Young people’s opinions on Relationships and Sexuality Education (RSE) in Belfast.
Belfast Youth Forum would like to thank our project partners:
- Queen’s University Belfast Centre for Children’s Rights (link opens in new window)
- Common Youth (link opens in new window)
This project is part of World Children’s Day celebrations to mark the 30th anniversary of the UNCRC.
Because the best way to celebrate our rights is to assert them!
- Who we are
- Why did we do this research?
- Our aims
- The facts and figures
- RSE: It’s a children’s rights issue!
- How did we do our research?
- Who took part?
- Our findings
- How do young people describe their RSE?
- Learning about sex and relationships
- RSE in school
- How useful is RSE in school?
- What subjects was RSE taught in school?
- What should be taught to young people in RSE?
- What does all this mean?
- Our recommendations
- Our references
- Thank you
Belfast Youth Forum (BYF) is the youth council for Belfast City Council.
We’re made up of 40 young people from communities across Belfast and all of our members are aged between 13-18 years old (21 years old if disabled or have just left care). We meet in Belfast City Hall twice a month and it’s our job to make sure that decision makers within local and regional government hear what young people have to say about Belfast and the issues that shape our lives.
We think government should only make decisions and policies for young people that promote, uphold and protect our rights.
To try and make this happen, we organise youth-led campaigns, events and consultations with young people across Belfast to raise awareness of rights issues and influence change. We also create research projects on issues such as hidden homelessness, shared youth spaces, poverty and mental health based on listening to what young people have to say. We share these views with decision makers in government and advocate for rights-based youth policies and services.
Our ‘Any Use?’ research project is our latest youth-led campaign.
- Throughout 2017 and 2018, BYF held a number of youth consultations in Belfast including an event called ‘Rights Here! Rights Now!’ with the Lord Mayor in City Hall, which 120 young people attended.
- Young people identified and explored rights issues in Belfast through youth-led workshops during these consultations.
- A theme that young people raised time and time again is the need for good quality Relationship and Sexuality Education (RSE).
- Young people spoke constantly about their current RSE not meeting their needs and wanting RSE provision to improve in schools.
- Because RSE had been highlighted by young people as an issue, BYF decided to select it as one of our campaign areas.
- We think young people can provide important insights into RSE and are the best people to help inform and shape what RSE in schools looks like.
- Young people’s voices should be heard on this issue and our opinions taken seriously by decision makers working to improve RSE. We want our research to help make this happen.
We wanted our research to find out:
- young people’s opinions on RSE in Belfast
- how useful young people find their current RSE
- if young people understand their rights in relation to RSE.
We want to use the information we gather to ensure young people’s voices are included in RSE policy decisions moving forward.
- It is recognised that good quality RSE gives young people the knowledge, skills, attitudes and values they need to negotiate safe and healthy sexual relationships. 1
- With good quality RSE, young people are better able to understand and uphold sexual rights and gender equality, and take responsibility for their own and their partner’s sexual health and well-being. 2
- When it comes to RSE, young people’s voices and views are missing. RSE is most often designed and implemented from an educator (adult) perspective and fails to explore what young people themselves understand about their rights and readiness for RSE, what they think is age appropriate content, how they felt RSE should be delivered in schools and who should deliver it. 3
- In a recent Department of Education consultation on RSE in England (2019), only 2% of the 11,150+ respondents were young people.4
- As a result of young people being ignored in debates and consultations on RSE, gaps occur in the RSE they receive.5
- In NI, while the Department of Education provides guidance to primary and secondary level schools, schools are free to develop their own policy on how they address RSE within the curriculum.
- This runs the risk of RSE varying greatly in quality and content, being irrelevant and not grounded in the reality of young people’s lived experiences. 6
- It also leaves RSE open to being influenced by the religion and ethos of the school and therefore increases the risk of RSE being biased and non-factual.
Article 24 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) says:
‘Every child has the right to the best possible health. Governments must provide good quality health care…and education on health and wellbeing so that children can stay healthy.’
The right to sexual and reproductive health is an integral part of the right to health and a particular focus in the UNCRC General Comment No. 20 on the implementation of the rights of the child during adolescence (CRC/GC/20), which states,
‘All adolescents should have access to free, confidential, adolescent-responsive and non-discriminatory sexual and reproductive health services, information and education.’ (XI59)
The Department of Education and the Department of Health have a responsibility to ensure young people have RSE provision that upholds this right. Local councils like Belfast City Council, with their Community Planning powers, also have an important role to play in working with government partners to help create rights based RSE provision for young people.
