Children facing separation or divorce of parents and the new ‘Relationships Education: Relationships and Sex Education (RSE) and Health Education’ Statutory Guidance, DfE 2019
From September 2020 all Primary schools will have to deliver Relationships Education. The content set out in the DfE guidance is compulsory but schools are free to determine how to deliver its content.
When reading the guidance I felt there was an underlying assumption that family relationships are characterised by positive relationships. The Guidance states that by the end of primary school children ‘should know’ that families are important for children growing up because they can give love, security and stability (P19).
The word ‘can’ in that last quote is important because I think nearly all primary teachers know of a substantial number of children who face family relationships that are far from positive. If we teach a curriculum where the underlying message is that family relationships are essentially nurturing, we may make children who face difficult situations at home feel worse about their situation rather than better.
The main motivation for writing the Zig Zag series of books was the high number of very young children in my reception/Year 1 classes over the years whose parents were separating or divorcing. These separations are not always ‘done well’. The interests of children often take a back seat to the emotional trauma, anger or resentment the parents feel towards each other. It is not unusual for the children to be used as pawns in the parents’ separation and the result is confusion and distress for those children.
I always wondered what books would help these children. Most children’s books focus on the kind of caring and nurturing relationships promoted in the Government’s Relationships guidance. Even if the main character faces an issue, danger or threat, they will be supported by a friend, parent or adult. The ‘issue’ is always resolved by the end of the book which accompanied by message of hope, love and support.
I heard Pajtim Statovci talking about his new novel ‘Crossing’ on Radio 4 Open Book (9th June 2019). He said he was ‘sick of happy endings’ in books because they give the impression that we will gain strength and fortitude from facing bad experiences, traumas and confrontations in life. He said this is not always true because ‘There are things that happen that cannot be explained and shouldn’t happen and there are things you can’t get over.’ I think this is particularly true of children facing traumatic situations over which they have no control. Should we be continually telling them ‘Everything will be alright’ when it may not be, and keep reading them children’s stories that give them that impression?
We don’t want to read young children ‘dark books’ but we could read them stories that quietly and sensitively deal with the reality of their lives and show them there may be no quick resolution to the problems they face. A clinical psychologist friend of mine, Dr Sue Kemp Wheeler, advised me that the best message we can give to children is that they can’t solve adult problems but what they can do is turn their attention to the things they enjoy and do have control over, like playing with their toys, feeding their hamster, having fun with their friends, or enjoying school.
This is the basis of the Zig Zag story books which follow the journey of 6-year-old Emily as she faces the separation and divorce of her parents. There are no resolutions to the ‘real world’ problems she faces at the end of each book because children can face difficult situations for months or years. Yet in each book she has an adventure with Zig Zag the Stripy Spotosaurus, and her toys, where some similar problem to the one she faces at home arises and where she can have fun and enjoy herself within her imaginary world.
The introduction to the government guidance acknowledges ‘Everyone faces difficult situations in their lives. These subjects (Relationships, Sex and Health Education) can support young people to develop resilience, to know how and when to ask for help, and to know where to access support.’ (P8, DfE 2019).
I hope the Zig Zag story books will at least open a discussion for young children who face the difficult situation of separation and divorce of their parents and enable them to express their thoughts and feelings without feeling a sense of shame or ‘being different’.
‘Relationships Education, Relationships and Sex Education (RSE) and Health Education Statutory guidance for governing bodies, proprietors, head teachers, principals, senior leadership teams, teachers.’ DfE 2019
‘Open Book,’ Radio 4 9th June 2019