Andi Cope,
RSE Lead for Spectrum

Are we ‘over teaching’ and not creating space for learning?

In my 20 years of teaching Relationship and Sex education (RSE), there have undeniably been major changes in the way that young people communicate and receive information.

My first lesson corresponds with the year Google was launched – which, apart from making me feel incredibly old, is an interesting parallel with the emerging data we have now on how much time young people have been spending online during lockdown*. For young people, the Internet has provided a valuable means for home learning, entertainment and social connection during school closures – something which would seem unbelievable to the teenagers of 1998 who were just getting to grips with the concept of a browser.

New opportunities

The Internet provided new opportunities for a learning and, for providers, a space to make lessons engaging, interactive and fun. Over the years, my lesson plans have become more technology-based, PowerPoint driven, interactive and visually impactful and if I’m honest – ‘busy’,  as this is what I thought matched youth culture expectations. My role is to cover the specialist RSE topics and provide a source of support for young people to confidently access local services, to encourage autonomy and resiliency, and to challenge misinformation and provide factual, up-to-date information.

Our lessons evidence individual progress and are filled with interactive tasks that meet the objectives within the statutory RSE guidance. Yet as I reflect and input the feedback received on lessons delivered pre-COVID, I am struck by the simplicity of what is actually needed in RSE from the view of the young person.

Of course, lessons do need to be well-planned and informed by research and evidence, but are we over planning and over-filling lessons with content that is fun and engaging – when a bolder response would be to spend more time creating a safe space for discussion, handing RSE back to the young people?

The path to progress

Here’s what three Year 10 students said following a recent STI & Contraception Update lesson:

  • I think this was a useful lesson because you can be open, ask any questions and get an unbiased answer.
  • I think the lessons are useful because people can then go and speak to them and get answers.
  • I think that all Spectrum lessons are fascinating and provide you with an opportunity to ask questions.

When young people feel safe within the classroom, confident that they have respect from peers and permission to be open, that is when authentic learning happens and progress is made in the RSE sessions. For Sex Educators, my advice is to get the group agreement or classroom rules right, and the rest will flow. To create a group agreement, ask the students to consider how they can make the following happen within the classroom in a safe and supportive way;

  1. Openness
  2. Sensitivity to diversity
  3. Respect
  4. Inclusivity
  5. Laughter

*A survey of 9,913 14-25 year olds conducted by the Duke of Edinburgh Award programme in April 2020 titled The impact of lockdown on young people found that “83% are spending more time in front of a screen” and “71% are concerned it will impact their academic knowledge and skills

About the author

Andi Cope leads Spectrum’s RSE provision and has been working in Relationships and Sex Education since 2008. She is passionate about the personal, social and health education of young people, and creating innovative resources that address sensitive topics in an interactive and inclusive way.

Andi has a background in creative arts and youth and community work, and is also a doctoral student focusing on RSE policy and practice. Materials developed by Andi for a prison-based RSE programme were awarded the Pamela Sheridan Sex and Relationship Award in 2015, and in 2016 her resources for the Learning Disability RSE Programme were shortlisted for the HSJ Patient Safety Award. Andi works closely with young people as the co-producers of the RSE materials and supports schools and youth services to deliver RSE in line with Government guidance. To find out more, email PR@spectrum-cic.nhs.uk.

Andi Cope,
RSE Lead for Spectrum