Despite its vital importance to the wellbeing of young people, Relationships Education (RSE) was only made a compulsory part of the UK national curriculum in 2019. While this is progress, a March 2021 government survey of state and independent schools revealed “widespread” sexual harassment. The pandemic and closure of schools has presented even further disruption to implementing this critical learning.
Addition are proud to support our clients Anna Alexander and Matilda Lawrence-Jubb on their mission to reshape RSE. For the newest feature of ‘When It All Adds Up’, we spoke to Matilda about the journey of their RSE training start-up Split Banana.
How much of your own experiences with this topic impacted your decision to start a business around it?
When my co-founder Anna and I started working in schools a decade ago, we were shocked to realise that RSE was just as non-existent as it was when we’d attended school. That was a trigger moment for us.
It made us reflect on all the things that we’d gone through as children and teenagers – regarding sex and relationships – that had been problematic or harmed us in some way. These things could have been preventable with the right kind of guidance and support, but we just didn’t have any. From unintended pregnancies, to discussions around sexual expectations in relationships, online bullying surrounding sex and body image – there were heaps of situations to look back on. We weren’t given any proper insights or education regarding these things.
To then re-enter the school system as adults in 2017, and realize that not much had moved forward since we were at school was discouraging. Further to that, while working at schools, we would hear worrying conversations. There was lots of questionable stuff around consent being said, confusion around contraception, still a lot of online bullying etc.
So that was really the moment we thought, ‘Right – there must be something we can do to improve this’, because it’s such a huge issue! Young people aren’t getting support around relationship and sex education. This then ripples out to wider society, and manifests as misogyny, sexual assault and transphobia within different industries. That’s what we’re trying to change with our workshops and mission.
Are there any ‘Wow’ moments that have stood out to you in your business journey?
One of my highlights of 2020 was a series of workshops we did in a youth center called Laburnum Boat Club in Hackney. They support young people with Special Educational Needs, taking them out boating on the canal and teaching them maritime skills. The club decided they also wanted to provide them with other life learning.
We did some workshops in collaboration with local artists around having a healthy relationship with yourself, your body and other people. It was an amazing experience – not only because we were able to do an in-person event after lockdown, but also because of the movement artist who came to assist us. It was a great outdoor space, in a different kind of venue and with a different demographic than what we were used to.
This was a stand-out moment for us because it confirmed that this kind of education is needed outside of the classroom as well. Not only that, but groups of young people with Special Educational Needs have really been erased by the RSE curriculum. So it was very important to be able to deliver for them.
How did Covid impact your business?
One big impact on our business was that every event we had lined up with schools was cancelled. Fundamentally, they are institutions who are there to support, educate and empower young people. So when they cancel on you, you can’t be angry – they are just protecting children. That being said, having all of our events cancelled had a big financial impact on us – but also a developmental silver lining.
It gave us time to reflect upon and refine our offer. We had time to put down our learnings on paper and create resources. We also started delivering remote workshops in classrooms which picked up quickly as schools were doing what they could to keep Relationship and Sex Edcuation (RSE) going.
We also developed our remote RSE training for educators. It’s quite unique as it’s an introductory course open to anyone that works with young people and wants to have better conversations about sex and relationships.
How did you pivot during Covid?
We’ve done workshops with young people for about three years now – and we still do offer them. They’re clearly important. However, we do really believe in training teachers, so that there is expert knowledge embedded within the school.
We’ve had four great remote training sessions so far. These are open to anyone who works with young people, not just RSE leads.
They could be Form tutors who want to get more clarity on the subject, healthcare professionals or social workers. There are lots of different people who might be interacting with young people and want to develop their confidence in handling these topics.
We’ve had really good feedback, which is great. So, while Covid did stunt us for a while, it also allowed us time to think more creatively about what we could offer in a remote setting.
Will you go back to in-person workshops again, or will you just stick with virtual?
I think we’ll do a mix of both. We’ve actually got our first in-person workshop with a theatre production company this week, which is really exciting. When schools start back in September, we do have in-person delivery booked in the diary, but we also have some virtual events as well.
