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The evidence is in; Relationships and Sexuality Education does not work

There is “little relationship between receiving Relationships and Sexuality Education (RSE) or not and young people’s sexual behaviour and competence”. This is the huge finding of a new report from the Economic and Social Research Institute, not that the finding would jump out at you when reading it. You have to go looking (it’s on pages 14 and 71), but it demolishes at a stroke the massively over-inflated claims about the efficacy, the necessity, the urgency of RSE in schools.

The report [1] is called ‘Talking about Sex and Sexual Behaviour of Young Adults in Ireland’. It is mainly concerned with how easily teenagers can talk to their parents and teachers among others about sexual relationships, and that is what has been covered in the media.

But almost in passing the report admits that RSE makes little difference to teenage sexual behaviour. In fact, that is probably overstating it because in three key areas it found it makes no discernible difference at all, namely age at which first sexual intercourse occurred, whether contraception was used, and whether the young person regretted the first time they had sex. (See pages 40, 43 and 54).

What does make a difference are factors like family structure (one or two parent family), socio-economic background and the mother’s education.

This being so, why do successive Governments place so much faith in RSE when there is so little basis for that faith? It seems a triumph of wishful thinking, and probably ideology as well, over facts.

Everything on the school curriculum needs to be justified because time is precious and there is so much to be learnt. RSE must fight for its place and it needs evidence it has the desired effects to support that place. The evidence does not exist.

The claims about RSE are a bit like those made about the beneficial effects of day-care. Two ERSI studies have found [2] that day-care has no lasting benefits for the great majority of children, but this does not seem to alter politicians’ and campaigners’ insistence that we spend more and more money on it. ‘Quality’ is the key, they say. They still hope that one day evidence supporting their faith will turn up. It hasn’t to date.

Similarly, the ERSI report wonders if high quality RSE might have the desired effect, without offering any evidence in support of this hope.

It’s time to admit that the game is up; RSE does not work.

PS. The ERSI report backs other studies from overseas which also call into serious question the efficacy of RSE-type programmes. See here [3].