Exploring pupils' perceptions regarding their RSE/PSHE lessons

In this blog, we explore pupils' feelings about safeguarding and related topics in the current curriculum. We also examine ways to improve safeguarding in the RSE curriculum. In our report, The Pupil Safeguarding Review: Safeguarding in the Curriculum, written together with The Key, we looked into:

In this image you can see the three things we asked pupils about: 

1) Coverage of the RSE/PSHE curriculum: what pupils have learned in lessons and what they would like to learn more about;

2) Pupil perceptions of value: how useful they perceived their RSE/PSHE lessons to be and what they think would make their lessons more useful;

3) Support from teachers: how often their teachers could answer their questions on RSE and the types of questions teachers couldn't answer.

Here we’ll also take a  deeper look into pupil perceptions of value – how useful pupils found their RSE/PSHE lessons. Exploring what different groups of pupils reported wanting to learn more about by looking at some of their open answers.

How useful do pupils find their RSE lessons?

In our most recent report, The Pupil Safeguarding Review: Safeguarding in the Curriculum, we found that the older pupils are, the less likely they were to report finding RSE/PSHE lessons useful. Only 49% of secondary pupils found their RSE/PHSE lessons useful. A stark contrast with 83% of primary pupils who said their RSE/PSHE lessons were useful.

How useful are your lessons about relationships, safety and how to behave?

In this image we can see the positive percentages by year group for the question "how useful are your lessons about relationships, safety and how to behave?" (RSE curriculum lessons)  it shows pupils getting less positive the older they get.

In their commentary, The Key discusses that, as pupils progress through school, exams increasingly become the focus of their school life. This is useful to take into consideration when trying to explain why as they get older, pupils seem to view RSE/PSHE lessons to be less useful. Pupils may see PSHE and RSE lessons as not contributing to the end goal of passing exams. Older pupils are also more likely to access information about these topics elsewhere.

What do pupils want to learn more about?

Primary pupils

The top 3 topics that pupils wanted to learn more about differed by phase. Primary-aged pupils ranked being safe, mental health and wellbeing, and being respectful as the topic they most wanted to learn about.

would you like to learn more about any of these topics?

This image shows primary pupils responses to the question "would you like to learn more about any of these topics (From the RSE curriculum)? Please click all that apply." They reported wanted to learn more about being safe most frequently.

Secondary pupils

For secondary, being safe and respectful were less of a priority. Secondary pupils were most interested in learning more about mental health and wellbeing, intimate relationships, and relationships with friends.

would you like to learn more about any of these topics?

This image shows secondary pupils responses to the question "would you like to learn more about any of these topics (From the RSE curriculum)? Please click all that apply." They reported wanted to learn more about mental health and wellbeing most frequently.

Notably, 32% of secondary pupils reported that none of these topics were of relevance to them. This suggests that as secondary pupils progress in their education, they see RSE/PSHE lessons as less useful. We took the topics for these questions from government guidance on what primary and secondary schools should teach. We referred to the RSE curriculum and the national PSHE curriculum guidance for this information.

To see how pupils’ perceptions differed through various lenses, such as year groups, gender, ethnicity and sexual orientation, take a look at our full report.

Link to our Report Download page.

How could RSE curriculum lessons be made more useful? (Pupils' perspectives)

In The Pupil Safeguarding Review, we asked pupils to share, in their own words, how lessons could be made more useful. 


This image is a wordcloud that shows the comments of pupils who completed our surveys, telling us how lessons could be made more useful. particularly RSE curriculum lessons.

Some topics, such as life lessons and realistic examples, came up a lot, regardless of the pupils’ phase or demographics. Pupils from different age and orientation groups place more emphasis on certain topics, such as diverse representation.

Representation in the RSE curriculum

Pupils who identified as having a sexual orientation other than heterosexual were more likely to discuss desires for greater representation of all groups of pupils within society. Some comments about representation in lessons included:

Quotes from pupils about representation in the RSE curriculum 
“Making them more inclusive, e.g. looking at LGBTQ+ issues rather than just hetronormative and cisgender relationships.” 

“make the lesson more understandable and meaningful. add more diversity to examples to show people that multiracial, same-sex (etc.) relationships are normal. try to normalise things and educate on why things are wrong instead of simply referring to them.”

“Education on LGBTQIA+ relationships, intimacy, romantic relationships, boundaries.”

Relationships in the RSE Curriculum

In the open-answer responses, pupils regularly mentioned relationships when we asked them how to make RSE/PSHE lessons more useful. Pupils across genders referred to understanding how to identify and respond to unsafe behaviours in their own or others' relationships. Additionally, pupils with sexual orientations other than heterosexual (straight) were eager to have all types of relationships included in the curriculum and lessons.

Quotes from pupils about relationships in the RSE curriculum “explain how to maintain healthy relationships (and when/how to walk away) and balance things out rather than just telling people to ensure their relationships are healthy.”

“We could learn about how to maintain these relationships and how some of these could be unhealthy. We only really covered what these relationships could be, but we didn't learn about why these may be unacceptable and how we can talk to people, even when we feel as if we cannot.”

“Actually, talk about relationships and sex that isn't for cisgender heterosexual people. Other types of relationships exist. Also, acknowledge that not everyone experiences the same things and that some people don't want a relationship / aren't sexually attracted to people (aro or ace), and this isn't a bad thing.”

Realistic examples in the RSE curriculum

One of the themes that stood out from the open answers was the interest in more “realistic examples”. Pupils want to see this being included in the delivery of RSE/PSHE lessons.

Quotes from pupils about realistic examples in the RSE curriculum.

“Talk about realistic situations and the things that help us future in future life.”

“In my opinion, we should include more real-life examples when we are learning about these topics to make the lesson itself more engaging.”

”They seem quite fake, and I think they could give us more realistic situations, plus we learnt most of this in primary school.”

Other key themes in pupils’ responses

In our report, we explore other common themes from pupils' open-answer responses. Themes such as lesson engagement, mental health, and life lessons. We look at these through multiple lenses, exploring differences in comments and suggestions by demographic details.

What next?

In the "Safeguarding in the Curriculum" report, The Key offer commentary on how staff could improve the usefulness of lessons by developing the RSE/PSHE curriculum. They also highlight resources that they feel will support school leaders in delivering high-quality lessons.

Planning lessons with pedagogy in mind

Commentary from They Key. Regarding the RSE curriculum.

Making lessons more useful for secondary pupils

Commentary from The Key. Regarding the RSE curriculum.

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