Relationships Education is an outcome of the growth of the influence of the Internet.
The role of the Internet in the lives of adults and children is central to the development of statutory Relationships Education in primary schools. The foreword to the statutory guidance, written by the Secretary of State for Education, makes this clear. It states that we want to put in place the key building blocks of healthy, respectful relationships, focusing on family and friendships, in all contexts, including online.
The development of statutory Relationships Education has been widely welcomed. The PSHE Association CEO, Jonathan Baggaley states ‘Parents will also support schools dedicating time to teaching about health, relationships and staying safe; …92% want government to ensure all pupils are given PSHE lessons about staying safe. Parents are also increasingly concerned about young people’s mental health and the complexity of life online, so will value schools offering more support in such areas.’
Not only is it widely welcomed but it has also been trialed for a long time. But how prepared is your school and can you guarantee that your provision will meet the needs of your children effectively?
Guidance is given but there is much left to schools
The statutory guidance gives clear statements about what children should know by the end of the primary phase covering the five strands;
- Families and people who care for me
- Caring friendships
- Respectful relationships
- Online relationships
- Being safe
However, there is less detail about both the content and progression. Much of this is due to the desire to avoid over-prescription and the need for schools to develop curriculum and practice relevant to their context. Schools are left to make decisions about the age appropriateness. The guidance does expand on some areas and some is covered by the non-statutory guidance Teaching Online Safety in Schools, which maps out the relative roles of Computing, Relationships, and other curriculum areas.
Online and offline contexts increasingly blended is key to teaching & learning
Two things, however, are clear. Firstly, children’s experiences are developed both online and offline and we need to blend our approach to learning. We should look for offline contexts when we present the opportunities and issues (risks and potential harms) that the online world presents and vice versa; the principles of cyberbullying and bullying are no different, it is just the means and the exposure that changes. It is also unusual for the one to occur without the other in some form. Similarly, how offline friendships make us happy is no different to how online friendships work for children and adults alike. Separation into offline and online is a false dichotomy for our children. They don’t necessarily recognise any difference. Secondly, children learn by doing, through practical first-hand experience. We don’t anticipate teaching children manners or respect (in school or out of school) without giving them plentiful opportunities to practise and reinforce them in real-life contexts. Nor do we teach safety, such as swimming or cycling proficiency, without water or bicycles respectively. It is therefore nonsense to expect to teach key components of Relationships Education without opportunities to learn in a safe, secure online environment.
Schools must take appropriate steps over the coming months
Schools were encouraged to begin to implement Relationships Education from September 2019 ahead of its statutory status from September 2020. Many schools have implemented new curriculum, purchased new resources and made a good start, but without key steps implementation will not meet the desired outcomes fit for relationships education in the 21st Century.
Key questions schools need to address in the coming months include:
- Is the curriculum fit for purpose in recognizing both online and offline contexts for Relationships Education across all five strands?
- Does the curriculum cover the breadth of the subject for online relationships?
- Is there provision for children to explore online relationships in a safe, secure online environment through which teachers may teach and proactively intervene, developing and promoting age appropriate behaviours, giving children first-hand experience?
- Are staff sufficiently trained and confident to deal with the issues of online relationships?
- Do staff understand the social web and how their children are accessing it and for what purpose?
- Do staff understand the nature of online manipulation both through persuasive technology and coercive behaviour?
- Is there a whole school approach that engages all stakeholders and offers extra-curricular opportunities?
- Are parents engaged effectively and understand their role?