Like all Belfast Youth Forum projects, our RSE report is a piece of work done by young people for young people.
We asked Queen's University Centre for Children’s Rights to support our research project because they are experts at working with young researchers, and they use child rights-based methods and processes when working with young people on research projects.
The QUB Centre for Children’s Rights helped us to:
- develop our online survey
- gain ethical approval for our research
- collect surveys from young people
- analyse our findings
- create our research report.
We also asked Common Youth to work with us because they are experts at working with young people to explore relationships, sexual health and sexuality.
Common Youth helped us to:
- understand current RSE policy and provision
- design our survey questions
- collect surveys from young people.
We knew that working with Queen’s University and Common Youth would help make our work more credible and would produce a stronger report.
- Our research was carried out from August to September 2019.
- Young people who took part were aged 14 to 24.
- We used an online survey to gather our information.
- Young people also completed paper-based surveys at BYF’s ‘Party in the Park’ event and in Common Youth’s drop-in clinic.
- A total of 771 young people completed our survey.
- From September to October 2019, we analysed the findings of our research with Queen’s University and created our report.
- We used the information young people gave us to create our recommendations for government at the end of this report.
- We launched our report in Belfast City Hall on 21 November 2019.
- 771 young people took part in our survey.
- 67% of participants were female.
- 31% percent were male.
- 2% identified as neither male nor female.
- 79% lived in Belfast.
- 70% attended a school in Belfast.
Age breakdown of participants in survey
A right to receive RSE
We asked young people if they had a right to receive RSE in school and whether or not they thought this right was being met.
- 72% of young people who took part in the survey said they knew they had a right to receive RSE in school.
- 52% of young people said they felt their right to RSE was not being met.
- The proportion of 14-16 year olds saying their right was met (56%) was significantly higher than the proportion of those 17 or over saying this (43%).
- Only 23% felt that adults trusted young people to make their own choices about relationships and sex.
- 58% felt that adults did not trust them and one in five (20%) said they did not know if adults trusted them in this regard.
We asked young people to tell us three words that best described the RSE they received in school.
Overall, negative word associations dominated young people’s answers.
The four most commonly used negative word associations were:
Other frequently used negative associations were:
The three most popular sources from which young people said they learn about relationships and sex were:
- friends and peers (62%)
- social media (55%)
- lessons in school (54%).
Boys were much more likely than girls to use the internet as a source of information. In fact, for boys this was the main source of information.
For girls, however, friends and peer group were most common followed by social media.
From which of the following do you learn about sex and relationships
(multiple responses were permitted)
|Friends or peer group||64||58||62|
|Lessons at school||55||54||54|
|TV and films||39||41||39|
|Boyfriend or girlfriend||31||31||31|
|Magazines, papers, books, posters||19||13||17|
|Family planning clinic, Brook or
|Brother or sister||12||9||11|
|None of these||*||*||1|
|All of these sources||<1||3||1|
Young people were asked a range of questions about RSE in schools.
- The vast majority of young people (86%) felt that school was the best place to receive RSE.
- Yet only 66% of respondents said they had actually received RSE in school.
- 14 to 16 year olds (71%) were more likely to say that they had received RSE in school than those aged 17 years or over (63%).
- This may help explain why more 14 to 16 year olds said they knew they had a right to RSE than young people over the age of 16 did.
- 55% of young people first received RSE in school when they were between 11 and 13 years of age.
- One third (32%) said they did not receive RSE until they were between 14 and 16 years of age.
- Only 10% of young people had received RSE before they were 11 years of age, for example,in primary school.
We asked young people to rate how useful their RSE in school was.
- 60% of young people felt that the information they received was either ‘not very useful’ or ‘not useful at all’.
- Only 10% said that they thought the information they received in RSE was ‘very useful’.
- 30% felt it was ‘useful’.
- The later young people first received information about relationships and sex, the less useful they find this information.
- For example, 60% of those who first received RSE at 16+ found the information wasn’t useful. This compares with just 21% who first received information about relationships and sex when they were 8 to 10 years old.
