RSE Policy Case Study
Working with parents on a RSE policy
Falinge Park High School is a large multi-cultural 11-16 school in Rochdale. There are over 42 languages and a variety of faiths in the school. We had been teaching RSE as part of our PSHE curriculum for a number of years and had very few children who were withdrawn. However, with the DfE announcement last year and the disturbances outside schools in Birmingham, it put our practice in the spotlight and in June/July 2019 I was meeting a number of parents who were expressing concerns.
We had a choice – we could either continue and risk misconceptions developing amongst our communities which would have a negative impact on our school or we could pause. At Falinge, we are not afraid of pausing to think, we aren’t ashamed of procrastinating in order to achieve clarity of thought and practice so in September 2019 we decided we would stop teaching RSE until we had the opportunity to discuss our practice with parents.
In October 2019 the Prime Minister announced there would be a general election. I had previously written to parents explaining I would be inviting small groups of parents in to discuss RSE, I wrote to them again to say that we would not be exploring RSE until January. The reason for this was I did not want to do anything whilst political parties were campaigning. Whilst there is no hiding from the fact that education is political, I did not want our children and their education being used as political pawns. Of course, there were nagging doubts that I should be moving forward with this but our rationale for waiting was strong and our values were anchoring us into what we should, or in this case, should not be doing.
January came and I identified a series of sessions whereby parents could be invited in. Timing again was crucial – there were sessions of an evening for working parents, sessions at 9.15am after primary school siblings were dropped off, at 2pm before siblings were picked up, mixed sex sessions and single sex sessions for mothers. Parents identified a session and we kept the group small with no more than 10 parents so there could be a dialogue. To each of the sessions we extended the invite to faith leaders in Rochdale, local councillors, Local Authority Officers who work in community safety, parent governors and our MP, Tony Lloyd. We did this because we felt it was important to engage those community leaders first hand in the dialogue – they all attended.
I made the decision that I would lead the sessions as the Head. This is an area where I felt it would be best facilitated by myself with other Senior staff invited in to listen.
The first session was a trial – I had a specifically invited group of 4 parents, faith leader, councilor, LA community officer and my Chair of Governors in. I delivered the session but at each point asked for feedback about the way it was facilitated, how they felt discussing the issues and what could be added. This feedback helped me for the parents.
I was nervous. Discussing these issues with parents requires creating a safe space, an environment which is relaxed, ensuring that every body has a voice and whilst I am practised at doing that with children and staff this was different. I needed to work with humanity and to listen. We say in our school that we don’t debate, it is not about winning an argument, it is about dialogue and listening so we can find a shared understanding. We know this does not come immediately.
We prepared coffee and food for the parents and we began the sessions. I began with a small introduction. I explained how the guidance had changed for primary age pupils and secondary age pupils. I explained how by the end of primary it is relationships education based on kindness, consideration and respect. By the end of primary pupils should have focused on families and people who care for me; caring friendships; respectful relationships; online relationships; being safe. I then discussed how in secondary school we should be exploring mental wellbeing, internet safety and harm, physical health and fitness, healthy eating, facts and risks associated with drugs and tobacco, health and prevention, basic first aid, changing adolescent body.
I explained how the guidelines are that you cannot withdraw your child from Relationships Education BUT they can be withdrawn from sex education and in our school you have to write to the Headteacher and good practice is that I then hold a meeting with the parent. The main aspect of SRE is that we are teaching children that we allow them to make informed choices and that they are age appropriate and developmentally appropriate.
I then asked the question, “What do you think we should teach in Relationships and Sex Education?” – and I left the group to talk amongst themselves for 15 minutes. I think this aspect of me leaving the room to allow the parents to talk freely was key to helping the parents to feel comfortable. On return I took their thoughts without commenting and asked my second question, “What do you think we currently teach in Relationships and Sex Education?” By this point parents were able to talk freely. I didn’t comment on what parents said, just listened. What struck me most of all is the fact that the view of what we taught was informed by their sex education at school. This is a hard truth.
When I started teaching in 1998, sex education was, from my memory, “shock and awe”. All of the parents talked about a particular film they watched of a woman giving birth and how they felt sat next to a member of the opposite sex. They talked about their feelings of being in sex education classes – I had never thought of that before. I remember my own excruciating feelings of having to teach about nocturnal emissions and involuntary erections as a young teacher to my form group in an inner-city all boys school in Manchester and realised that many of these parents will have been in the same position at that time – on the other side of the room. These feelings, coupled with videos they had seen about what was being taught in schools was influencing their feelings – this was not just parents of Islamic or Christian faith – this was the majority of parents and they wanted to protect their children. I don’t have an issue with that.
I was privileged to listen to these parents talk and the way they opened up. This was a dialogue and whilst I was still nervous throughout I valued their input.
After receiving their input, I explained what we do teach in each year for Relationships and Sex Education, who delivers it and how we deliver it. I made a decision two years ago that only SLT and the subject lead would deliver PSHE and RSE. I then asked, “What do you think? Do you think that what we teach is reasonable? What are the concerns?” Unsurprisingly, parents were surprised that what they had heard was not the reality. We committed together to a number of actions:
- That I would review the material and share with parents in our next session the material we use.
- That I would share the policy which would be updated and discuss with parents.
- That this group of parents would help me shape the policy and be advocates amongst their friends and communities.
Then we had lockdown.
We’ve paused again but my Assistant Headteacher who is a SLE for PSHE has worked with Alliance for Learning on refining the material and providing the training for staff across GM. We won’t progress any further at Falinge though until our conversations with parents resume. Fortunately, the bond we have built during lockdown with our families and communities is, I believe, stronger than ever. We will pick up the sessions and, whilst they are difficult conversations (talking about sex education with parents, faith leaders and your MP is not easy) they are conversations that are worth having. I have been on the receiving end in a previous school when sex education has gone wrong and I would never willingly put my school in that position; I learnt through being faced with opposition a number of years ago and it can be very unpleasant. Parents are and should be our partners and we should, I believe, embrace them as we shape policy in school.
I am a strong believer in a school’s contextual circumstances and nuance; one size does not fit all. This is working for us but it might be helpful for others as we navigate this path. What I do know is that there have been relationships that have been built during lockdown with parents and families and we should embrace their participation if we want to help our children thrive and flourish. We can’t do that if we are in opposition.