"I love it - but I wish it were taken more seriously"

An exploration of relationships and sex education in English secondary school settings

On this page you can find the key findings from our Relationships & Sex Education (RSE) research report, “I love it but wish it were taken more seriously”, funded by the Treebeard Trust.

The research explores the experiences of both the teachers involved in interpreting and delivering the curriculum, and the young people receiving it.

“I think you need to learn as it becomes more relevant to you. Because like a healthy relationship is relevant whenever you are, whatever age you are … relationship and consent as well … sex or stuff I don’t think you really need to know, until your little later, a little older, but something like healthy, toxic relationships, and how to consent is important.


SafeLives heard from more than 1,000 young people and over 60 teachers in secondary schools across England  – through a series of surveys, interviews and focus groups. Our key findings reveal significant gaps in the delivery and quality of statutory RSE classes.

  • Only 58%

    of teachers agreed they had sufficient training to teach RSE effectively

  • Just 14%

    of teachers said they'd received no training at all

Key findings – the teaching experience

  • Staff are usually chosen to teach RSE based on timetabling and capacity, and 17% of RSE teachers surveyed volunteered to teach the subject due to their interest or skillset. This is likely to impact the quality of RSE young people receive, as well as the value students place on RSE as a subject.
  • There is large variation in how frequently schools teach RSE and their form of delivery, with most schools (65%) teaching through timetabled lessons, but some teaching through ‘drop down days’ or assemblies.
  • RSE is unlike other subjects as young people receive information and education about relationships and sex from many different sources outside of school. RSE teachers are positive about their roles, yet face unique challenges. These include navigating their role within the multitude of information relating to the topics, debunking myths and misinformation, and feeling pressured to deliver learning that they see as paramount to the emotional development of young people.
  • There are inconsistencies in terms of how school governance and leadership prioritise and resource RSE. This impacts the ability to embed a whole-school approach and the quality of support teachers receive.
  • As a result of lack of confidence and training, some subjects are being taught more consistently than others. When asked which topics they thought were taught well, there were no topics that over half of all students surveyed agreed well taught well. The topics taught the most well were sexual health and safe sex (48%) and consent and how to communicate it (46%). The subjects taught least consistently and least well were female genital mutilation (FGM) and coercive control.
  • Teachers want more training in RSE, access to free and engaging resources and more time built into their roles to plan for and deliver RSE
  • 61%

    of LGBT+ students disagree that LGBT+ relationships are threaded throughout RSE

    as is legally required by the guidance

  • Only 54%

    of student have been taught about gender roles and equality and only a third (31%) thought this was taught well

Key findings – inclusion in RSE

  • RSE is being received differently by students according to their gender, ability, and racialised, sexual and religious identities, as well as how these identities intersect. This impacts how they experience their relationships with themselves and others, as well as how they receive education about it.
  • Gendered norms and gender inequality impacts all young people’s experiences of relationships and help-seeking. Boys face a different set of unique gendered pressures in relation to conducting their personal relationships, including pressures to join gangs or criminal behaviour, the pressure to ‘man up’ and to conceal emotions and refrain from asking for support.
  • Teachers and schools are not clear about what constitutes ‘sex education’ within RSE and therefore which parts of RSE students are legally permitted to opt out of. This leads to varied approaches in different schools and some students being removed from RSE due to LGBT+ content, which is not permitted in the guidance.
  • Although limited data was collected on the prevalence and impact of opt outs, there is evidence to suggest that young people opted out of school RSE may not be receiving information about relationships and sex elsewhere, potentially preventing them for learning information and skills they need to keep themselves safe.
  • 47%

    of students want more relevant examples

  • 44%

    of students want more open discussions

Key findings – speaking to their realities

  • Students want RSE to be normalised and introduced at a younger age. They are aware of the stigma surrounding the subject and feel this impacts their quality of education.
  • Students are often exposed to materials or discussions relating to sex or relationships before formalised education is provided, which prevents school based RSE from playing its vital role in supporting young people when they need it and reinforces a stigmatisation of discussions around relationships and sex.
  • As a result of the ‘taboo’ nature of RSE in schools, RSE is sometimes an uncomfortable experience for students. Only around half (58%) of students surveyed reported feeling comfortable or extremely comfortable during RSE.
  • Stigma around engaging in school based RSE was most evident when it came to the topic of sex and pleasure, however students have expressed an interest in learning more about this topic area. Students want discussions of sex and pleasure to be normalised as understandings of healthy relationships and sexual pleasure are intrinsically linked to understandings of unhealthy and healthy relationships.
  • Strategies for normalising and creating safety in school- based RSE from the perspective of students includes discussion-based activities, a relaxed classroom lay-out and trust between students and educators.
  • Students value trust between students and teachers and want transparent communication around the limits of confidentiality and safeguarding, as they feel this would encourage help seeking.

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Read the research report for this young people project, which created digital tools to understand and address abusive behaviour in teenage relationships.

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