It’s all about love, really! Relationship and Sex Education in Catholic schools

Matthew Dell, Chair of ATCRE (Association of Teachers of Catholic Religious Education) and Senior Lecturer at St Mary’s University, Twickenham, explores how Relationship and Sex Education in Catholic schools can enable young people to develop healthy and life-affirming relationships.

There is a lot of noise at the moment about sex education: the government has made something compulsory for schools that the majority of schools had already been doing.1 Catholic schools, in my experience, have usually been good about taking seriously their responsibility to teach sex education well. When I first started teaching over twenty-five years ago, I remember one particularly daunting experience in my first year: I had to teach some sex education lessons to a ‘challenging’ class of thirteen-year-olds. My teacher training had not prepared me for this encounter; however, armed with a good theology degree I got through it – though on reflection it could have been better. As a teacher trainer, preparing RE teachers through the PGCE at St Mary’s, I am motivated to ensure that those getting ready to go into teaching now have the opportunity to prepare and think about this important aspect of education.

My thesis
I have a straightforward argument to make here. When it comes to sex education, the focus needs to be on relationship education. This is not to belittle the ‘sex’ aspect, but to emphasise that it needs to take place within a wider context of relationship education. This is not a new argument, and it is an orthodox view within Catholic education. Interestingly, our government has slowly come around to this view, as over the years the Department for Education has changed the official name: it was for a long time simply called ‘Sex Education’; then the name was changed in 1999 to ‘Sex and Relationship Education’; now more recently in 2017 to ‘Relationship and Sex Education’ (RSE). Thus, the right ordering of the topic, relationships first, then sex. Too often the focus is on the sex aspects, neglecting the real foundations of it all, relationships.

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