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Addressing Sexual Violence within the new Relationship and Sex Education Curriculum

A few weeks ago, sexual violence in schools hit the headlines again. Since the summer of 2020, thousands of testimonies have been posted on the website ‘Everyone’s Invited’, with young people – mainly girls and young women, detailing experience after experience of sexual abuse and harassment at schools, colleges and universities.

Almost 15,000 testimonies have been posted to the site – with survivors sharing stories of rape, sexual assault, coercion, harassment and image-based sexual abuse. This has included being pressured to send sexual images, having sexual images exposed to others or on social media without consent, and receiving unwanted sexual images on social media sites like Snapchat.

The testimonies have pushed the government to launch a review of school’s safeguarding policies in relation to sexual abuse, and many schools have released statements about their safeguarding procedures and how they intend to respond to reported incidents of sexual violence.

Despite the shock vocalised at school leadership and ministerial level, the testimonies build a picture of a lived reality of sexual violence that is no surprise for violence against women and girls (VAWG) specialists and the girls and young women we work with.

The issue has been raised for years.

We already knew that across schools, colleges and universities, classrooms, corridors, campuses, on the school bus and at parties on the weekend, sexual violence is pervasive.

As early as 2010, violence against women’s organisations highlighted the levels of sexual harassment and assault being faced by young people in schools.  In 2016 the same organisations released a report ‘All day, every day’ showing that schools and the government could face legal challenges from girls they let down by ignoring sexual violence. At the same time in 2016 a Women and Equalities Committee inquiry into sexual violence in schools concluded that ‘sexual harassment and abuse of girls is being accepted as part of daily life’.

The number of testimonies on ‘Everyone’s Invited’ is staggering – and behind each testimony is a person, holding and coping with the impacts of sexual abuse and violation. Behind each testimony are also those – overwhelmingly men and boys – who made the choice to cross someone’s boundaries and behave abusively, as well as the friends, peers and adults that didn’t challenge their behaviour. 

The Everyone’s Invited website is clear that we live in a rape culture: sexual violence is all-too-often normalised and trivialised in our society and is able to thrive due to beliefs and attitudes such as misogyny and victim-blaming.

How to respond to an issue at such a scale?

The Women and Equalities Committee inquiry into sexual violence in schools recommended high quality, age-appropriate and statutory relationship and sex education (RSE). Almost five years on from this report and over a decade since the calls for compulsory RSE were first made; some progress is potentially in sight.

As of September 2020, it has been compulsory for schools in England to teach Relationships, Sex and Health Education (RSHE) to children and young people. Given the incredibly challenging context of COVID-19, schools were provided with an extra year to get ready, with the expectation that by September 2021 all schools in England will begin teaching the new statutory RSHE curriculum.

We know that over the past year many children and young people will have missed out on opportunities to access quality RSHE – we must make up for lost time.

The new Relationship and Sex Education curriculum is an opportunity to prevent sexual violence

There are so many opportunities within the new RSHE curriculum to open up age-appropriate conversations about relationships, sex, freedom, rights and respect. However, a curriculum alone doesn’t guarantee effective RSHE, or the prevention of sexual violence. If schools and the government are serious about addressing and working to prevent sexual violence, there are a number of key considerations needed when delivering the curriculum.

As a start any curriculum must be well-designed, participatory and engaging. Lessons should also be delivered by highly trained teachers or external subject experts, over multiple sessions through a combination of single and mixed sex groups, that are time-tabled as part of young people’s education. The RSHE guidance also encourages schools to partner with external specialist support services, to ‘enhance delivery of these subjects, bringing in specialist knowledge and different ways of working with young people.’

Developing a best-practice, survivor-centred approach to RSHE to prevent sexual violence

At Rape Crisis South London we have years of experience developing and delivering best-practice, survivor centred workshops that focus on the prevention of sexual violence with children and young people. Our approach is informed by decades of accumulated knowledge and expertise from providing specialist support survivors of sexual violence.

We also hold knowledge about the reality of sexual violence and know there are likely to be young and adult survivors in any classroom and school. This includes children and young people surviving child sexual abuse at home. There is also likely to be children, young people and adults in any classroom and school who have enacted some form of sexual violence, or know someone who has.

This reality means careful consideration is needed about the messages being communicated through RSHE as well as the way in which these discussions are facilitated.

Part of being survivor-centred is recognising that any prevention work may lead to disclosures. Any effective RSHE must create some safety by being clear about boundaries to confidentiality and safeguarding as well as offering specialist support. Those that deliver RSHE – particularly aspects that relate to sexual violence and violence against women and girls – need specialist training from frontline women’s organisations to prepare them to respond sensitively to any disclosures of abuse.

An understanding of how sexual violence is rooted in multiple inequalities and shaped by unequal power dynamics is also essential. This is particularly relevant when working with children and young people, who by nature of their age alone are often given less space, freedom and choice.

This also underpins the necessity of holding respect and care for young people and their views, trusting them with difficult (and age-appropriate) content, supporting them to critically reflect and have sensitive and challenging conversations in a safe and non-judgmental space and providing them with choices about how to engage or seek further support.

There is also an urgent need to embed the new curriculum as part of a whole-school or institutional response to sexual violence. This requires dedicated leadership, review of policies and procedures to ensure they centre young survivors, specialist sexual violence training for all staff, engagement and support for parents and access to information and specialist support services for all adults and young people.

Sexual violence is not inevitable – it is preventable! This is difficult work that will take time and which needs much for attention and resources. It is also achievable and together a different world is indeed possible.  

Get in touch!

For a conversation and further information about how we can work with your school, college or university, please contact our training and prevention coordinator via training.coordinator@rasasc.org.uk.

RASASC Training and Prevention Programme

You can also find out more about our training and prevention programme here.

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