Voices: If you thought we’d learnt a lesson from Andrew Tate, think again

“Teach that boys and girls are equal” is on a long list of recommendations from young people about the basics that need to be – and are currently not – covered adequately in relationships and sex education (RSE). This seems like such a basic message that I have to ask how we as a society have overlooked such a key lesson.

Young people know what they need to learn about in RSE in order to feel ready to take on independent relationships. They’re keenly aware of how current lessons are letting them down, according to new research from the Sex Education Forum.

The only way to ensure that RSE equips the next generation to be engaged members of society is by centring young people’s experiences in lessons, and appropriately training teachers. With the government’s RSE guidance set to be reviewed in 2023, now is the time to return the focus to our young people.

Three years ago, RSE became mandatory in all schools in England, with cross-party parliamentary backing and overwhelming support from parents and schools. The legislation was clear in its ambition to teach schoolchildren about healthy relationships, and to foster equality and respect between young people. Yet as the laundry list of overlooked subjects, including gender parity, shows us, this promise from the government hasn’t yet been fulfilled.

Misogyny, spread through social media influencers such as Andrew Tate, has been making ugly appearances in classrooms in recent months, with reports of some male students vocally and publicly declaring their belief in male superiority and intimidating female teachers.

Imagine preparing to teach a lesson about consent, or the harms of pornography, and being challenged by students about your authority the moment you enter the classroom. If this undermines the teacher, how does it affect other students and their confidence to join in with discussions? The majority of young people are wishing for a more inclusive, more discursive RSE.

At the same time that teachers face such intimidation in the classroom, the government is relying on schools as a key vehicle for prevention in their strategy to tackle violence against women and girls, and for reducing online harms. Likewise, the government points to RSE repeatedly as a catch-all to address these issues and more besides – from menopause to addiction.

RSE is described as something that is “already in place”. Yet more than half of young people surveyed about their RSE lessons at school said that they had learnt nothing, or not enough, about topics including what a healthy relationship looks like, the attitudes and behaviour of boys and men towards girls and women, information relevant to LGBT+ people, and pornography.

When it comes down to it, the government isn’t giving teachers the guidelines they need to approach teaching about sexual harassment and misogyny, let alone menopause or the dangers of digital platforms.

Parents and teachers will agree with me when I say that it is simply not fair to expect wonders from schools without government investment in professionalising the teaching of RSE, and carrying out regular monitoring to find out what the realities are for young people in the classroom. We know that investment pays off: education about relationships and dating has been shown to reduce violence by 17 per cent on average.

Given that misogyny appeals more to boys who are feeling disenfranchised, boys need to hear from an early age that there are choices they can make beyond narrow gender stereotypes; that violence is not the answer – and that equality pays off for everyone.

These conversations need to happen at home, yes; but properly supported RSE teachers can lead the movement to create a more inclusive and prepared generation, equipped with critical-thinking skills and emotional understanding, to navigate life both on and offline. It is telling that 38 per cent of the young people surveyed by the Sex Education Forum felt that inadequate time was spent on RSE at school, and that 35 per cent wanted more open discussions. Good-quality RSE does take time, openness and investment to achieve.

This year, the government is reviewing its guidance on relationships, sex and health education. Will this be informed by asking young people? Putting young people at the centre of future guidance, and requiring national and school-level consultation with students, would be a game-changer, though this has to be underpinned by a long-term plan to support the teachers they are depending on.

From where I stand, we don’t have a choice: not making these changes risks our ability as a society to help young people to manage modern challenges.

Lucy Emmerson is chief executive of the Sex Education Forum