Healthy relationships education offers a real chance to reduce domestic violence
As part of the new-style sex education curriculum, school pupils will soon start learning about healthy intimate relationships – which could help to significantly reduce future domestic abuse in the UK. In recent research we did on this issue we spoke to various professionals who work with victims of domestic abuse. One of them told us that they believe healthy relationships education needs to be taught in schools from a young age: "I think kids should know that 'this is what we do', that 'this isn't what we do'…and it isn't just the basics of you don't hit girls."
From September 2020, new mandatory regulations will be in force in England and Wales to ensure education includes teaching "all young people how to stay safe" through the promotion of healthy relationships. All state primary schools will need to provide relationship education, and all secondary schools will provide relationship and sex education.
But independent schools and academies will not have to meet the new requirement. Parents can also opt for their children not to participate in the relationship education sessions. There is also a question around how the new curriculum will be implemented outside of mainstream education – which could include children in care.
What relationship education should look like
Preventative education on how to recognise abusive and unhealthy relationships is likely to be more cost-effective than services that deal with the aftermath of victims, or the rehabilitation of perpetrators. Educating children about healthy relationships before the age of ten is vital because after this point, attitudes and behaviours become crystallised and resistant to change.
Healthy relationships education needs to ensure that content is modernised to include topics such as coercive control, sexting, cyber-bullying, and online safety. The lessons also need to support younger learners to develop communication and conflict management skills – as well as challenging deeply rooted sexist values in society.
Relationships education should also provide children and young people with both the knowledge and skills to keep calm during initial disagreements. It should also help them to understand how to manage frustration, and avoid behaviours that escalate the argument and lead to violence.
As part of our research, we also interviewed a professional who works with perpetrators of domestic abuse in the criminal justice system. They told us that a "significant percentage" of perpetrators "don't understand what a healthy relationship actually is, so then they haven't got the skills to have one."
We hope that sexist assumptions in relationships, which underpin attitudes to domestic abuse, can be addressed as the new curriculum comes into force. Such education needs to be ongoing and not treated as a one off for there to be a change in attitudes and behaviour.
Questions over delivery
Research illustrates the effectiveness of teaching younger learners about healthy relationships and advocates that domestic abuse prevention education should become mandatory. Developing educational toolkits for teaching healthy relationships out of research findings is good practice.
Within academia and among those who are trying to stop domestic abuse, there are ongoing debates about who should be delivering domestic abuse prevention education in schools. Should it be teachers or domestic abuse experts?
As part of our research, we also spoke to professionals who work for services that provide domestic abuse prevention education. They told us how it can be hard to get into schools to deliver sessions relating to domestic abuse. So our hope is that the new legislation can help to make easier access into schools for community and voluntary sector organisations equipped to educate around this issue.
But due to funding cuts to voluntary sector organisations – including those that work to combat domestic abuse – there are fears this may not happen. This means that education sessions are likely to be led by teachers within the school – who may not yet be equipped with up-to-date information.
Schools should also be provided with adequate resources to deliver counselling services to address any issues raised through these sessions. Children need support to process their experiences of domestic abuse and any associated trauma. The same is true, in cases where relationship education leads young people to identify unhealthy behaviours in their own and other's intimate relationships.
These are just a few practical considerations to ensure the government achieves its mandate for "all" young people to get access to life saving relationship education information. About two women are killed by their partner or former partner each week in England and Wales. Effective healthy relationships education is imperative if there is to be a reduction in this figure.