Should schools be teaching about healthy relationships?

Sex education is taught in schools, but healthy relationships are currently missed completely from the curriculum.
13 February 2017

Sex education is taught in schools and is very much focused on self control, but healthy relationships are currently missed completely from the curriculum. It takes more than self control to sustain a healthy relationship, from romance to friendship, and as the 75-year longitudinal Harvard study found - healthy relationships are key to our overall happiness. So does this crucial subject require some structured and informed teaching?

Why should schools start teaching relationship education?

We investigated wellbeing in the UK in our Eudaimonia report and an important factor highlighted was that people who surround themselves with healthy relationships have the highest uplift in wellbeing. Those who had the lowest scores in wellbeing were the ones with poor relationships and those who were rarely with their friends or family.

People who surround themselves with healthy relationships have the highest uplift in wellbeing.
Source: Eudaimonia report, Central YMCA.

Authors of Phi Delta Kappan, a book about classroom practice, policy, research, professional issues, and innovations in education, advise that an inability to build and sustain a relationship will affect not only the student’s academic career, but their entire adult life. Where unhealthy relationships contribute to domestic problems, stress and financial difficulties, healthy romantic relationships encourage healthier lifestyles and even higher wages.

What do students think?

The same researchers for Phi Delta Kappan conducted a survey with high school and college students from diverse backgrounds. It found the students were strong supporters of relationship education, as they expect sex education in schools to provide advice on how to form healthy relationships. 

Some 70% of students wanted the discussions in sex education to delve deeper into subjects such as, “how to develop a mature relationship” and 46% wanted the education to veer toward advice on how to deal with breakups.

Lack of relationship education: the potential dangers

1,835 children and young people were living in a domestic abuse refuge in 2015.
Source: Annual Survey 2015, Women’s Aid.

With 4.5 million women and 2.2 million men having experienced domestic abuse in 2014/15 since the age of 16, it’s clear that this problem needs to be addressed from many angles, one being education. Without the right advice and prevention tools, young people are missing the training required to deal with or identify unhealthy and destructive relationships. This will have detrimental effects to their mental and physical health, creating a generation that has an even larger proportion of unhappy people.

The Women’s Aid Annual Survey 2015 found that there were 1,835 children and young people living in a domestic abuse refuge; a further 1,984 children received direct support from community-based domestic abuse services in just one week. If children know how to recognise abusive behaviour in a partner and shut the relationship down before it escalates, would these numbers fall?

What would the curriculum for relationship education look like?

How to make a relationship healthy:

  • Understanding how to communicate effectively with your partner.
  • How to listen to your partner’s feelings without blame or judgement.
  • How to manage conflict.
  • How to set boundaries.
  • Tools on how to sustain a healthy relationship. 

How to identify relationship issues:

  • How to recognise negative behaviour, such as manipulation, in your partner.
  • How to manage negative behaviour in your partner.
  • How to manage your own negative behaviour.
  • Myths of domestic violence.
  • How to recognise when a relationship has become abusive.

By making students aware of the signs of an abusive relationship and giving them the tools to build and nurture a healthy relationship, schools could not only affect students’ academic studies, but their overall wellbeing and the rest of their adult life as well. 

“It’s now vital that we recognise the importance of working towards achieving a healthy balance of physical activity, mental stimulation, and positive relationships – all which have a significant impact on our feelings of wellbeing. As a reduction in any of these can seriously undermine our ability to flourish.”
Rosi Prescott, Chief Executive of Central YMCA.