Good luck to schools teaching sex and relationship education – I’m still learning

Exercise: If your partner wanted two tickets to Paris on a special occasion and instead received flowers from the local garage, how might they react?

‘Exercise: If your partner wanted two tickets to Paris on a special occasion and instead received flowers from the local garage, how might they react?’ Photograph: Alamy

Following the government announcement that there is to be a radical overhaul of sex and relationship education (SRE) in schools – largely to take into account new online developments – I thought I would take the trouble to see what SRE currently involves. (I know I should know this already, which is one of the reasons I need a bit of RE myself.).

Official guidance on the subject seems to mainly cover sex, contraception, drugs and “recognising abuse” as well as bromides such as “the value of respect, love and care” and “the nature and importance of marriage for family life”. Such teaching of the subject is welcome and well-intentioned, but I do wonder about how you teach relationships. I’ve been trying to learn about them my whole life and still haven’t got the hang of it.

It’s not always just a bull session between teachers and pupils. There is a personal and social education certificate that can be worked towards in some schools. I had a quick look at the assessment criteria and it looks like a breeze. Here are a few of the questions detailed by the Assessment and Qualifications Alliance. My provisional answers appear in italics.

1.1 Communicate three kinds of relationship.

a) Bearable b) Difficult c) Nightmarish.

1.2 Communicate a) two good and b) two bad features that can exist in relationships. Illustrate.

a) Humour – your partner laughing at your jokes (even when they aren’t funny). Tolerance – politely ignoring how much fake laughter annoys the crap out of you.

b) Hostility – your partner scraping your dinner into the food wastebin before you’ve had a chance to eat it. Dishonesty – not letting your partner know that you ate it anyway. Or that it was overdone.

1.3 Communicate how a relationship may change over time.

It gets worse – obvs.

Seriously, though, I think relationship education should be something that should be offered to people throughout their lives, not just at school. How does one learn to have relationships other than by the vague application of “respect, love and care”? Having chewed it over, here’s a taste of what a curriculum might look like if I designed it.

Module 1: Self-destructiveness. In many relationships, what people think they are doing and what they are really doing are usually quite different. This is because of subconscious impulses and irrational forces that no one can quite locate or explain.

Exercise: Think of something you did to your partner that they found hurtful but which you can’t explain even to yourself. Explain it without blaming your partner.

Module 2: Advanced communication skills. Basic modules concentrate on clarity, respect, honesty and so on. Higher level studies include a) body language, b) things unsaid and undone, and c) the significance of voice tone.

Exercise: How might you negate a positive comment by use of negative tone of voice or facial expression? Demonstrate with examples.

Module 3: Excuse theory. It is important to have a well-developed understanding of the theory and practice of responsibility evasion. Exercise: What is the difference between an “excuse” and a “reason”? Illustrate with examples.

Module 4: Gift-giving dynamics. Getting a gift wrong can have a negative impact on interpersonal dynamics. Exercise: If your partner wanted two tickets to Paris to celebrate a special occasion and instead received a bunch of cellophane-wrapped carnations from the local garage, how might they react? And how could the effects be mitigated? Illustrate with examples.

And so on.

The truth, I suspect, about relationships is that they can’t be taught – only improvised and survived. I welcome an upgrade of SRE for all that it will teach children about the practical and value aspects of personal life. The psychology of relationships, however, must remain a mystery – for the teachers, I suspect, and for myself, as much as for the students.