University of Exeter: New research highlights “significant gap” in evidence about effectiveness of relationship education programmes

The findings from a new systematic review of relationship education programmes provide evidence there is a “significant gap” in high-quality research into the outcomes of such programmes. This is despite links between healthy relationships and good mental health and wellbeing, and the recent formalisation of a larger role for relationship education in statutory guidance in England.

Researchers reviewed 20 relationship programmes. All but one were developed in the US and 11 had been evaluated. Only three had followed participants for a year or longer and many programmes and evaluations did not appear to be co-developed or designed with young people. Many evaluations had examined attitudes towards marriage, divorce or collaboration, with negative attitudes to divorce and cohabitation framed as positive outcomes. This may reflect policy in some US states to reinforce traditional attitudes.

Evaluations which had taken place were not of high quality, with a lack of randomisation, unbalanced samples and high attrition rates over time.

This Wellcome-funded “Beacon: Healthy Relationship” study was carried out by Simon Benham-Clarke, Georgina Roberts and Tamsin Newlove-Delgado from the University of Exeter and Astrid Janssens from the University of Southern Denmark and Odense University Hospital. It builds on evidence f[NDT1] [BS2] rom the Shackleton Relationships Project and which showed an appetite among young people for more education at school (which they help to develop) about how to build positive relationships and handle ‘normal’ relationship difficulties.

Simon Benham-Clarke said: “Because of a lack of good quality evaluation we were not able to conclude that any of the programmes have a strong evidence base in terms of their impact on relationships skills or healthy relationship outcomes, particularly over the longer term.

“There needs to be more robust trials of relationships education programmes, with their impact to be followed up over a long-term period. There should be a set of core measures to assess programmes which connect directly to the desired outcomes and priorities for young people”.

The study, in the journal Pastoral Care in Education, says to improve relationship outcomes for young people it is critical that they are fully engaged in the development of new programmes and the evaluation of such programmes. However, the team found no evidence of young people’s involvement in programme or evaluation development.

Dr Newlove-Delgado said: “We worked with a great group of young people on this research project. Young people want their voices heard and want to contribute to what they learn about relationships in schools. Both young people and relationship experts see relationship education as having an important role in promoting good mental health and wellbeing, particularly through learning to cope with relationship breakdowns. They also want to learn skills which could help them maintain happy and healthy relationships over the longer term.”

The review recommends that future programme are co-created with young people, teachers and relationship experts, and integrated into a mental health-informed curriculum and wider prevention programmes in schools and communities. Programmes should be evaluated over the longer term and assessed for feasibility and acceptability in school and community settings.

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