Relationships, sex and health education: What do schools need to know?

26 Feb 2019, 12:15

In what’s been hailed as a “historic” moment, the government has finally published the first new guidance on relationships and sex education for 19 years.

From 2020, relationships, sex and health education will be compulsory subjects in all secondary schools, while all primaries will have to teach relationships and health education. It’s a real watershed moment, but there’s a lot of conflicting information out there about what schools will and won’t have to teach.

The updated guidance published yesterday includes some minor changes since it was published in draft form last year, while the government’s response to its own consultation reveals widespread opposition to the RSE elements of the guidance.

The guidance is statutory, which means schools “must have regard” to it, and “where they depart from those parts of the guidance which state that they should (or should not) do something they will need to have good reasons for doing so”.

The document includes a number of detailed lists of things pupils should know by the end of certain stages. There are too many to go into here, but it’s possible to use examples to show how the teaching of the subjects will evolve over time.

Here’s what schools need to know.


1. What schools MUST do

Though a lot of the guidance covers what schools SHOULD teach to pupils at different stages, when and how those issues are taught will be left up to heads and teachers.

However, there are a few things in the guidance which schools MUST do in order to be compliant with the law.

First of all, new regulations (a type of legislation) have been laid before parliament which state that “pupils receiving primary education must be
taught relationships education, pupils receiving secondary education must be taught RSE and that all primary and secondary pupils must be taught health education”.

That’s the main basis of the legal duty on schools, but there are few other things they have to do legally.

Firstly, schools must have a written policy on how they plan to teach relationships and sex education, and consult parents when developing and reviewing that policy. They must also make copies of the policy available to all who request them, and put them on their websites.

Schools must also take into account religious background of all pupils when planning their teaching. They must also ensure they comply with equalities legislation, make the subjects accessible for all pupils and must not discriminate against anyone on the basis of age, sex, race, disability, religion or belief, gender reassignment, pregnancy or maternity, marriage or civil partnership, or sexual orientation.

They must also ensure teaching and materials are “appropriate to age and background of their pupils“, and that while teaching about sex, sexuality, sexual health and gender identity, they recognise that young people “may be discovering or understanding their sexual orientation or gender identity”.


2. What pupils should learn at primary school…

In relationships education at primary school, pupils will learn about things like the “characteristics of healthy family life” and that other people’s families “sometimes look different” from theirs.

The subject will also cover how to recognise if relationships are making them feel unhappy and unsafe, and how to seek help if needed. Other elements include the importance of respecting others, even when they are different, and the rules and principles for keeping safe online.

One change since the draft guidance was put out last year is the inclusion of content on how to “report concerns or abuse” and the “vocabulary and confidence needed to do so”.

Health education at primary school will cover physical health content like basic first aid, diet and nutrition, drugs and alcohol, puberty and the need for exercise and good quality sleep, alongside teaching about mental health issues too.

For example, the subject will cover the “range and scale” of human emotions and how to talk about them. Pupils should also learn the benefits of exercise and time outdoors, as well as “community participation, voluntary and service-based activity”, along with “simple self-care techniques” like the importance of rest.

The impact of bullying, including cyberbullying, will be discussed, and schools will also be expected to teach pupils about the benefits of rationing time spent online.

Teaching about menstruation has also been added since the draft guidance was published last year, as has a line requiring schools to teach “the facts and science relating to immunisation and vaccination”.


3. …and at secondary

When pupils move on to secondary school, relationships and sex education will get more detailed. Pupils will learn about “different types” of relationships, the legal status of marriage, the roles and responsibilities of parents and how to determine whether other children, adults or sources of information are trustworthy.

There will be content on how stereotypes can be damaging, on criminal behaviour in relationships such as violence or coercion and what constitutes sexual harassment and sexual violence and “why they are always unacceptable”.

Pupils will also be taught about their rights and responsibilities online, and how sexually explicit material like pornography presents a “distorted picture of sexual behaviours”. The content will also cover sexual consent, exploitation, abuse, grooming, coercion, harassment, rape and domestic abuse. Content on forced marriage, honour based violence and female genital mutilation has also been added since the guidance was in draft form.

There is also content on reproductive health and fertility, managing sexual pressure, the range and efficacy of contraception, STIs and the facts around pregnancy, including miscarriage

Pupils should also be taught there are “choices in relation to pregnancy”, using “medically and legally accurate, impartial information on all options, including keeping the baby, adoption, abortion and where to get further help”.

In late secondary education, pupils will learn the “benefits of regular self-examination and screening”.

Health education will move on to cover common types of mental health issues, the unrealistic expectations for body images shown online, the science relating to blood, organ and stem cell donation and the risks associated with alcohol, drugs and tobacco consumption.

Personal hygiene and dental health will also be covered, and teaching of basic first aid will become more advanced than at primary school, to include CPR and other life-saving skills.


4. The right to withdraw

As revealed by Schools Week last year, parents will have the right to request that their child is withdrawn from “some or all” of their sex education at secondary school under the new guidance, but the final decision will lie with headteachers. Headteachers are being encouraged to grant such requests “except in exceptional circumstances”, and should discuss parents’ wishes with them before making a decision.

However, as Schools Week also revealed in 2017, once a child is three terms away from their 16th birthday, they can choose to opt back in to sex education, so they can be taught the subject before they reach the age of consent.

At primary level, sex education is entirely optional, so headteachers “will automatically grant a request to withdraw a pupil from any sex
education delivered in primary schools, other than as part of the science curriculum”.

There is no right for parents to withdraw their pupils or for pupils to withdraw themselves from any part of the relationships or health education curriculum.


5. Teaching about LGBT relationships

The government has strengthened its guidance on teaching about LGBT issues slightly, insisting that it “expects” all pupils to have been taught LGBT content “at a timely point” during relationships and sex education. The draft guidance issued last year simply said that the DfE “recommends that it is integral throughout the programmes of study”.

However, ministers have also sought to clarify that it will be up to schools when they teach about said issues. Such content will only be taught “at the point at which schools consider it appropriate”, the updated guidance said.

LGBT content was included in the draft guidance after years of lobbying by charities and campaign groups, which warned the new guidance was out-of-date and failed to prepare young people for the world around them.

But the move also angered religious and conservative groups, which have demanded the right to opt their children out of the lessons.

In teaching about LGBT issues, schools should ensure all teaching is “sensitive and age appropriate in approach and content”. The content should also be “fully integrated” into schools’ programmes of study for this area of the curriculum “rather than delivered as a standalone unit or lesson”.


6. Modifications for SEND pupils

The new guidance explains that in special schools and for some SEND pupils in mainstream schools, there “may be a need” to tailor content and teaching to “meet the specific needs of pupils at different developmental stages”.

“As with all teaching for these subjects, schools should ensure that their teaching is sensitive, age-appropriate, developmentally appropriate and delivered with reference to the law.”

The government has also added to the guidance a clarification on how schools should process requests to withdrawn SEND pupils from sex education, setting out that there may be “exceptional circumstances” where the headteacher may want to take “a pupil’s specific needs arising from their SEND” into account when ruling on such a request.

The approach outlined above “should be reflected in the school’s policy on RSE”, the guidance said.

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