Teachers are crying out for clarity on what they can teach in relationships and sex education classes, but does draft guidance from the Department for Education (DfE) give it? Lucy Emmerson, director of the Sex Education Forum, looks at the detail.

We’ve waited nearly 20 years and finally the revamped government guidance on relationships and sex education (RSE) is here. There’s a lot to get to grips with.

It starts by explaining how the requirements vary for different types of schools; the right to be ‘excused’ if parents don’t want their child to receive sex education; the role of religion and belief; and what should be covered by the school policy – for primary schools this includes the task of defining relationships education.

It’s a few more pages before teachers start to find information on the questions they’ve been calling out to be answered: what exactly the curriculum should contain.

This is divided into relationships education – for primary schools, RSE – for secondary schools and a brand new subject: health education – to be mandatory at both primary and secondary level.

The missing ingredient at primary level is the mandatory sex education

Tables set out what pupils should know ‘by the end of primary’ and ‘by the end of secondary’ but unlike a programme of study, do not break down content by year or key stage.

There is flexibility for schools to decide how to pace the learning, but it is also clear that learning should start at the beginning of primary, with a ‘building blocks’ approach whereby ‘core knowledge is broken down into units of manageable size and communicated clearly to pupils, in a carefully sequenced way, within a planned programme or lessons’.

The areas of knowledge to be covered by the end of primary include friendships, family, boundaries, privacy, bullying, stereotypes and online relationships.

All of this is very sound and sensible. But there is something less matter of fact, which is the repeated mention of virtues, such as self-control, self-sacrifice, forgiveness and generosity. Teaching virtues has never featured in the research evidence on effective RSE, and one worries about the message it would give children to teach that relationships are about self-sacrifice, rather than about equality and enjoyment, for example.

The missing ingredient at primary level though is the mandatory sex education. With the government committed to only providing relationships education to younger pupils, this is the overwhelming cut and thrust of the guidance for teachers.

But tucked away, there is a brief recommendation that all primary schools have a programme of sex education which includes preparing pupils for the changes adolescence brings and learning how a baby is conceived and born. Given the lack of emphasis, schools may feel the need to present these important subjects under other parts of the curriculum: life-cycles and reproduction in national curriculum science, for example. Learning about puberty has been placed in the new subject of health education.

When we train teachers we are repeatedly asked about the sex education content; this is the area where guidance is lacking and teachers need confidence and clarity.

Making RSE inclusive for LGBT issues is described as something that should be integral

A classic question is whether or not to teach children correct terms for genitalia – vulva, testicles etc. This is not spelt out in the new guidance, despite the fact that Ofsted and the Education Select Committee have previously recommended they be taught in order to safeguard children. The guidance does say children should have ‘the vocabulary and confidence to report concerns or abuse’ but why not spell it out?

For secondary school pupils, the guidance is extremely clear about the scope of factual knowledge needed to support good sexual health: the full range of contraceptive choices; the facts and choices around pregnancy; information on sexually transmitted infections and how to get help from services.

This is supported by a focus on consent, with emphasis on being able to actively communicate and recognise consent from others.

Importantly, making RSE inclusive for LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans] issues is described as something that should be integral, though from our experience schools will need more information about what LGBT inclusive RSE looks like in reality.

Taking the secondary curriculum as a whole what is most lacking is something that says ‘let’s take a positive view of human sexuality’. There is also a question of which parts of secondary RSE constitute sex education, should parents request that their child is excused from that element.

The new guidance is now subject to a consultation. What we know is that RSE is changing and schools are going to need help to guide them through the maze of topics, and mix of recommendations and requirements presented by DfE. We have produced a free curriculum design tool for teachers to use and will respond to the new guidance with practical advice.

This is not quite the unambiguous support that teachers need, to have frank discussions about such a fundamental subject with their pupils, but it is an important step forward from the guidance it replaces.

Lucy Emmerson is director of the Sex Education Forum