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Read our positions on key issues affecting the sexual health and wellbeing of the nation
We recognise that in order to meet young people’s needs we must lead the debate in the controversial, difficult subjects that affect them.
We will continue to be proactive in our lobbying and advocacy work in order to keep young people’s rights at the forefront of the political agenda.
Our position statements outline our beliefs, our vision for young people and our approach, all supported by evidence and useful resources.
Read our position statements on:
The forthcoming Government guidance on RSHE will have a big focus on age-appropriateness. We encourage anyone designing or delivering RSHE to address a wide range of factors when assessing what to deliver and when:
Will the topic be introducing concepts that we wouldn’t expect children or young people to know about, care about or have the capacity to understand at their age? If so, it isn’t age-appropriate.
Conversely, is this a topic that many are already curious about, exposed to, talking about, googling, or need to know about to stay safe? If so, it is age-appropriate to teach about it.
When deciding if something is age-appropriate we can’t focus on an idealised version of what we would like children to be exposed to at that age, but on giving them the tools to make sense of and stay safe in the real world they live in. These needs may not be captured or met by hard age-limits on topics or materials.
Any age-limits laid down in guidance might become obsolete very quickly as new experiences, behaviours and threats emerge through young people’s access to technology.
To create a curriculum that is right for your pupils it is important to also ask the following questions:
Are we ensuring that lessons prepare children and young people for changes and challenges that are coming soon, rather than simply reflecting back on key events in their lives when it’s too late to change anything.
Young people often tell us that their RSE lessons were ‘too little too late’ i.e. they were not timely, and they were forced to educate themselves on many issues. (see new NSPCC research, Sex Education Forum Young People’s Poll, Brook research on Sexual Harassment and RSE, to be published).
Often hard and fast rules about age don’t relate to what teachers see in their classrooms. There may be regional or local differences in children’s social and emotional development that mean schools will hold back or accelerate aspects of their curriculum. This is why Brook refers to lessons as being age and stage appropriate
There may be a range of different needs within an individual year group or even an individual classroom. Good lesson planning, differentiated resources, and skilled facilitation can help to address the spectrum of knowledge, maturity and need in the classroom.
Children with Special Educational Needs require and have a right to good RSHE too. They are at higher risk of abuse and exploitation and may need a significantly different curriculum to keep them healthy and safe. This may entail a bigger emphasis on certain topics, different timing of lessons and more repetition of lessons to embed important messages.
In some special schools, classes encompass a wide age range, with pupils grouped by capacity, academic, physical and social skills rather than by age. So, the concept of age-appropriateness may have limited use.
When do we start to introduce key concepts and topics?
It isn’t always about what topic to introduce at a given age, but how we introduce it.
It is best practice to develop a spiral, developmental or building blocks curriculum. This means teaching children basic concepts, language, knowledge and skills relevant to all RSHE topics from early years. This creates a strong foundation to build on each year by revisiting and gradually adding in increasingly detailed information and increasingly complex concepts as children grow up, experience puberty and move into adolescence and adulthood.
This approach ensures that topics are regularly revisited, supporting pupils who missed classes or joined the school later; and helps to reinforce concepts and consolidate understanding. See examples of a spiral curriculum below.
There are many sources of information that can help guide someone designing a curriculum or scheme of work:
The school’s designated safeguarding lead and local multiagency safeguarding hub will be aware of the prevalence of issues such as sexual harassment in and outside of school, sexual image sharing, online grooming, sexual exploitation, self-harm, substance use, more vulnerable sexually active students and a range of potential safeguarding issues.
The more time spent delivering RSHE the better teachers become at designing a curriculum and planning lessons that are pitched right for pupils’ age, stage and needs. Some external providers have decades of experience shared across large teams of practitioners and are delivering RSE every day. Schools can best accumulate this expertise by supporting consistency of staff teams delivering the RSHE curriculum and providing routine opportunities for them to share and cascade their knowledge.
Listening to young people
Schools and RSE organisations must systematically engage young people in curriculum design through surveys and focus groups: asking older year groups to reflect back on the usefulness of past RSE; and asking younger people what they need to know about now.
Teachers can capture and share questions asked by pupils in the classroom that arise ad hoc, or via anonymous question boxes (or ‘ask it baskets’). These questions provide useful clues and cues as to what young people want and need to know.
Listening to what is being spoken about in the classroom and the corridor. Is there a lot of reference to pornography or misogynist influencers? Is everyone discussing the latest storyline in Hollyoaks or the latest episode of Love Island? What is the content of the TikTok accounts pupils are talking about?
Keeping up to date with surveys, and research carried out by and with young people about their experience of RSE by expert organisations in the voluntary sector.
Consultation with parents can ensure RSHE planning is informed by any concerns they have about their children’s current questions, behaviours, life online and more: helping schools to build a fuller picture of children’s lives to ensure RSHE content is timely and relevant.
Local Authority public health teams can provide data to help inform schools on the age range for the onset of puberty and local rates of STIs and pregnancy disaggregated by age and area; as well as prevalence of other health issues such as substance use, disordered eating, mental health issues and more.
