I am delighted to report on the successful collaboration between Resolution and the University of Exeter that has resulted in a ground-breaking and pioneering development of lesson plans rolled out nationally to 14 to 18-year-olds to assist in dispelling the common law marriage myth among young people. In providing these valuable resources for school children, this is the first time that Resolution’s ethos has reached the classroom, demonstrating its support for education and awareness of our law among the general public.
Two of the Resolution Cohabitation Committee’s main objectives are to raise awareness of the need for legislative reform and provide education, information and support in relation to the financial consequences of cohabitation and the breakdown of unmarried relationships. Since its inception in 1995, the Committee has worked tirelessly to further these objectives. Whilst actively campaigning for change, it keeps a very keen eye on the importance of education (at all levels) to help dispel myths, allowing individuals to make informed decisions about their relationships.
As many family practitioners are acutely aware, cohabiting couples are the fastest growing family type in England and Wales. According to the Office for National Statistics (Families and Households in the UK), there were around 3.6 million cohabiting couples in the UK in 2021, more than double the number in 1996. Cohabitants do not have the same legal rights as married couples and therefore have inferior protections and remedies if their relationship subsequently breaks down. Similarly, those who formalise their relationship in a non-qualifying ceremony are treated, by default, in the same way as cohabitants and can find themselves in very vulnerable situations.
Given the prevalence of cohabitation, guidance about the rights (or lack thereof) of cohabiting couples and those with a non-qualifying ceremonies should form part of educational resources schools use to teach children and young adults about relationships. Indeed, it is a key requirement of the Department for Education’s Statutory Guidance on relationship education that pupils should be taught about different family types so that they can make informed decisions about their lives and future relationships.
A core difficulty is the continued persistence and prevalence of the “common law marriage” myth (the mistaken belief that unmarried couples who live together for some time have the same legal rights as married couples), highlighted by the work of University of Exeter academic Professor Anne Barlow.
Surveys carried out over many years have consistently shown that the common law marriage myth is embedded in the beliefs of a large majority of people, including those who will be adversely affected by this lack of rights should their relationship end by separation or death.
Separately, Professor Rebecca Probert of the University of Exeter Law School and Dr Rajnaara Akhtar of Warwick Law School have identified the problems that arise from non-qualifying marriage ceremonies. Such ceremonies may lead to people wrongly believing they are validly married with the same legal rights as cohabitants.
The development of the Modern Families project
Mary Raymont, Co-Chair of Resolution’s Training & Learning Committee, approached Dr Jan Ewing from the University of Exeter in 2021. This followed Dr Ewing’s completion of earlier lesson plans in collaboration with the National Youth Advocacy Service (NYAS) and the National Association of Child Contact Centres (NACCC), “The Rights Idea?”, which teach children about their rights and how to manage the impact of parental separation:
The Rights Idea? has dual quality mark approval from the PSHE Association and the Association of Citizenship Teaching.
Coincidentally, Dr Ewing had also been approached at around the same time by Patrick Myer, Senior Ambassador on the Reducing Parental Conflict Team at the DWP, about possible lesson plans on cohabitation that Resolution member Yuliya Osudina, now at Kingsley Napley, was interested in developing. Shortly afterwards, during an oral evidence session of the Parliamentary inquiry into The rights of cohabiting partners, the Rt Hon Caroline Nokes MP, as Chair of the Women and Equalities Committee, openly endorsed the development of a PSHE resource on cohabitation to be used as part of the Relationships Education curriculum aimed at Key Stage 4 and Key Stage 5 secondary school pupils. Resolution has subsequently embraced the project by providing practitioner support and staff assistance, with project funding for the collaboration coming from the University of Exeter’s Open Innovation Platform Collaboration Fund.
Over the past year, Graeme Fraser, Chair of Resolution’s Cohabitation Committee, has led Resolution’s input on this project with support from members of the Resolution Cohabitation Committee, namely Hannah Saxe and myself, with assistance also from Rachel Rogers, Resolution’s Head of Policy, and Sara Baba, Resolution’s Marketing Manager.
Graeme has worked closely with Dr Ewing, Professor Barlow and Yuliya Osudina in particular to bring the lesson plans to fruition and rollout. At times, this has involved input from the aforementioned Cohabitation Committee members and University of Exeter’s Professor Probert, as well as Nazia Rashid from Resolution’s Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Committee.
A summary of what the resource says and does
The achievement of all the above-described work has been to create an interactive and informative two-part lesson plan for use nationally in PSHE teaching as part of the new Relationships Education curriculum.
Lesson 1 introduces pupils to three fictitious couples in different relationship forms, focusing particularly on the common law marriage myth. Lesson 2 considers rights and protections provided within legally recognised marriages and civil partnerships as compared to other relationship types (cohabitation or those with a non-qualifying ceremony).
The pack comprises a detailed Teacher Guide, PowerPoints and an accompanying infographic. The infographic explains what types of wedding ceremonies or relationships give rise to automatic legal rights, and is available as a resource for schools to download or print. Schools may request free laminated A3 copies of the infographic by contacting Dr Ewing: J.Ewing@exeter.ac.uk.
The lesson plans are presented neutrally in line with the government’s objective to emphasise marriage as an important relationship choice for many couples. However, in explaining to children the characteristics and legal status of other types of long-term relationships, pupils are tasked to reflect on the existing law and consider future laws in an interactive way. For example, as a homework or extension task, pupils are asked to do some research on the number of couples in cohabiting relationships in England and Wales. For the task “Lawmaker for the day”, pupils are asked to imagine that they have been given the responsibility to draft a new law for cohabitants – what would it include and when would it apply?
The PSHE Association’s Quality Mark is awarded exclusively to resources that meet best practice principles for safe and effective PSHE education. Subject Specialists at the PSHE Association rigorously assess proposed lesson plans to ensure that all materials are of the highest quality. Those involved in the Modern Families project are therefore extremely proud that the resource has been accepted by the PSHE Association and given its prestigious Quality Mark.
Jasmine John, a PSHE Association Subject Specialist, commented:
“We are so pleased to award the Quality Mark to Modern Families, which explores the legal rights of different forms of relationships in England and Wales, and the ways in which couples can formalise their relationships. The lessons include thought-provoking and informative activities that encourage students to develop their knowledge of the diverse family forms that exist; develop keys skills and attributes such as empathy and advocacy; and equip students with strategies that can make a powerful difference to their lives in the future.”
Resolution’s Cohabitation Committee would like to extend its thanks and gratitude to its Chair, Graeme Fraser and other committee members mentioned above; and to Resolution staff involved with the project. It also extends its thanks and gratitude to Dr Ewing, Professor Barlow and Professor Probert at University of Exeter; Yuliya Osudina and Kingsley Napley; and Nazia Rashid from Resolution’s Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Committee.
The dedication of their combined expertise, time and commitment over a year has resulted in this fantastic and deeply important project for future generations. It is hoped that Modern Families will reach thousands of children in England and Wales, helping them to develop into young adults with a better understanding of family forms, rights, and relationships.
Modern Families launched on 17 November 2022 and has already received excellent feedback from teachers. If you would like to download a copy of the free to access resource, please go to law.exeter.ac.uk/research/groups/frs/projects/modern-families/ or the PSHE website.