Flexibility around the implementation of relationships and sex education does not mean it has been delayed. So you best be prepared, says Lucy Emmerson

The second national Relationships and Sex Education (RSE) Day, takes place this year at a pivotal moment. There are just ten weeks before RSE becomes a statutory subject for all pupils in every school in England. Yet we are repeatedly asked at our teacher training webinars, why has RSE been delayed to 2021? I’d like to set the record straight: it hasn’t.

The Department for Education reiterated that the new subjects – relationships education, RSE and health education – will still be statutory from September 1 this year, but it has allowed some flexibility. Recognising the impact of Covid-19 and school closures on teachers’ ability to prepare, those schools who might need extra time can introduce different relationships, sex and health topics in phases. Nothing more. Nothing less. All schools must be delivering the subject fully by summer term, 2021.

Providing this leeway makes sense. It is 20 years since RSE guidance was last updated, and the disruption caused by the pandemic has eaten into the time that is necessary to properly assimilate this broader curriculum range and the rigorous approach expected in delivering it.

That children need RSE to catch up with their world is no longer in question

The guidance is rightly ambitious in relation to the assessment of pupil progress in RSE and the necessity of making the subject accessible for pupils with special educational needs and disabilities. Developing curriculum plans, integrating LGBT+ inclusion, training staff and updating policies all take time, and while some schools are already using the DfE’s guidance to deliver the subject or are close to ready, others have yet to lay the foundations for high-quality provision.

One area which schools will be particularly anxious to get right is engaging with parents. Events that would have allowed those discussions about RSE have simply not been able to take place during lockdown. But conversely, parents’ involvement in their children’s education has increased as a result, and they are likely to appreciate open conversations about any subject, not least one as important to wellbeing – and which many have strongly held views on – as RSE.

The new government guidance requires that schools involve parents and carers in planning and recommends ongoing communication with them about what will be taught and when.

Ultimately, involving them will improve pupils’ learning. We know from research that young people have long wanted their parents to take a greater role in educating them about sex, relationships and growing up, but that for varied and complex reasons, many parents have not taken this on.

Evidence also suggests that RSE is more effective when home and school have a shared role in meeting children and young people’s needs, yet it is important to note that what the pupil population requires from RSE cannot be established on assumptions. The government recommends giving pupils a voice in how the subject is delivered: something that could be illuminating for any parents with their heads in the sand.

The Ofsted handbook sets out that inspectors will consider the provision of relationships, sex and health education as part of a wider judgment of pupils’ personal development. When routine inspections restart, RSE will be part of the inspectorate’s scrutiny, albeit with sensitivity to the context and circumstances of schools.

Updating RSE to ensure it is relevant to young people’s lives, supported by their families and provided in a timely and inclusive way, is long overdue. This was true before the reality of the Covid-19 pandemic. It is even truer now that in light of the sometimes harsh emotional experiences it will have caused for some, and the new dynamics in friendships, family and intimate relationships we have all developed.

That children need RSE to catch up with their world is no longer in question. Neither is its importance to the curriculum. Government flexibility aside, schools have an imperative to get it right.