The Whole School Approach: How we can make Sex and Relationships work for our young people

This month we are really excited to have a guest blog from Tamara Kaz. Tamara was instrumental in helping us build this website and now works for EVAW who AVA work closely with to develop responses to prevent VAWG. You can check out Tamara’s blog in the Huffington Post here.

Remember if you want to write a guest blog for us, please contact us!

 

The Whole School Approach: How we can make Sex and Relationships work for our young people

I am delighted to write about taking on a Whole School Approach to combat violence against women and girls on behalf of End Violence Against Women Coalition (EVAW). Having helped populate the educational resources section of the Prevention Platform site with AVA and worked with teenagers in both educational settings and sexual health services, I’ve seen first hand how important teaching Sex and Relationships Education (SRE) expansively to young people is.

But no need to take my word for it – earlier this year, the University of Bristol published a comprehensive study into teen relationships which showed that more than four in ten teenage schoolgirls have experienced sexual coercion and many have suffered physical attacks, intimidation or emotional abuse from boyfriends. The study also found that four in ten teenage boys regularly view pornography and one in five harbour extremely negative attitudes towards women.

In schools, as elsewhere, girls and women are disproportionately affected by sexual violence and abuse and boys and men are disproportionately the perpetrators.  Education establishments are often on the frontline responding to Violence Against Women and Girls (VAWG), so it is vital that schools are instrumental to its prevention.

Children and teens need to be equipped with information on how to navigate healthy platonic, familial, romantic and sexual relationships. In support of this, the curriculum needs to cover sexual consent, gender stereotypes and pornography; not just the basic mechanics of intercourse and a condom demo on a banana – to continue with sex ed in this vein is a disservice to our young people. There are some great educational resources out there to facilitate teachers in leading SRE lessons, but when teaching SRE is optional and teachers’ hands are frequently forced to prioritise exam results over pupils’ personal development, it’s no surprise that these fantastic resources are often left on the shelf. If the lessons were made compulsory, it could allow teachers the space to teach SRE more comfortably. Here at EVAW, we have been campaigning for compulsory Sex and Relationships Education as part of our Schools Safe 4 Girls campaign.  Making SRE a formal part of the curriculum, if done comprehensively, could open up dialogue and understanding between pupils and teachers, actively negate harmful, sexist attitudes and empower young people to recognise and prevent abuse.

However, Sex and Relationships Education alone is not enough to end VAWG in our schools.  Sex and Relationships Education is most effective when couched in a learning environment committed to discouraging VAWG at all levels, or a ‘Whole School Approach’. Vitally, the Whole School Approach ensures positive activity in one area of work is not undermined elsewhere. For example, SRE lessons on respectful and equal relationships in the classroom are difficult to take seriously if the educational context ignores sexual harassment in the corridors outside.

The Whole School Approach forms a framework for embedding VAWG prevention work across the education environment to give young people and staff consistent, positive messaging around responding to, challenging and preventing violence against women and girls within their establishment and the local community.

But what would Whole School Approach look like? Best practice could mean delivering on-going training and support to all staff (teaching and non-teaching) on VAWG-specific safeguarding, including how to recognise signs of abuse and how to respond to harmful behaviour and disclosures of abuse. Being able to respond to disclosures appropriately is particularly important in the context of having delivered an SRE lesson or assembly, as honest discussion of violence and abuse can prompt victims/survivors to come forward. If disclosures are handled inappropriately it may affect the student’s trust and sense of safety in the school or exacerbate the risk of further abuse. What’s more, if staff are not equipped to handle disclosures sensitively, the important messages of the SRE lesson are subsequently undermined and may prevent others from coming forward.  Once disclosures have been made or abuse has come to light, specialist support for both pupils and staff who have experienced VAWG, regardless of whether they choose to report to police, is imperative and conducive to a safer educational environment. Policies such as these and being in touch with local support services for help are essential components of an effective Whole School Approach.

Tackling all forms of VAWG and gender inequality in the curriculum, for example examining gender stereotypes in literature/historical narratives; questioning sexism in the media; and ensuring women writers, artists, scientists and historical figures are acknowledged and studied, are all ways of fostering an environment that challenges VAWG on all levels. When women and girls are shown to be respected and valued through study, it reinforces the message that women and girls in school – peers, teachers, staff (and by extension, women and girls in general), are worthy of the same respect. Respectful attitudes could be encouraged by ensuring bullying policies include VAWG-specific responses and take a zero tolerance approach to sexist language and name-calling.

AVA have done extensive work into shaping Whole School Approaches, so if you’d like to find out more about them, this is the place to look! What we have seen is that one-off isolated responses to violence against women and girls will not produce safe environments for young people. Sex and Relationships Education is vital but it should not exist in a vacuum – SRE is useless if the tenets of consent, respect and gender equality are only upheld in PSHE lesson plans. The Whole School Approach seeks to extend these attitudes to the corridors, the playgrounds, the community and beyond and contribute to a safer learning environment for everyone.

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