National data from the Department of Health and Social Care, UKHSA, the NATSAL Surveys, the medical royal colleges can help inform about key health issues at a national level and over time. RSHE also remains a rich area for academic research including research about what young people need to know and the most effective ways to teach.
It is inevitable that ad hoc questions will arise in the RSHE classroom and in other subject lessons, that don’t fit the planned curriculum timings. Some of these may be feel precocious or concerning. Educators need to make a judgment about which questions they feel it is useful or appropriate to answer. It may feel safest to defer by offering to think about the question and find the right information for the next lesson while considering:
Is this question just something this individual young person needs an answer to now and if so does that raise a safeguarding flag? Brook’s Traffic Lights Tool may provide some useful insights to support decisions about this.
Is this question being asked mischievously to embarrass or test the boundaries of the teacher? If so, is it an opportunity to provide more useful or appropriate information?
Is this a question that keeps coming up, suggesting that this is something more generally on the radar of the pupils and needs to be addressed with this and other classes?
RSHE lessons may be schools’ key vehicle for teaching about relationships, sex and health, but teaching and learning does not just happen in self-contained lessons, but across the whole school. Questions and conversations can arise any time – in the classroom, the playground, the lunch hall – all teaching and support staff need confidence to deal appropriately with RSHE topics that arise organically in conversation.
A focus on curriculum content must not detract from valuing and improving the way in which we can develop and model kindness, consent and healthy relationships and RSE skills throughout the school community and in every interaction, for example through:
Early years teachers are already teaching about consent every time they encourage a child to ask permission before borrowing a toy from another child, or teach pupils how to say that they don’t want to join in an activity with their peers. They are teaching children to manage their feelings and accept their friend’s answer when they refuse their permission or don’t want to join in.
By the end of secondary school lessons about consent will be addressing everything from discussing consent in relation to the law; the importance of consent in healthy enjoyable relationships; and some critical thinking about how sexual consent is or isn’t addressed in media representations of relationships.
About bodies and safe touch
Teaching young children accurate terminology for body parts and an understanding of private body parts not only enables them to recognise and report abuse from an early age, but lays the foundation for talking about puberty, fertility, human reproduction, sex, and sexual harassment and bullying in later years.
About healthy relationships
In early years identifying and talking about the different kinds of relationships we have in our lives (parents /carers, siblings, friends, teachers etc) and what is nice and what is different about each of those, sets a foundation for learning about healthy relationships in more complex ways throughout the key stages.
Primary school lessons on what makes us feel safe and valued; how to recognise and respond to bullying; staying safe online and off; addressing values of kindness and mutual respect; how to recognise and manage feelings and to communicate about them, resisting peer pressure…all lay the foundations for talking about healthy romantic, sexual and committed relationships later on, in secondary school.
In the latest advice for schools and colleges (UKCCIS, 2016), sexting is defined as “the production and/or sharing of sexual photos and videos of and by young people who are under the age of 18. It includes nude or nearly nude images and/or sexual acts. It is also referred to as ‘youth produced sexual imagery’.
does not include the sharing of sexual photos and videos of under-18 year olds
with or by adults. This is a form of child sexual abuse and must be referred to
young person under 18 is breaking the law if they take an explicit photo of
themselves or a friend; share an explicit image or video even if it’s shared
between children of the same age; possess, download or store an explicit image
or video of someone under 18, even if the person in the picture gave their
permission for it to be created.
Guidance from the Ministry of Justice defines ‘revenge porn’ as ‘the sharing of private, sexual materials, either photos or videos, of another person, without their consent and with the purpose of causing embarrassment or distress.’
offence applies both online and offline, and to images which are shared
electronically or in a more traditional way.
Good sex project: This academic project examined why it’s important for youth and health practitioners to talk to young people about sex and how they facilitate those conversations. The website includes young people talking about their own experiences of sex.
According to the World Health Organization definition sexual health is a state of physical, social and emotional wellbeing that includes the right to have safe and pleasurable sexual experiences free from harm and coercion.
The vast majority of those needing and using contraceptive care, abortion services, menstrual health, menopause, fertility and maternity care are women. However, there are non-binary and intersex people who do not identify as women, as well as some trans men, who have a uterus, cervix, ovaries; and ovulate, menstruate are fertile and experience menopause. There are non-binary and intersex people who do not identify as men, as well as some trans women, who have a penis, testicles, and produce sperm.
Everyone needs access to sexual and reproductive health services, cancer screening, education and information relevant to their bodies.
Brook provides clinical services, Relationships and Sex Education and training, online information and advice, and policy and advocacy perspectives. As an organisation we think carefully about our language. Our various strands of work require us to be flexible in the language and terminology we use. Our decisions are informed by context, audience and the purpose and objectives of our communication. All are underpinned by four key principles:
We want to ensure that everyone feels welcome in our clinical services; feels included and able to engage fully in our education and training; can access the right care and feels seen and included in the information we provide.
