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Exclusive data gathered by VICE shows that a quarter of local authorities in England are not commissioning specialist training for secondary school teachers to deliver Relationships and Sex Education (RSE), over a year after it was made compulsory for all pupils.
Just over a quarter (13) of the 51 local authorities that responded to VICE World News offered zero funding for specialist RSE training for teachers from experienced professionals in sexual health.
Since 2013, local authorities have been responsible for sexual health services in England, using funding from the government’s public health grant.
As part of this work, they are expected to commission services that support young people’s sexual health and wellbeing, often including resources, signposting and active involvement with local schools, which spans anything from in-person workshops and lesson plans to the provision of leaflets and digital links directing to local services.
While local authorities only have control over locally-maintained schools – which form about 35 percent of all state secondary schools – the public health grant is supposed to support the health of everybody in the local area.
Back in 2019 when schools were preparing to roll out the new curriculum, Councillor Izzi Seccombe OBE of the Local Government Association said: “It is vital that local authorities work with all schools in their area to influence and commission consistent good quality RSE as part of their responsibilities to improve public health outcomes for children, young people and families.”
But VICE data also shows that 53 percent of local authorities did not commission external visitors from sexual and reproductive health services to contribute to resources or guidance in local schools. Local authorities that did provide these services meant young people were able to access everything from an LGBTQ educational programme to sessions on contraception, as well as giving teachers access to specialised training around areas like consent.
“What it confirms is the sense that although the government made RSE compulsory, the classroom is probably not going to be the place young people get the best information on this topic,” says Lucy Whitehouse, founder of digital sex education charity Fumble.
“It feels like a postcode lottery for young people which is unacceptable and not adequate given they are facing increasing pressures in the digital age.”
Numerous local authorities that responded to VICE did also support other schools in the area beyond just those that they maintained, including institutions like academies and independent schools, which are run independently of local authority control.
But some areas specified that they had no funding for RSE at all in their local area because all or most of the schools were academies. Several were also not able to provide their budgets or breakdowns for the programmes they ran with schools, and the ones that did showed that there is significantly disparate funding between areas.
Annual budgets specifically focused on delivering RSE ranged from everything from just £1,225 for one area in 2020 to £94,120 for another area this upcoming year.
“How do we know what anyone is doing when they aren’t being transparent or using an agreed formula for talking about how much you’re investing in RSE?” asks Lisa Hallgarten, head of policy and public affairs at sexual health charity Brook.
She added that a significant number of local authorities were failing to meet a gold standard of provision between external support and trained nurses and teachers: “The gold standard would be that you have teachers who are trained and motivated and confident to deliver RSE, who opt into that, and that you have school nurses who can supplement RSE and run on site services. All of that combined with external experts to supplement any gaps in provision, competence and confidence.”
Five local authorities did not commission any guidance for schools that could signpost young people to local sexual health services, despite the statutory RSE guidance requiring all secondary schools to provide pupils with information about local sexual and reproductive health services.
This is in addition to the government’s 2018 Teenage Pregnancy Prevention Framework, which asks that local authorities work in schools and education environments to raise awareness and establish “clear pathways” between RSE and one-to-one confidential advice.
A Local Government Association spokesperson said: “Councils across the country work hard with schools in their area to influence and commission consistent good quality relationship and sex education as part of their responsibilities to improve public health outcomes for children, young people and families.
“Councils are one of a number of organisations who deliver this support in schools, although are more limited in their involvement in academies and free schools. In some areas, school nurses provide vital specialist advice and guidance to children and young people about sex and relationships education.
“Public health funding grants to local areas have been reduced by £700 million in real terms from over the last seven years, despite increasing demand for services. A real terms funding increase will allow councils to deliver vital outreach services in schools as well as increase the number of school nurses in local areas.”
The Department of Education said that it planned to issue £6 million in funding to help schools access training to deliver RSE when it was first announced – but sex education charities said that £60 million that would be needed to realistically train the country.
A previous VICE World News investigation also found that a tiny minority of teachers had accessed the government’s free training modules to deliver the new RSE curriculum.
Hallgarten added: “I think the consequences will always be that the people most vulnerable will come out of it worst. So the people who are more likely to experience unwanted early pregnancy, more vulnerable to STIs – there will continue to be distinct sexual health inequalities.”
The Department of Health declined to answer questions regarding sexual health services for young people of secondary-school age and its relation to the public health grant.
The Department of Education told VICE: “Schools have a duty to provide Relationships, Sex and Health Education to all secondary age pupils and relationships and health education to all primary age pupils.
“We have invested millions in the rollout of the curriculum and are continuing to support teachers with training and guidance, so that they can gain the knowledge and confidence to teach the curriculum and foster open conversations with their students.”
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