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Back to School: Compulsory RSE is an opportunity we can’t miss!

After months in lockdown, school staff and pupils are returning to the classroom whilst still learning how to navigate this new, strange and restricted world.  Whether it feels like a welcome return to routine or a cautious entering into the ‘new normal’, we will all be managing the uncertainty of a world recovering from a pandemic.

The impacts of coronavirus have had a huge effect on children and young people’s wellbeing, mental health and academic life. Some pupils will have experienced bereavement, some will be fearful of the threat of the virus, and many will be worrying about their studies. There will be pupils for whom being inside their home will have been unsafe, and this will include having experienced some form of sexual violence, whether by people in the home or online.  It is therefore critical that all pupils have access to information and specialist support services for staff and students when they return to the classroom.

Schools have a crucial opportunity to address sexual violence with the long-awaited introduction of statutory Relationships and Sex Education (RSE) and Health Education this September.  Now is the time for Leadership Teams to prioritise the development of a whole-school-approach which includes staff, students and parents. In any classroom of students there will be current and historical experiences of sexual violence – therefore it is vital that all members of staff receive specialist sexual violence training, and those with safeguarding and RSE responsibilities must understand the reality and prevalence of childhood sexual abuse.

The classroom can be a safe place for so many young people, yet it does not necessarily provide freedom from sexual violence when we consider that sexual violence and harassment can be a daily occurrence, even within schools themselves. One in three girls experience harassment in their school uniform and between 2012 and 2015, police figures show that more than 5,500 sexual offences were recorded in UK schools, including 600 rapes, which averaged out as one rape in a UK school every day of the school year.

That RSE is now recognised as an essential part of children and young people’s learning and development – is to be celebrated. However, many of the modules in the new curriculum still rely heavily on messaging which places responsibility with pupils to ‘keep themselves safe’ or to ‘recognise the signs of abuse’ or to ‘resist pressure’.  Schools and teachers need access to specialist training and resources, to feel confident to challenge the abusive behaviour itself, to acknowledge that young people are capable of perpetrating harm as well as experiencing it, and to ensure that their safety messaging is not blaming survivors for the abuse they have experienced and excusing the abusive behaviour of those who have perpetrated.

The statutory guidance on Relationships and Sex Education highlights that partnering with external agencies can enhance the way these subjects are delivered and taught. For subjects that explore sexual harassment, rape, pornography, image-based sexual abuse and consent, these are best delivered in collaboration with specialist sexual violence services.

Through decades of frontline work, specialist services like Rape Crisis Centres have developed practice-based knowledge and expertise around the reality of sexual violence, its perpetration, the varied impacts for survivors, barriers to disclosing and how to respond, challenge and support.

At Rape Crisis South London, all our training and prevention work in schools and youth settings is informed by our experience supporting survivors of sexual violence. From this we hear the ways in which negative messages and responses from schools, friends, family and wider society can excuse and normalise sexual violence, whilst compounding and prolonging the effects of sexual violence for survivors. We also see how responses and messages can be transformative, when they come from a gendered, intersectional and survivor-centred perspective, informed by knowledge and understanding of the reality of sexual violence.

Everyone has a role to play in preventing sexual violence – by supporting survivors of sexual violence, calling out abusive behaviour in the corridors, classroom or playground, challenging gender stereotypes and societal attitudes and championing consent. 

If you are interested in working with us to achieve this and would like to know more about our training and prevention packages, including workshops for young people, please get in touch with our Training and Prevention Coordinator by email on training.coordinator@rasasc.org.uk

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