We work and communicate with people of different ages, comprehension, and knowledge levels, and with different language ability. It is important that the language we use is clear and that it supports people to access the services they need even if they are unfamiliar with terminology specific to sexual health or anatomy.
The language we use in our data collection must help us to understand who is using our services. This informs ongoing improvement and development and ensures that each service user is accessing the right form of care for their needs.
In our advocacy and public engagement, we acknowledge the impact of gender stereotypes and multiple forms of prejudice on attitudes, laws, policy, and practice. The language we use must increase public understanding of the way sex, sexuality and gender intersect with sexual and reproductive health. It must make the most compelling case to reduce inequality, improve inclusion and to tackle the harmful stigma associated with aspects of sex, sexuality, sexual and reproductive health.
There are different ways to talk about people in relation to sexual and reproductive healthcare:
Gender neutral e.g.people, service-users, people who need contraception, anyone who needs an abortion, anyone who uses external condoms
Physiological language e.g. people with a uterus, people who menstruate, people with a penis, anyone with a prostate, if you have a cervix
Gendered language e.g. women, men, girls, boys
Gender-additive language e.g. women and all people who need abortion, men and anyone who needs to check their testicles
Gender inclusive language e.g. cis women, cis men, trans men, trans women, non-binary people
None of the approaches above is right or wrong in every context. We try to choose and use appropriate language depending on the aim of the communication and the target audience.
Thoughtful ‘mixing up’ of different language approaches can usefully expose people to all the available terminology, draw attention to the sexual and reproductive health needs of trans and non-binary people which are not always recognised, and normalise diversity. We believe that this approach supports the development of critical thinking skills in young people.
Brook’s sexual health and wellbeing information spans websites, social media, e-learning for professionals, podcasts, classroom resources, education and training presentations, as well as face-to-face support through our clinics, counselling and wellbeing programmes. We are working hard to ensure our language is inclusive, accessible, accurate and impactful throughout all we do. This is an ongoing project and we always welcome feedback and suggestions on how we can improve.
We recognise that language is always evolving and that different people prefer different forms of language. In our face-to-face work we aim to always respect people’s choices about the language they prefer to use in relation to their own identity and body.
The concept of virginity and social pressure to ‘lose’ or ‘maintain’ virginity harms people in a range of ways:
There is a high level of consensus amongst expert health organisations and those supporting women around ‘honour’ based violence that it is necessary to make virginity testing and hymenoplasty illegal.
The Health and Care Bill going through the UK Parliament in 2021-22 includes an amendment to criminalise the practice of virginity testing. Following publication of the report of the UK Government expert panel on hymenoplasty in December 2021 it is likely that the Government will support further amending the Bill to criminalise hymenoplasty.
Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG) position statement on virginity testing and hymenoplasty
World Health Organization statement on eliminating virginity testing
IKWRO the women’s rights organisation campaigns against child marriage, forced marriage, FGM, virginity testing and hymenoplasty and all forms of ‘honour’ based abuse; and provides support for women at risk.
MEWSO Middle Eastern Women and Society organisation campaigns against polygamy and virginity testing and provides support and advice for women experiencing abuse
The Swedish family planning association RFSU has published this leaflet on virginity. It introduces the term vaginal ‘corona’ as an alternative term to the word hymen. The word corona may be useful for helping us to understand the hymen as a kind of ring or halo of membrane that only partially covers the entrance to the vagina (in order to let menstrual blood out). This leaflet contains some useful pictures of the many different ways a corona/hymen can look.
Read more on Brook’s pages what is virginity?, having sex for the first time, and deciding to have sex.
Brook is not asked by schools to teach about BDSM and Kink, but is sometimes required to respond to ad hoc questions about it amongst young people. Brook teaches…
A life course approach to relationships and sex education, including:
(See our position statement on Relationships and Sex Education for more detail)
A state of physical, mental, and social well-being in all matters relating to the reproductive system. It addresses the reproductive processes, functions and system at all stages of life and implies that people are able to have a satisfying and safe sex life, and that they have the capability to reproduce and the freedom to decide if, when, and how often to do so. Find out more from UNFPA here.
A life course approach to health aims to ensure people’s well-being at all ages by addressing people’s needs, ensuring access to health services, and safeguarding the human right to health throughout their life time. Find out more from WHO here.
A person’s physical and mental health and wellbeing are influenced throughout life by the wider determinants of health. These are a diverse range of social, economic and environmental factors, alongside behavioural risk factors which often cluster in the population, reflecting real lives. All these factors can be categorised as protective factors or risk factors. Find out more from gov.uk.
Reproductive health is relevant for all populations regardless of gender, ethnicity, socioeconomic group or sexual preference. The consensus represents an approach which is one of reproductive wellbeing respecting individual choices about pregnancy and child-rearing. It requires a flexible and continuum of care approach across the following life stages: young people at the start of their sexual and reproductive lives; reproductive health and wellbeing of adults; health at the end of the reproductive lifespan. Find out more from PHE here.