Lucy Emmerson, Director, Sex Education Forum

With new government guidance on Relationships, Sex and Health Education (RSHE) rubber-stamped by parliament, schools have 12 months until they must follow the new requirements. Some schools have opted to start using the guidance this September, and others will want to begin their preparations in earnest this term.

The new guidance is the biggest reform to Relationships and Sex Education (RSE) in 20 years, and also makes Health Education compulsory. This holistic approach is really helpful as it enables learners to explore related issues such as mental health and emotional wellbeing, relationships, and physical and sexual health. Topics such as first aid, sleep, sun safety, dental health and menstrual wellbeing fall under Health Education, with RSE spanning issues from pregnancy choices to pornography. Clearly these are topics that need to be taught with care to ensure medical and legal accuracy, as well as providing safe opportunities for all learners to explore their views.

The new subjects are part of the basic curriculum, not the national curriculum, but will be statutory in all types of schools in England. The guidance describes in detail what pupils should know by the end of primary school and the end of secondary school. This leaves schools flexibility to decide how to plan a developmental programme. Young people often complain that RSE has been ‘too little, too late’, and so at secondary level, it’s essential to build learning from Year 7 upwards, with opportunities to revisit key themes.

The breadth of the new guidance is also hugely important for inclusivity. This year’s Sexual Health Week focus has been on Relationships, Sex and Disability, making reference to just one of the groups which can find themselves excluded from conversations about sexual health.

The new curriculum is a fantastic tool to support the mental wellbeing and positive sexual health of pupils. Underpinned by the Equalities Act 2010, it will contribute to addressing the disproportionate burden of poor mental health experienced by LGBT+ young people, and ensure that every school makes learning in the subject accessible to pupils with SEND.

The benefits of good sexual health education are far-reaching and the need is great. For example, a sexually transmitted infection (STI) is diagnosed in a young person every 4 minutes in England (PHE, 2018). Due to the lack of discussion and conversation, this fact may be news to pupils, staff, governors, trustees and parents, but is exactly why good sexual health education is so important.

The guidance states that pupils should know ‘how the different STIs, including HIV/AIDs, are transmitted, how risk can be reduced through safer sex (including through condom use) and the importance of and facts about testing’. To learn about transmission, pupils will need a basic understanding of genital anatomy. To support risk reduction, pupils will need practical information about condoms but also communication skills and a chance to consider how stigma and other social barriers can have an impact on risk reduction. This is a lot to cover all in one go, which is why the curriculum will need planning across several year groups.

Health Education adds to this with learning about vaccinations, self-examination, the spread, prevention and treatment of bacteria and viruses, but also supporting mental wellbeing. Pupils should be taught ‘how to talk about their emotions accurately and sensitively, using appropriate vocabulary’.

Think too about opportunities to tie-in with national events such as World AIDS Day on 1 December and Sexual Health Week, which falls in September each year. It’s well worth contacting local sexual health services to see if they can support the school with up-to-date information about services that are suitable for young people in the local area, which will include pharmacies as well as GPs and more specialist clinics. Local service providers, including school nurses, may be able to add value by contributing as external visitors and explaining what it is really like to use a health service independently. This really helps to build young people’s ‘health literacy’.

Research shows that high quality RSE delivered by trained educators leads to better sexual health and to young people choosing to have sex for the first time at an older age. Access to local services is vital too, so that young people can get confidential advice if they need it. Find out what is available so that any lesson about sexual health includes a signpost to help.

Good understanding of the topics covered in Relationships, Sex and Health Education is vital for learner wellbeing. The Sex Education Forum was delighted to work with NCFE and CACHE on the development of the RSHE suite of qualifications to help ensure that schools are able to meet the full breadth of learning stipulated in the government guidance.

Find out more about these qualifications by visiting or find out more about The Sex Education Forum at

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