- 73% of young people said they only received RSE ‘once or twice’ or ‘rarely’.
- Only 5% reported that they had received RSE ‘often’.
RSE was most likely to be covered in Biology or Science classes.
In what subjects was RSE taught in school?
(multiple response table)
|Biology or science||32%|
Nearly half (49%) of young people felt that the way RSE was taught was influenced by religion or the ethos of the school they attended.
However, nearly three quarters of young people felt that RSE should not be influenced by the school’s religion or ethos.
Only 12% felt that it should be.
We asked young people how they felt RSE should be delivered in schools and who should deliver it.
- The overwhelming majority of young people (77%) thought a taught course as part of an existing subject or a special RSE curriculum programme was the best way to deliver RSE.
- Only 7% of young people thought RSE should be delivered through one-off ‘talks’ in school.
- This finding is particularly stark given 73% of young people told us they have only received RSE in school ‘once or twice’ or ‘rarely’.
How should RSE best be taught?
|Built into an existing subject such as LLW||39%|
|As an in-depth curriculum programme||38%|
|Through a youth programme||14%|
|As a one-off talk||7%|
Who should deliver RSE to young people?
|A qualified RSE teacher||42%|
|Young people who are trained to deliver RSE||18%|
|An expert or guest from an outside organisation||14%|
|A regular teacher (e.g form teacher)||12%|
|A youth worker||8%|
|A child protection or pastoral care teacher||6%|
By far the most commonly given response in relation to who should teach RSE was ‘a qualified RSE teacher’.
What influence should young people have in the delivery of RSE?
(multiple response table)
|Giving feedback on RSE classes||89%|
|Advising on how RSE is taught||81%|
|Helping to choose the content||75%|
|Choosing who delivers RSE||66%|
|Delivering RSE sessions||59%|
An overwhelming majority felt that young people should have an influence in how RSE is taught.
At what age?
Over half of respondents felt that young people should start to be taught about personal and sexual relationships when they are between 11 and 13 years of age.
Age at which respondents felt young people should start to be taught about personal and sexual relationships
|Age||Personal relationships||Sexual relationships|
- The most popular subject young people wanted to learn about was personal relationships (66%).
- Of the top 10 most popular subjects young people wanted to learn about in RSE, six of these related to personal relationships.
- Given the majority of young people in our survey told us they receive RSE in biology or science classes, it is unclear how young people’s self-identified desire to explore and learn about personal relationships is currently being met in schools.
- The next most popular subjects for young people were sexual intercourse (64%) and the prevention of STIs (62%).
- Personal relationships, sexual intercourse and STI prevention were chosen subjects by more than six out of ten young people.
- 43% of young people said that all the subject areas listed should be included in RSE.
What should be taught to young people in RSE?
|Prevention of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) e.g Chlamydia, Gonorrhoea, Syphilis and HIV/AIDS||62|
|Love and respect||58|
|Differences between healthy and unhealthy sexual relationships||58|
|Issues around giving or obtaining sexual consent||55|
|Different family types like two parent families, single parent families, same sex parent families etc.||52|
|Issues experienced by the opposite sex||46|
|Different opinions openly discussed, even if they do not agree with the teacher’s or school’s point of view||44|
|Masturbation and erections||42|
|All of the above||43|
- The vast majority of the young people surveyed were aware they had a right to RSE but many agreed that this right was not being met.
- While 66% of the respondents had received some RSE at school, the frequency, content and delivery of this was deemed basic, unhelpful, useless and biased.
- Only 10% said that the information they received was ‘very useful’.
- Our young people’s current experience of receiving RSE ‘rarely’ (73%) and ‘while in biology or science class’, and mostly ‘influenced by the school religion or ethos’, is not good enough and is not helping our young people to make healthy and safe decisions as they transition to intimate relationships.
- It is also evident that the later young people receive RSE, the less useful it is to them.
- As a result, young people reported that they resort to friends (62%) and social media (55%) for the information they need to know, and the internet was the main source of information for boys.
- This risks exposing young people to misinformation, myths, misconceptions and inaccuracies about sexual health and relationships.
- Despite their critique of current RSE provision in school, an overwhelming amount of young people felt that school was the best place to receive RSE (86%).
- But it should be delivered during a more in-depth taught course (77%), and by a qualified RSE teacher.
