Teaching Consent in the Classroom

by Rachel Bell on March 9, 2020

Published in TES on 13 January 2017

Tes Sex Education Special

In 2015, a police report found that 5,500 sexual assaults, including 600 rapes, had occurred in UK schools in the past three years. This statistic was only the tip of the iceberg.

The recent Women and Equalities Committee’s Inquiry into sexual harassment and sexual violence in schools revealed that 59 per cent of girls aged 13-21 faced some form of sexual harassment at school or college, almost a third of 16-18 year-old girls experience unwanted sexual touching and nearly three-quarters of them hear sexist name-calling − being called a “slag”, a “slut” or a “bitch”.

There’s an amazing young woman going into UK schools and telling girls that having their skirt yanked up is in fact sexual assault. Sophie Bennett of UK Feminista has delivered their workshops to 2,200 young people as part of their Schools Against Sexism project, while their teacher training programme, working with Teach First and the Institute of Education, has trained 1000 trainee teachers in gender equality and consent. UK Feminista and the End Violence Against Women Coalition (EVAW) – who gave evidence at the MPs Inquiry – have led the call for a whole school approach to tackling sexual harassment and sexual violence. EVAW launched their Schools Safe 4 Girls campaign in 2012 calling for guidance for schools to respond to sexual violence, teacher training on gender equality, consent and respect, and structures in place that end the minimisation of sexual abuse. UK Feminista are currently creating a ‘one stop shop’ online resource hub for pupils, young people, teachers, parents and governors where they guidance on implementing a whole school approach to tackling violence against girls including sexual bullying, harassment, relationship abuse, sexting and pornography. Part of that approach is introducing age-appropriate Sex and Relationships education for all children in all schools. EVAW teamed up with The Everyday Sexism project to create an #SREnow microsite with a petition approaching 50,000 signatures. The recommendations from the Women and Equalities Committee also include a whole school approach from primary.

In October 2016, following campaigning from the End Violence Against Women Coalition (EVAW), Universities UK published its report into sexual violence at universities. While consent workshops are gaining some momentum at UK universities, EVAW believe that given the scale of sexual assaults and harassment, our universities should aim for a standard of protection on a par with safeguarding. UN Women Goodwill Ambassador Emma Watson has joined the call for an end to campus assault around the world. Experts working in healthy relationships education agree that prevention work must be taken seriously and begin sooner − at primary, or even preschool level. Here are some of their suggested strategies.

Teach body ownership
Katia Heller’s CNN article I Don’t Own My Child’s Body shows how we can communicate to children that only they are in charge of their bodies, and can say no. Heller told her four year old daughter ‘I would like you to hug Grandma, but I won’t make you do it.’ These situations should be framed as a question not an instruction. Diane Hansen’s book, Those Are MY Private Parts helps children recognise abuse and say ‘No’ in rhyme format. Books such as Your Body Belongs To You by Cornelia Spelman and No Means No: Teaching Children about Personal Boundaries, Respect and Consent by Jayneen Sanders is for ages 3 to 6 and show children that they can choose whether to give physical affection and receive physical touch. For example, if a child says stop tickling me, you stop and tell them that you have stopped because they asked you to, that it is their body. Find many more resources like this online at
A Mighty Girl

Education Coordinator Cordelia Morrison of the charity, Tender, who use drama-based workshops to teach healthy relationships, says, “Identify opportunities for children or young people to both ask and be asked for consent, for example, asking a child if you can hold their hand. Being able to practise giving and asking for consent can empower young people with the skills to negotiate future encounters.”

Use scientific terms for genitals
The provider, Big Talk Education, reach children as young as three, with gentle discussion of the parts of the body that are private and should not be touched unless the child wants, for example a sore area that needs checking out by a parent or doctor. Like theCHAT, an SRE provider set up by Science teacher Carol Perry, who train teachers too, they see the importance of using scientific terms for genitals. This isn’t about children growing up too quickly, it’s about preventing and recognising sexual abuse. In the event of a child being inappropriately touched, a child will have the vocabulary to give exact information. For example, ‘He touched my Noo-noo’ will not carry the same clarity as ‘He touched my vagina’. Research shows that an educated child is much more likely to speak out if they are subjected to abuse.

