Enacting whole-school relationships and sexuality education in England: Context matters

Sara Bragg*, Ruth Ponsford, Rebecca Meiksin, Maria Lohan, G. J. Melendez-Torres, Alison Hadley, Honor Young, Christine Anne Barter, Bruce Taylor, Chris Bonell

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

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Evidence from intervention evaluations suggests that achieving meaningful and lasting social, behavioural and attitudinal change from relationships, sex and health education (RSHE) in schools requires more than just a curriculum. Whole-school approaches appear particularly promising since they work at multiple levels. For instance, they may: engage with carers, communities and local services; address iniquitous cultures and norms; change school policies and practices; and actively involve young people themselves. They have also been advocated to tackle sexual harassment and abuse in schools. Currently, however, such approaches have not been rigorously evaluated in the UK. This article focuses on the whole-school elements of two recent RSHE pilot studies conducted in English secondary schools. We describe how these elements were variably enacted in different settings. We analyse contextual factors that help account for these differences, including: teacher and departmental professional identity and autonomy; broader education policy including high-stakes testing and school inspection judgements; the significance of support staff; and staff–student relationships and partnerships. We argue that the likely impact of whole-school approaches and RSHE in schools more generally will depend on attending to all of these factors. The paper contributes firstly to debates about the theory and practice of RSHE by highlighting the significance of processes and cultures beyond the classroom in enabling or constraining positive change. Secondly it contributes to scholarship that elucidates the role of contexts, broadly defined, in understanding the enactment of policy and practice.

Original languageEnglish
JournalBritish Educational Research Journal
Early online date30 Mar 2022
Publication statusEarly online date - 30 Mar 2022

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
The authors would like to thank Diana Elbourne, Nerissa Tilouche and the anonymous reviewers of the first submission for their feedback. This study was supported by the UK National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Public Health Research programme. The views expressed in this paper are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the National Health Service (NHS), National Institute for Health Research (NIHR), Medical Research Council (MRC), Central Commissioning Facility (CCF), the NIHR Evaluation, Trials and Studies Coordinating Centre (NETSCC), the Public Health Research programme or the Department of Health. The funding source had no role in the design of this study and will not have any role during its execution, analyses, interpretation of the data or decision to submit results.

Funding Information:
This research was funded by the National Institute for Health Research Public Health Research Programme awards 14/184/02 and 15/03/09. Trial registration: Project Respect: ISRCTN12524938. Positive Choices: ISRCTN65324176.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2022 The Authors. British Educational Research Journal published by John Wiley & Sons Ltd on behalf of British Educational Research Association.


  • contexts
  • enactment
  • relationships and sexuality education
  • whole-school

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Education


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