New SafeLives research finds Relationships and Sex Education (RSE) is falling seriously short of what young people need

6th December 2022

Only half (52%) of young people believe Relationships and Sex Education (RSE) classes give them a good understanding of toxic and healthy relationships, new SafeLives research suggests.  

SafeLives, a UK-wide charity working to end domestic abuse, heard from more than 1,000 students and 60 RSE teachers in secondary schools across England – through a series of surveys, interviews and focus groups.  

The report, “I love it, but I wish it was taken more seriously”, published today, reveals significant gaps in the delivery and quality of statutory RSE classes, despite the curriculum receiving its first update in twenty years, in 2019. 

Key Findings:  

Young people are not learning enough about harmful relationships and how to seek help: 

  • Only 46% of students feel confident about who to talk to if they or someone they know is experiencing abuse.   
  • Just 24% of young people recall being taught about ‘coercive control’ in RSE classes and as little as 13% believe this topic was taught well.  

LGBT+ students are being left behind: 

LGBT+ students are receiving less Relationships and Sex Education than their heterosexual peers. SafeLives data suggests they feel significantly less comfortable, less confident about where to go for support about relationship or sexual abuse; and a notably smaller proportion have a strong understanding of toxic and healthy relationships. 

The majority of LGBT+ students (61%) disagree that LGBT+ relationships are being threaded throughout RSE, as is legally required by the guidance.   

One expert, who works with children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND), highlighted a tendency by teachers to ‘infantilise’ disabled students in relation to their sexual orientation, including assuming Heterosexuality. 

Boys feel pressured by gendered norms, less able to express themselves and are turning to the internet for information about sex and relationships:   

Boys told researchers they are facing pressures to ‘man up,’ to conceal emotions and to refrain from asking for support. 

  • Only half (54%) of young people surveyed have been taught about gender roles and gender equality. 
  • 27% of boys go online for information about relationships and sex, compared to 19% girls.   
  • 22% of boys look for information through pornography, compared to 5% of girls.   

Young people want much more from their RSE classes: 

Young people told SafeLives that they want more from their Relationship and Sex Education classes. Students want ‘more relevant examples’ (47%), ‘more open discussions’ (44%) and ‘more regular classes’ (42%). 

Young people expressed a desire for discussion-based activities and practical, relatable RSE - including more ‘how to’ conversations, such as: ‘how to break up with someone without hurting them’ and ‘how to communicate consent.’  

One focus group concluded that learning about consent from a younger age, not necessarily sexual consent, but personal boundaries and how to read social cues - could help prevent sexual assault. 

One student told researchers: “We’re being taught this stuff too late and, at this point, I feel like...the information that we have, either we learnt it from our parents or we learnt it on the internet because the school really doesn’t do much to help us with these types of topics.” 

Young people want discussions on RSE to be normalised. They’re aware of the taboo nature of the subject and can see that some teachers are not trained and not comfortable.   

Teachers need training, resources and time: 

Teachers and experts told SafeLives that time, resources and school prioritisation presented major barriers to effective delivery.  

SafeLives found large inconsistencies in how different schools prioritise RSE, some value the subject much more than others, and this impacts the quality of RSE students across England receive.   

One teacher said: “I love it - but wish it were taken more seriously by my school. They get two hours a year in an assembly format.” 

  • Only 58% of teachers surveyed believe they have sufficient training to teach RSE effectively.   

 In response to these findings, SafeLives is calling for RSE guidance to place more emphasis on intersectionality and identity – recognising how the complexities of young people’s lives impacts their relationship with themselves and others. 

LGBT+ relationships should be discussed at an earlier stage in young people’s education. There should be a greater focus on engaging with young men and boys from an early age, in a way that’s tailored and works for them, about gender norms, masculinity and inequalities. 


Chief Executive of SafeLives, Suzanne Jacob OBE, said:   

“At SafeLives, we are passionate about stopping abuse before it starts, and education is the single most powerful preventative tool we have.  

“Our team has found some glaring gaps in the delivery of this new guidance. RSE should be equipping young people, often engaging in their first intimate relationships, with the support, knowledge and confidence to navigate relationships safely and healthily. Instead, students feel let down and that they should be getting much more out of these classes - leaving many, especially boys, looking online for answers. 

“It’s shocking that 10 out of the 21 young people we spoke to, who had been withdrawn from some or all sex education, said they don’t speak anyone about RSE outside school. It can't be right that some schools champion this important work, while others neglect certain areas - and it is disappointing that young people are sometimes removed from these lessons altogether. We mustn’t have a school lottery when it comes to supporting and teaching young people about crucial issues that affect their wellbeing and safety – as young people and as they become adults. 

“We want to see schools across the country embedding a whole-school approach to RSE, where all members of a school community - students, staff, parents and governors - ensure RSE is prioritised and teachers are provided with the resources and time they need to build trust with their students.” 

Notes to Editors 

The full report: “I love it, but I wish it was taken more seriously”: An exploration of relationships and sex education in English secondary school settings is available here

SafeLives’ research into the quality and delivery of the RSE curriculum builds on and reinforces the calls by several partner organisations working in this space: 

  • Girlguiding have called for better quality relationships and sex education to tackle violence against women and girls, after their Girls’ Attitudes Survey 2022 found one in five girls in England don’t feel safe at school. 

  • Domestic abuse charity Tender has invested in developing and delivering an effective Whole School Approach programme to prevent abuse and promote healthy relationships amongst young people.   

  • In 2021, in response to an Ofsted review which found that sexual harassment in schools and colleges is widespread, End Violence Against Women and partners across the Domestic abuse and VAWG sector wrote a letter to the Education Secretary calling for the creation of a taskforce that will drive the Whole Schools Approach in schools and to ensure that RSE is not sidelined after Covid disruption. 

SafeLives welcome the leading recommendation of the review, which we have campaigned for, that a ‘whole school approach’ is needed so that schools and college leaders can create a culture where sexual harassment and online sexual abuse are not tolerated. 


For media enquiries, please contact the Communications Team: Communications@safelives.org.uk
Press Office: 07936 939 653  


About SafeLives: 

We are SafeLives, the UK-wide charity dedicated to ending domestic abuse, for everyone and for good. 

And why do we say ‘for good’? Because we want to stop it before it starts. And if it does start, we want a response that provides long-term, wraparound support to decrease the chance it will happen again. Too many perpetrators repeat their behaviour, too many children grow up impacted by the long-term effects of domestic abuse. 

We work with organisations across the UK to transform the response to domestic abuse. We want what you would want for your best friend. We listen to survivors, putting their voices at the heart of our thinking. We look at the whole picture for each individual and family to get the right help at the right time, to make families everywhere safe and well. 

Together we can end domestic abuse. Forever. For everyone.