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What is the recipe for a successful relationship and how should we teach school children?

Posted on October 22nd 2018

The Personal, Social, Health and Economic (PSHE) Education Association recommend that school children are taught about sex and relationships during their schooling years. Despite it not being a statutory requirement, the 2002 Education Act requires that all schools should teach a curriculum that ‘meets the needs of pupils’ and ‘prepares them for responsibilities and experiences of later life’. 

Incorporating relationship education into the school curriculum provides an opportunity to equip young people with the knowledge and skills required for healthy intimate relationships. While acknowledging that some schools are already teaching relationship education well, the importance of universal coverage is a stated motive for the upcoming move of relationship and sex education (RSE) to become a mandatory part of the secondary school curriculum in the UK (Department for Education, 2017). Additionally, some students considered PSHE lessons to ‘avoid discussion of sexual and emotional feelings’.

The Shackleton Relationships project aims to provide guidance for the tuition of healthy relationships in schools. The project is an innovative collaboration between researchers in Exeter University’s Law School and Medical School. The research team, led by Professor Anne Barlow and including PenCLAHRC’s Dr Astrid Janssens, aimed to explore the critical questions that should be asked prior to entering a relationship to help to increase its chances of success. Whilst also considering what type of relationship educational tool(s) might help young people to make better decisions in this area. 

To discover key factors of healthy and happy relationships researchers worked with divorce lawyers/mediators and judges to identify ‘key elements of relationship failure’, and also interviewed a diverse range of couples who had been married for at least 10 years over an extended period of time. From this ten key attributes and skills were identified as the recipe for thriving relationships, these included: underlying friendship, being realistic, seeing the best in each other, willingness to working at your relationship, being committed, communication, building a relationship that suites both partners’ needs, adapting to change and creating a support network.  

Additionally, researchers also engaged with young people to understand what they regard as important and cross referenced this data with data from couples and outcomes of a recent systematic review on skills delivered by existing programmes to examine if there were any similarities or differences. There was a variation in the order of importance, but ‘respect’ and ‘open communication’ were both ranked high by all groups.

Working with younger people also provided insight into effective methods of communicating findings, and into developing ideas for platforms and methods to disseminate information. Students suggested that drama workshops may prove effective when initiating discussions on topics of intimacy. They also advised the use of technology such as apps and online games to support learning, due to them being frequently used by younger people, widely accessible and private. A final action taken from this study was the creation of a series of questions that should be asked by couples seeking to commit to a permanent relationship. Answers from these questions should help them identify compatibility and ultimately increase chances of a thriving and healthy long-lasting relationship.  

Astrid Janssens said: “When we visited schools, most young people were very engaged in the tasks during the workshop – with one of the tasks being to prioritise relationship skills in same and mixed gender groups. Whilst these activities intended to explore which topics resonate with young people, we instantly felt there was a need to talk about relationships and not sex (in the biological sense).”

Some comments made by students during the sessions were ‘I think activities like what we are doing now are like really effective.’ Another students said, ‘This is really interesting, because we get to see what the other people want from a relationship.’

You can read more about this study and the compatibility questions in the research summary or full report.