16 Nov Let’s embrace important relationships education reforms
Elizabeth Grylls, Explore Youth Panel Chair, speaks to Sir Anthony Seldon about how fundamentally important relationships are and why schools and government must prioritise relationships education
In late summer 2021, I interviewed Sir Anthony Seldon, former Head at Wellington College and former Vice-Chancellor of Buckingham University. Sir Anthony is a published author and passionate educationist. He is also Patron of Explore, a relationships education charity whose youth panel I chair. Throughout the interview, I asked a series of questions about how relationships are taught in current educational establishments, potential reforms and his thoughts on the Explore Youth panel, which he joined for a session earlier this year.
I began by asking his views on relationships education reform, particularly considering the new mandatory Relationships & Sex Education (“RSE”) curriculum.
How do you think relationships education should be reformed?
Relationships education needs to be much more consistently put in front of young people. Relationships are more important in life than anything else. It’s what gives our life meaning, purpose and happiness. Good relationships make us much happier and when our relationships are bad, they make life miserable. We need to understand that.
As well as learning about Maths, English and Science, we also need to learn how to live. This can be improved by children being provided with more prominent and more consistent relationship education.
As a society we need to do a better job at helping young people understand what good relationships are, what they feel like and what to do if they find themselves in a relationship which is not good.
How easy is it to get PSHE to have the same prominence in government?
Governments of the world over assess schools through tests which check literacy, numeracy and science but tests for relationships aren’t possible. Governments throw everything at comparing their national results against other countries. The UK, along with most other countries, are obsessed with students’ exam grades. There’s a good reason for that but it’s only part of the story. MPs understand the importance of relationships, whatever party they are. They know how important it is to develop good relationships alongside getting good results. Do students know how to nurture good relationships or get top grades? I feel relationships are more important as it helps them to lead a better life. Quality of life issues are beginning to move up the political agenda and this makes me hopeful.
We all think we are good at relationships but there is no objective test. You can measure how fast someone runs or what they achieve in a maths test but you can’t measure whether someone is kind, understanding and empathetic. Just because it can’t be measured, it tends not to be prioritised.
We’ve seen a rise in domestic violence with covid. How can schools go about tackling this subject that is often avoided?
Sadly, some of the young people in school experience domestic violence or will see their siblings or parents being abused. It is an extraordinarily difficult and sensitive subject to discuss. It’s desirable for schools to help young people to develop so that they themselves don’t become abusive or violent now or later in life.
It’s always better to highlight the positive by stressing what nurturing, encouraging, supportive and loving relationships are all about. Also, it’s good to nurture the sense of how mutually rewarding that is. Those who get locked in abusive relationships have often been abused themselves. This needs to be tackled in an optimistic way, with the joy of positive relationships affirmed, but also providing young people with the opportunity to talk about what might be happening in their own home.
We’ve been taught from a heteronormative point of view at school, how do you think schools should start tackling this?
There is a lot of variation in what is taught. Quite a lot of schools are teaching about a variety of relationships and sexualities, but it isn’t uniform. More needs to be done in a way that doesn’t cause embarrassment and difficulty so that young people who are part of the LGBTQ+ community don’t feel ashamed or frightened. We should create an environment of acceptance, respect and understanding. Many schools are approaching this well, but consistency is very important.
You joined us for an Explore Youth Panel meeting earlier this year, how did you find it?
I was really encouraged and heartened by the way everybody on the Explore Youth Panel related. I know it can be awkward, embarrassing or intimidating for young people to be talking to older people, but I thought everyone handled it extremely well. I was very impressed and grateful to be part of the group.
Getting to ask couples about their relationship experiences is great and I think more young people need to experience that. Do you agree?
It’s as if young people in schools are one version of themselves and another version outside of school. I think it’s important that school isn’t only about young people being the safest version of themselves. It is where they keep their real identity, fears and concerns hidden. It’s good for young people to have opportunities to share issues, concerns and discussions with appropriate adults as it opens out the whole atmosphere of school. School should be a place where young people can truly be themselves.
What age should kids start receiving relationships education?
Kids should be receiving relationships education from the age of three, as soon as they start school. The most important development takes place in our formative years.
It will be about nursery reception staff and how they teach children to relate to each other, rather than a formal education. Quite different to young people in their mid-teens. Every age needs a different approach in relationships training. You can’t tell people to be good. They need to be able to reason and work out why it’s better to be kind rather than abusive. It needs to be experiential.
What key topics do you think within relationships need to be covered?
- Respecting diversity – and respecting those who are different from ourselves
- Helping to understand the joy that can come from difference
- The joy that comes from good relationships and friendships
- How to nurture good relationships and friendships – and what destroys them
- A sense of a relationship within families – how to nurture and sustain those
- Relationships with society including volunteering and helping those who are neither friends nor family, the joy that comes from helping others
- Relationship with nature and animals – treating nature with respect, the joy that comes from nature and pets
The more harmony there is in every young person’s life – harmony within themselves, with others, with their environment – the happier and more productive they will be.
It’s great to have you being part of Explore, what message would you send to others about getting involved?
To underline how incredibly important it is the work you are doing and your friends, colleagues are doing at Explore. Explore and relationships education are for the long term. Education should be for living, not just exam results.