POST - Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology

Relationships and Sex Education

Published Monday, June 25, 2018

Teaching about relationships and sex in UK schools often focuses on the biology of reproduction. Stakeholders have called for lessons to cover a broader range of issues, such as healthy relationships and the risks posed by using digital technology. The subject Relationships and Sex Education (RSE) will become statutory in all secondary schools in England in the near future. There is ongoing consultation into what will be included in the statutory guidance for RSE. This POSTnote reviews evidence on the potential outcomes of RSE in schools and how to maximise its effectiveness.

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Stakeholders have suggested that well-taught RSE can improve public health, address inequalities, promote healthy relationships, and improve awareness of the risks posed by using digital technology. Many studies on RSE are international and there are relatively few that focus just on the UK. As RSE programmes historically focussed on public health outcomes (such as reducing the prevalence of sexually transmitted infections), more evidence is available on the effect of RSE on these outcomes than on others (such as reducing partner violence).

Key Points

  • Relationships and Sex Education (RSE) can increase knowledge about sexual risk, lead to increased use of contraceptives, and reduce young people’s number of sexual partners. Some evidence suggests that it may delay the point at which young people first have sex and decrease rates of teenage pregnancy. However, it is difficult to isolate the effect of RSE programmes on teenage pregnancy rates as studies often examine multiple interventions at the same time.
  • There are few high-quality studies on how RSE affects prevalence of sexually transmitted infections (STIs). However, available evidence suggests that RSE does not reduce STI rates among young people.
  • Evidence shows that RSE can increase young people’s knowledge about, and change attitudes towards, sexual abuse and partner violence. There is less evidence to show that RSE programmes change young people’s relationship behaviour.
  • RSE’s role in improving awareness of the risks of sharing nude images and using pornography has not yet been evaluated.
  • RSE is most effective when it is taught by trained professionals in regular sessions, delivers age-appropriate content, is inclusive of different sexual and gender identities, is embedded into school policy, and involves the input of young people and their families.

Acknowledgements

POSTnotes are based on literature reviews and interviews with a range of stakeholders, and are externally peer reviewed. POST would like to thank interviewees and peer reviewers for kindly giving up their time during the preparation of this briefing, including:

  • Against Violence and Abuse
  • Barnardo’s*
  • Brook*
  • Catholic Education Service*
  • Contact
  • Coram
  • Department for Education*
  • End Violence Against Women Coalition*
  • Equality and Human Rights Commission*
  • FPA
  • International Planned Parenthood Federation
  • Marie Stopes
  • Nation Education Union*
  • National Association of Head Teachers
  • Northern Ireland Assembly Research and Information Service*
  • Office of the Children’s Commissioner*
  • Ofsted*
  • PSHE Association*
  • Public Health England*
  • Relate
  • Restless Development
  • SafeLives
  • Scottish Parliament Information Centre
  • Sex Education Forum*
  • George W X Barker, Sexpression: UK*
  • Stonewall*
  • Tender*
  • Terrence Higgins Trust
  • Welsh Government Education*
  • White Ribbon
  • Women’s Aid
  • Welsh Assembly Research Service
  • Welsh Government Education*
  • Professor Joanna Adler, Middlesex University*
  • Dr Christine Barter, University of Central Lancashire*
  • Visiting Professor Sue Berelowitz, University of Bedfordshire
  • Professor Rona Campbell, University of Bristol*
  • Associate Professor Christopher M Fisher, La Trobe University
  • Dr Eleanor Formby, Sheffield Hallam University*
  • Professor David Gadd, University of Manchester
  • Professor David Gurnham, University of Southampton
  • Dr Miranda Horvath, Middlesex University*
  • Professor Dame Anne Johnson, University College London
  • Professor David Paton, University of Nottingham*
  • Professor Michael Reiss, University College London*
  • Professor Emma Renold, Cardiff University*
  • Professor Nicky Stanley, University of Central Lancashire*

*Denotes people and organisations who acted as external reviewers of the briefing.

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The Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology produces independent, balanced and accessible briefings on public policy issues related to science and technology.