Use the NSPCC’s Talking Pant’s campaign and discuss respecting others’ boundaries
The NSPCC’s Talking PANTS campaign is for children ages 4-11 and has one simple message shown by its ‘Underwear Rule’ – what’s in your pants belongs to you. It informs children of their rights over their own bodies and protects them from potential abuse. Tender use it with primary age children and those with SEN, saying, ‘The NSPCC’s Underwear Rule lays the foundations for the topic of consent through non-sexual interactions.’ Emphasising the importance of talking with a trusted adult if children feel unsafe, unsure or threatened in any way at any opportunity.

Tender also teach teach consent to children age 4-11 by encouraging respect of other’s boundaries and acknowledgement that not everyone feels the same about different activities or interactions. For example, some people like hugs, some only like hugs from close family/friends.

For teenagers aged 12-18

Begin by asking what the age of consent is and what it actually means
The RAP Project Co-Founder, Allison Havey, says, “Everyone appears to know it is 16. We advise that if you suspect a person is underage or has lied about their age, wait, and get to know them first. We also suggest avoiding hookups and getting to know a person before physical intimacy takes place. But the question, ‘What does consent actually mean?’ is a good opener for discussion.” Havey says, “Under the law, consent is to give your permission freely to have something done to you sexually or you do something sexual to someone else with no encumbrances or threats of any kind. Most teens think that lack of consent only occurs when one is threatened with physical force. Explain that consent is also finite, and needs to be asked for each time a partner desires an act of intimacy. If someone consents to a sexual act on a Friday, it does not mean that he or she is consenting to it again on the Saturday. If someone consents to kissing, it doesn’t mean that they are consenting to other sexual acts. If someone has performed a sexual act in the past, they should not be expected to consent to that or any other sexual act in the future. Encourage students to come up with their own scenarios.”

Clarify that consent is an enthusiastic ‘Yes’ and talk about alcohol
Teach that consent is not merely the absence of ‘no’, but the presence of a free and enthusiastically given ‘yes.’ Tender’s Cordelia Morrison says, ‘If someone is ever unsure if their partner is consenting to something, it is their responsibility to check.’

Allison Havey of The RAP Project says, ‘Alcohol creates confusion in young people around consent. One 17-year old young man asked us the following during a presentation: ‘If I am with a girl who is lying there nearly passed out, who has been drinking, and I ask her if we can have sex, and she mumbles ‘Yes’, is that consent?’ Several fellow male students nodded, eager to know the response. The answer is No. Co-Founder Deana Puccio always advises the following: ‘Wait for enthusiasm. If your gut feeling is telling you that a potential partner is not coherent enough to give consent, put it away and move on.’

Boys need to be taught to hear ‘No’ respectfully, rather than buy into the ‘Men need to be persistent to get what they want’ role or ‘Real men are dominant’ messages that come from porn and popular culture. Carol Perry of theCHAT sees how lad culture and pornography nurture a predatory mindset in boys. “We discuss the way some boys might start an evening thinking, Let’s see what I can get away with, looking for vulnerabilities, the girl who is drunk, or dressed in a way that’s perceived as ‘easy’. A girl can get categorised so she’s not seen as a whole person.

Use the ‘One of you is drunk’ scenario
theCHAT see the importance of spelling out a very typical scenario, using a ‘drunk’ sexual partner, as this is an area where teens, whatever the gender, typically victim blame. Carol Perry describes how she approached it with 13/14 year olds recently: “We describe a scenario where a couple – deliberately non-gendered – have been together a few months and are out at a party. One of them is more drunk and not really in a state decide anything, the other is feeling very amorous and carries on regardless. “We ask, ‘Who is responsible?’ Perry says, “The response is almost always that around half of the audience, boys and girls believe the more drunk party is equally responsible. Then we ask, without judgment, ‘Why do you think being drunk makes them as responsible?’ The answer is usually that they shouldn’t get so drunk, they’re taking a risk. Then we ask if anyone disagrees. The audience will hear a peer counter them and say the person ‘helping themselves’ is actually responsible, which is powerful to hear from a peer. That’s when we come in and back up that person with a statement like, ‘It might be silly to get so drunk but it’s not illegal. It is illegal to touch or penetrate someone sexually without their permission/consent. In legal terms it’s black and white. Rape & sexual assault are serious crimes. You can get up to 15 years in prison for good reason. And it can have a devastating and long-term effect on a victim’s mental health.’ This really gets the message across.”