In-person workshops seem more impactful than remote workshops when it comes to young people, in our experience.
The impact of our sessions hinges on engagement. Being in the physical space, walking around, facilitating small group activities, answering questions – all of this is key to getting young people to engage. It’s also important to read the energy in the room, and it’s very hard to do that in a remote setting.
On the other hand, remote training can be very powerful depending on the demographic. It broadens accessibility and facilitates organizations with employees who might work in a variety of locations. Going forward, we’ll keep a blended approach, which we never thought was going to be possible before the pandemic forced everyone online.
How do you structure your workshops? Is there a set template, or do you tweak it each time depending on the audience?
We had a big drive in 2019 and 2020 to get our content on paper and create a bank of lesson plans. We started by designing an RSE card deck which was essentially split up into three categories. The first was Content – which is everything you need to know, all of the topics involved in a comprehensive RSE.
Then we have an Approaches set of cards – which are ways in which you deliver RSE, and how to make it safe, engaging and fun.
Lastly, we have Narratives – which are the overarching messages that we hear around us in the world, and which we can internalise if we don’t address them and name them. These are things like heteronormativity, or anti-blackness and ableism. We explore their relations to RSE, as well as practical steps you can take to ensure that you’re not perpetuating those narratives – instead, you’re actually addressing them and challenging them.
From the card deck, we then designed our lessons. A major question for us was: if these young people are only going to take away three topline messages from a one-hour workshop, what do we want them to be?
Structure-wise, we always have a check-in at the start. This helps us to see how everyone is feeling in the space. It also helps young people to start naming their emotions and how they’re feeling. Next, we might have a warm-up. After that, we’ll go into the ‘three things’ presentation.
The second half of the session is usually a creative activity. We might work in small groups with them, sketching or collaging – just a creative way to bring them all together and allow them space to reflect and process what we’ve been talking about. Lastly, we’ll check out and close the workshop. That’s the rough structure we’ve been working with – with great results!
How has being young entrepreneurs affected your personal lives?
It’s been amazing to do something we really care about – and that people have believed in us as well. The fact that we managed to get funding, and also fostered good relationships with certain schools and organizations who are coming back to us again and again is also fantastic. So overall, we’ve found the experience very inspiring. There’s a lot of freedom in creating a business that aligns with how you navigate yourselves as a team and our internal processes.
Obviously, there are difficult moments. The financial instability and uncertainty, for instance, has been tough at times. Anna and I take the approach of living and planning in six-month blocks. We ask ourselves ‘What’s coming up in the next six months? Can we get to the end of the next six months?’ And then we re-evaluate.
This isn’t just reflective of our work model. I do think it’s the new rhythm being adopted by the wider world. Especially in today’s changing market, you’re much more likely to have a variety of different jobs and switch more regularly than you used to.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Something we reflect on quite a lot is that the subject we work with doesn’t have a clear career trajectory, so there can be a lot of privilege in the space.
We were very lucky in that we had the support of the Year Here postgrad and were placed in schools. From there, we were able to use our platform to gain funding and access a network. But because sex education doesn’t have a cast-iron career path, the space is primarily filled with white middle class, liberal women. This isn’t to say they are wrong to pursue that route. It just informed our mission to include other voices in the work that we do.
We do regular ‘What I Wish I’d Known’ workshops where we invite groups of people who have been overlooked by the standard RSE curriculum. We’ve run these with women and non-binary people of color, the queer community and those experiencing vulval pain disorders. We’re looking to run one soon with disabled people, and also with the intersex community.
It’s important that we are amplifying the voices of other people who have really important things to say about sex education. Most of the current teaching on the subject is outdated and no longer fit for purpose. It’s been heteronormative, cis-oriented, grounded in reproduction etc. There have been changes in the space, but there’s still a long way to go.
Making sure that we are including and representing other voices in the work that we do is one of the biggest goals for us at Split Banana.
Matilda Lawrence-Jubb is an Addition client and co-founder of Split Banana