66% of girls and 32% of boys, aged 14 – 17, report experiencing one or more types of abuse from an intimate partner. 22% of boys have perpetrated abuse or sexual coercion. That domestic abuse is more prevalent among women aged 16 – 24 than any other age group is a frequently quoted statistic, not so often mentioned is that 12.7% of girls aged 16 – 19 will have experienced domestic abuse in the last year alone.
Educating young people about healthy relationships is essential, but SRE (sex and relationships education) is rarely adequate and not compulsory. (83% of young people say their SRE was poor, very poor or they didn’t receive any at all.)
After experiencing abuse from my boyfriend as a younger teenager (I met him when I was 13 and him 16, over three years he became more and more controlling until I eventually went to the police and he was convicted and given a restraining order) I’m determined to raise awareness and improve the education young people receive about relationships. At sixth-form at Cotham School, I helped establish a ‘whole school approach’ to the issue and set up an on-going, student led project ‘Respect’. Cotham are now well on the way to achieving the Bristol Ideal and I want to encourage other schools to do the same.
How did the Respect project start and what has it involved?
Whilst doing A-levels I gave a presentation on domestic abuse to my sociology group. Following this, the teachers agreed I could run training on abuse and young people for the sixth-form tutors, then later all the heads of year in the main school. Working with the heads of year, I planned and delivered training to all form tutors from years 7 to 13 and we organised a Healthy Relationships Awareness Week which took place in February 2016.
During the week every tutor group did at least three tutorials on different aspects of healthy relationships, I spoke to all students in assemblies telling them about my experience of an abusive relationship, why I think it’s so important young people know what signs to look out for and how to ask for help and ran workshops for post-16 students.
The young people were enthusiastic about promoting healthy relationships and we wanted to make sure it was an on-going topic of conversation. In July 2016, over forty students (boys as well as girls!) volunteered to be trained as ‘Respect Ambassadors’. The training was delivered by me and Survive (South Glos domestic abuse service). We covered issues surrounding relationship abuse in more depth, why people don’t speak out about abuse, active listening, confidentiality and safety, and how to offer support on a range of topics.
The Respect Ambassadors are now responsible for running a drop-in session once a week, students can come to talk about any issue relating to healthy relationships, friendships, gender-based discrimination or abuse and get advice from someone close to their own age. The ambassadors are also contactable via an online form as students have said more likely to ask for help this way. Perhaps most importantly, they are taking a zero-tolerance approach to all gender-based violence, abuse or discrimination in school and promoting this message to their peers!
A long-term approach and things learnt...
After the week of assemblies and tutorials I spoke to students and staff, asking them what they had enjoyed, what they would change and what might stop them from talking about abusive relationships. Using their feedback, I was able to write resources and plan activities (three twenty-minute lessons for each year group) which can be delivered across a weeks tutorials every year. Starting with things like emotional and physical boundaries in year 7 - through to considering the effectiveness of the criminal justice system in dealing with domestic abuse in year 13 – hopefully these will ensure healthy relationships aren’t something you have one lesson on and then forget about, instead knowledge will be built upon at each stage in school.
Feedback highlighted the need to show diverse relationships that reflect young people’s experiences. For example, if your resources only show white women in heterosexual relationships who are being abused by their husbands, there’s an unconscious message that if you’re young, from an ethnic minority group or in a same-sex relationship domestic abuse just doesn’t effect you. Similarly, so much communication takes place over social media and the internet, make sure you’re telling students that this can be abuse too and give examples.
With years 7 and 8, talking about what makes a good non-romantic relationship (friendship or family) is more important than warning them about abuse. Everyone wants to learn more about how to support a friend who is being controlled but doesn’t know it. Stories of real experiences are most effective at getting students to contemplate their own relationships. Rather than just being told information they prefer to discuss it, and older years said they learn best from hearing each others opinions and challenging each other.
We hope the Respect project is going to provide more opportunity for young people to learn from each other, the ambassadors will have an active role in designing future resources and putting on assemblies during Respect week.
A message for all young people and schools...
Please do get people in your school talking about healthy relationships and working towards a whole-school approach too. Whilst two in every three young women experience abuse from their boyfriend or girlfriend during their time at secondary school, yet only 18% report speaking to an adult,1 we cannot afford to keep quiet any longer.
If you’re a student... Convincing your teachers to work with you on this might seem daunting, but there will be people who are just as passionate as you and will want to help. Start small - like asking if you can talk to your year’s assembly to raise awareness. Don’t underestimate how powerful your voice can be. Whatever you have experience of, if you’re prepared to stand up and say “This happened to me, and this is why other students need to know about this” people are going to listen.
And if you’re a teacher... Listen and be prepared to have a conversation about relationships. It’s important students feel they can approach you and not be worried about getting in trouble or being told “just break up with him/her”. You don’t have to be an expert, but you could provide space for students to discuss issues, invite other organisations in to give talks or run workshops, or if you know a student who does have a particular interest work with them.
If there’s one thing I’ve learnt above everything else, it would be just how incredibly open, enthusiastic and insightful young people are when it comes to talking about abusive relationships. Of forty-ish students in the initial Respect Ambassador training, thirty-three turned up for a recap meeting and to launch the project. This is an issue affecting them and their friends every day, and given the opportunity, they are the ones best placed to make a positive change.
If you would like or know more about the Respect project at Cotham, or if you work with young people and would be interested in similar staff training or workshops please get in touch.