Overview of Wales’ RSE code

The Relationship and Sexuality and Education (RSE) Code and Guidance was passed into law by the Senedd in December 2021. The Code will sit within the Area of Learning of Health and Wellbeing as part of the new Curriculum for Wales which will be rolled out in September 2022.

Earlier in December 2021 Estyn produced their report entitled ‘Experiences of peer-on-peer harassment among secondary school pupils in Wales’. The statistics are shocking:

  • 61% of female pupils report personal experience of sexual harassment or seeing others experience it. 29% of male pupils reported the same experience.
  • 54% of pupils with a disability, and 56% of sixth-form pupils have experienced sexual harassment.
  • 95% of sixth-form pupils report having seen others experience sexual harassment.
  • 46% of pupils said they kept the fact that they had been sexually harassed to themselves. 49% of those were female, 34% were male.

Given this appalling reality, it is not unreasonable for educators, parents and in particular, our children and young people, to expect a robust and wide-reaching code and guidance on RSE. But the code and guidance are lacking in specifics and assurances in several key areas.

Definitions

The definitions of ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ are ambiguous and inconsistent. The inherent tensions and contradictions in the way sex and gender are represented throughout the code raise serious concerns about how key RSE themes will be mainstreamed throughout the curriculum. We need clarity around definitions and an end to the conflation of the two terms: if we do not recognise sex, we cannot address sexism. It is also important to use accurate terminology and objective facts rather than the subjective beliefs some lean on to help cope with their everyday lives and make sense of their feelings.

Clarity of content

The content is not clear. The code uses confusing vocabulary and terminology and includes an ideologically loaded glossary that is scientifically inaccurate and riddled with internal contradictions.
To be effective, the RSE must address the impact of biological sex, sexism and stereotyping – on boys and girls. Most importantly there is a need to name and challenge the additional barriers, harassment, violence, discrimination and risk of harm experienced by girls and young women because they are female.

Confusion about ‘identity’

Throughout the code and guidance, ‘self-identity’ as the emotional and social development of a child’s sense of self (a psychologically recognised stage of childhood) is conflated with a sociologically or politically informed concept of identity as something created or assumed for external validation. The latter is an ideological and contested definition of personal identity, entirely unsupported by research. Our children deserve better.

Missing pieces

There is no mention of pornography or violence against women and girls. Indeed, the terms girls, boys, men and women are missing altogether.
How can respect, or consent be taught if pornography isn’t even mentioned in the code or guidance? How can boy’s attitudes to women and their right to bodily autonomy be challenged if the two groups are not even differentiated? Sexual abuse and harassment – overwhelmingly of girls by boys – has become normalised in schools, yet even Estyn’s report euphemistically refers to peer-on-peer harassment. We need to be able to name the problem if we are to even begin to solve it.

Resources & providers

There is a worrying lack of specific information for schools on what partner organisations or resources should or should not cover in delivery. If something is compulsory, it’s reasonable that children and parents should know what is being taught, and that it will be accurate and objective, not ideologically loaded.

Schools and youth groups need clear guidance to enable them to judge what is and isn’t appropriate for inclusion in RSE lessons, particularly given the plethora of unregulated ‘toolkits’ and training providers.

We need a central list of approved resources and organisations that schools and youth groups can use, confident in the knowledge that they are properly vetted and DBS checked in line with safeguarding best practice. This assurance is already provided by the Department for Education in England.

Children, teachers, and parents in Wales deserve no less.