We stress that if you have any doubt, the responsibility lies with the person choosing to do the doing. If you want to do something sexual with your partner, the responsibility lies with you to check for consent, not with your partner to say ‘no’ if they don’t want to. Being drunk is not an excuse. This is supplemented with discussion asking ‘What is coercion? What kind of things do people say to be coercive? How do you deal with that? Give examples such as:
‘If you really loved me, you would have sex with me.’
‘Everybody else is doing it.’
‘If you won’t have sex with me, I’ll find someone who will.’
‘But you’ve been flirting with me all night.’
‘I didn’t realise you were such a prude.’
Practising strategies in role-play can be very effective and empowering.

Encourage ‘Checking in’ and self-reflection
“Checking in with one another is something that can be encouraged across a whole school, and can start as early as nursery and reception,” says Perry. “It’s about being respectful, telling them what you’re going to do and making sure people are comfortable with it. It has the added benefit of reducing conflict and improving behavior.”

Tender advise to check in with yourself about how you feel teaching the topic: “You may feel comfortable leading an open discussion with one group of young people, but less so with a more challenging, older or unfamiliar class. If the topic is not in your comfort-zone, don’t panic or feel bad: you are still capable of teaching the key messages, but might just need to approach it differently. There are a lot of good resources out there to help boost your and your students’ understanding of consent. Tender’s own Facilitator’s Pack is full of exercises you can use to make the topic fun and accessible.

Does consent need to be taught differently to girls than to boys or is there a one-size-fits-all approach?
While one might imagine that single sex groups would give pupils the safe space to speak out and share experiences without fear of shame, embarrassment or being labeled, Tender find that by see using drama, participants experience what it’s like to be ‘in someone else’s shoes’, which increases empathy and understanding –an emotional, as well as an intellectual response. Other providers see the benefits of working with a mixed group. Allison Havey of The RAP Project says, “We leave this entirely up to the schools we visit, as they know their students maturity and issues better than we do. It is also a personal opinion, but I hope to engage the mixed groups enough to allow them to exchange their ideas, their concerns, their feelings with their friends. It is true, one or two schools this has not worked so well, and the Lad element overwhelmed the girls. But for the most part, sharing concerns works well with a mixed group. Deana might support single sex groups, so it differs. What does happen in most cases, be it single or mixed groups, is young men and women come to us individually to discuss a question, a problem or an incident for advice after our presentations.”

Carol Perry of theCHAT says, “Boys and girls are ideally taught about consent together to understand the world from each others’ points of view. Social norms around stereotypical gender play a big part. For example, girls are often taught to ‘Be nice or good girls’ and not hurt people’s feelings. Strong and assertive girls can face a backlash. Victim blaming affects girls while boys can be labelled as potential perpetrators.” Perry also finds that inviting pupils to write down any questions anonymously is a great way to measure how much they do or don’t know and what concerns them.

Big Talk Education use a single sex approach for primary age children as they are both potentially vulnerable. From Yr5 to Yr9 (9 to 14) we tend to work in single gender groups (or allow children to choose the group in which they feel safest or happiest. Lynette Smith says, “From as young as Y5, (aged nine or 10) we explain to boys the importance of being very careful, to ask before touching anyone’s body. As boys move onto senior schools we are able, in single gender groups, to really enforce this, explaining that in intimate relationships, some young people (especially girls) don’t feel confident and assertive enough to actually say no when they’re not happy with the level of intimacy. Generally, however, Big Talk Education encourage mixed groups from Yr10, age 15, to aid communication and understanding. They say, “We’ve seen a serious decline in young people’s ability when it comes to face-to-face communication. These skills seem to be deteriorating as young people use IT as a premier and often preferred message of communication even within very close relationships.”

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