to modernised. Topics that are viewed as taboo are not covered. There should be more in class discussions not simply reading from a textbook, handing out some worksheets and then doing a topic testHannah, 17, heterosexual, non-denominational Grammar school
Moving forward to inclusive, comprehensive, empowering school practice
Quantitative findings outlined in Part 1, highlighted critical gaps in the content of RSE and what was taught/not taught. Meanwhile the qualitative analyses presented here elucidate the importance of how RSE is taught regarding classroom dynamics, delivery methods, styles, pedagogical approaches, and the interplay between power, positions of privilege, comfort and emotion.
Participants’ voices add to the growing call to continue developing inclusive policies, a standardised comprehensive curriculum, and high-quality RSE teacher training to fully meet children’s rights and needs, ensure programs are relevant and engaging, and support optimal developmental trajectories.
Across all themes, students articulated an acute awareness of the threat of stigma and shame surrounding RSE topics and showed a clear preference for open, honest dialogue and comprehensive, impartial information. Many RSE topics require teachers and students to confront difficult ethical dilemmas, encounter highly emotive viewpoints, explore social inequalities and discrimination, and address topics which might be considered sensitive, taboo, or embarrassing.
Outside the classroom there are wider systemic issues which can potentially hinder high-quality RSE. These include limited RSE training opportunities and no professional pathway, an already overcrowded curriculum and ever-expanding role for teachers (Education Support, 2023), vague governmental guidance and fear of parental objection (Lodge et al., 2022).
These issues notwithstanding, many participants in this study reported positive learning experiences of RSE, highlighting strengths and examples of good practice by certain schools, teachers and external providers.
Exploring these past successes and adopting something an Appreciative Inquiry stance, I would like to end with a few questions and an invitation to imagine:
- What would it look like if all young people had a solid understanding of consent and healthy relationships?
- What would it feel like if we could talk candidly about puberty, bodies and sexual health without shame, judgement and embarrassment?
- How could we create school cultures that fully embrace inclusivity and diversity, where all our pupils and staff feel safe, welcome and valued?
- What aspects of our RSE has been most beneficial for our students?
- What are some steps we can take right now to make sure all our pupils leave school with the skills, knowledge and self-confidence to safely navigate the complexities of relationships and sexuality within modern society?
- What would it mean if our school’s RSE was not only informative but also a catalyst for positive social change?
*Pseudonyms for all young people are used throughout
Adler, M. (2003). Sexual health. BMJ (Clinical research ed.), 327(7406), 62–63. https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.327.7406.62
Belfast Youth Forum. (2019). Any use? Report. Young people’s opinions on Relationships and Sexuality Education (RSE) in Belfast.
Braun, V., & Clarke, V. (2019). Reflecting on reflexive thematic analysis. Qualitative research in sport, exercise and health, 11(4), 589-597. https://doi.org/10.1080/2159676X.2019.1628806DiCenso et al 2001
DiCenso, A., Borthwick, V. W., Creatura, C., Holmes, J. A., Kalagian, W. F., & Partington, B. M. (2001). Completing the picture: adolescents talk about what’s missing in sexual health services. Canadian Journal of Public Health, 92(1), 35-38. https://doi.org/10.1007/bf03404840
Education Support. (2023). Teaching: the new reality.
Ezer, P., Kerr, L., Fisher, C. M., Heywood, W., & Lucke, J. (2019). Australian students’ experiences of sexuality education at school. Sex Education, 19(5), 597-613. https://doi.org/10.1080/14681811.2019.1566896
Lodge, A., Duffy, M., & Feeney, M. (2022). ‘I think it depends on who you have, I was lucky I had a teacher who felt comfortable telling all this stuff’. Teacher comfortability: key to high-quality sexuality education? Irish Educational Studies. DOI: 10.1080/03323315.2022.2061561
Pound, P., Langford, R., & Campbell, R. (2016). What do young people think about their schoolbased sex and relationship education? A qualitative synthesis of young people’s views and experiences. BMJ Open, 6(9), e011329. http://doi.org/10.1136/bmjopen-2016- 011329
Waling, A., Fisher, C., Ezer, P., Kerr, L., Bellamy, R., & Lucke, J. (2021). “Please Teach Students that Sex is a Healthy Part of Growing Up”: Australian Students’ Desires for Relationships and Sexuality Education. Sexuality Research and Social Policy, 1–16. https://doi.org/10.1007/s13178-020-00516-z