- To address issues, concerns or questions young people may have that are not being met by current RSE provision, 86% felt that young people voices should be included.
- In this way, they can help inform on content, design and delivery of RSE thus making it more relevant and useful to their actual needs.
- Interestingly, the most popular issue young people wanted to learn about during RSE was how to negotiate personal relationships (66%), and the majority thought that age 11 is a good time to start RSE.
We want our government and policy makers to:
1. Adopt a rights-based and proactive approach to RSE
We want a rights-based, proactive and positive approach to relationship and sexuality education.
This approach should be based on the public health, education and support needs of our young people. It should help young people understand sexual rights, sexuality and sexual behaviours and how these impact on their, and others, health and wellbeing.
We think this should be done using a multi-sectoral approach where decision makers, policy makers, educationalists and service providers work together.
We want to see an end to reactive approaches to RSE that may come too late and focus on treatment as opposed to prevention to a move towards a proactive approach that focuses on eliminating problems before they appear.
2. Co-produce a curriculum programme and relevant interventions with young people
Work with young people to develop age appropriate, relevant and inclusive RSE programme for schools. This should be a mandatory part of the school curriculum.
As part of this work, current RSE content should be broadened to include issues around:
• personal relationships
• sexual rights and behaviours
• gender equality and diversity
• responsible parenthood
• violence prevention
• preventing unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections.
Policy makers and service providers should also work in collaboration with young people to review the nature and extent of barriers they face in accessing RSE and sexual health services, and co-produce RSE interventions with young people to enhance relevance and applicability of this to the reality of their lives.
3. Specialist staff to deliver RSE
We want co-produced education programmes to be delivered by specialised, qualified and trained staff who fully respect the rights of young people to privacy and non-discrimination.
RSE information and interventions should be made available in alternative formats to ensure accessibility to all young people including those with literacy issues and disabilities.
It is also important to note that while this study focusses on young people and RSE while at school, we also have sub groups of youth who may miss this, for example, young people excluded from school, in care, incarcerated or withdrawn from classes by parents.
Therefore, when designing co-produced RSE interventions, it is important to engage with these groups of young people also and produce interventions that can be used across contexts and not just in schools.
We want to say a big thank you to all the young people who took part in our research. Without your help, none of this would have been possible.
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Department for Education. (2019). Relationships Education, Relationships and Sex Education, and Health Education in England. Government consultation response. (link opens in new window)
Ketting, E., Friele, M. and Michielsen, K. (2016). Evaluation of holistic sexuality education:
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Public Health Authority. (2019). Sexually Transmitted Infection Surveillance in Northern Ireland 2019 An analysis of data for the calendar year 2018
https://www.publichealth.hscni.net/sites/default/files/2019-08/STI%20surveillance%20report%202019.pdf (link opens in new window)
Rasmussen, M. L. (2010) ‘Secularism, religion and ‘progressive’ sex education’, Sexualities, 13(6), 699-712.
Sex Education Forum. (2016). Heads or tails? What young people are telling us about SRE? London: National Children’s Bureau (NCB).
Smith, A., Fotinatos, N., Duffy, B. and Burke, J. (2013). The provision of sexual health education in Australia: Primary school teachers’ perspectives in rural Victoria. Sex Education, 13(3), 247-262.
Templeton, M., Lohan, M., Kelly, C., & Lundy, L. (2017). A systematic review and qualitative synthesis of adolescents’ views of sexual readiness. Jour Advanced Nursing, 73(6), 1288-1301 http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/jan.13207/full (link opens in new window)
World Health Organisation (Who). (2016). Global Health Sector Strategy on Sexually Transmitted Infections 2016–2021: Towards Ending STIs. WHO Document Production Services, Geneva, Switzerland. https://apps.who.int/iris/bitstream/handle/10665/246296/WHO-RHR-16.09-eng.pdf;jsessionid=E52A6CBEF2C18CE344E7BF768C42F643?sequence=1 (link opens in new window)
- Ketting et al. 2016, Templeton et al., 2017, UNESCO, 2018.
- Ketting et al. 2016, Templeton et al., 2017, UNESCO, 2018.
- Smith et al. 2013.
- Department for Education (England), 2019.
- Sex Education Forum, 2016.
- Rasmussen, 2010, Templeton et al., 2017.