Effective relationships and sex education is a partnership, and it needs an appropriate investment from government so that schools can access training, argues Lucy Emmerson

Parents should have high expectations for the quality of education their children receive at school in all areas of the curriculum. The new government guidance makes clear that relationships education, relationships and sex education (RSE) and health education are part of the required curriculum and need to be delivered to the same high standards as other subjects.

This is a big step forward. Many children and young people are still not learning what constitutes healthy relationships or what is abuse, others learn little about puberty before they experience it, and many leave school not understanding everything they need to about consent.  

The guidance for schools published by DfE will introduce consistency, with all primary schools in England teaching relationships education, and secondary schools covering a broad range of sexual health topics too. Health education introduces mandatory content on mental health and physical wellbeing, and also covers puberty and menstrual wellbeing.

Read more: A handy guide to the new RSE guidance

The long overdue update of RSE responds to widespread calls for an overhaul of the subject from young people, schools, MPs and, crucially, the majority of parents.

Parents will retain the right to withdraw their children from sex education classes that are not part of national curriculum science. A recent petition called for this to be extended to the new relationships education classes too, and hearing the views of people supporting the petition underlined the importance of engaging with parents as schools implement the new guidance. But it is also important to bear in mind that the petition was not representative of public opinion as a whole. An independent poll conducted by the PSHE Association in 2016, showed 92 per cent supported statutory RSE. Many parents also want support with providing RSE at home, acknowledging that in reality they are yet to fulfil their role in talking to their children about these matters. 

In fact the guidance requires schools to work closely with parents, and these changes open the way for better dialogue.

Many parents want support with providing RSE at home

The first step in building trust with parents is providing clear information about what the changes to RSE will really mean. The new guidance sets out the list of things pupils should know by the end of primary and by the end of secondary, but is also propelled by a drive to develop pupils’ personal attributes, including honesty, integrity, courage, humility, kindness, generosity, trustworthiness and a sense of justice, alongside self-respect and self-worth.

Starting with primary schools, relationships education will cover: ‘Families and people who care for me’, ‘Caring friendships’, ‘Respectful relationships’, ‘Online relationships’, and ‘Being safe’. The guidance acknowledges that children need to be able to recognise abusive behaviour and to know how to seek help if they are worried about abuse or experience it.

Government continues to recommend that all primary schools should have a sex education programme tailored to the age and the physical and emotional maturity of the pupils, pointing out that both boys and girls should be prepared for the changes that adolescence brings and that schools can draw on knowledge of the human life cycle set out in the national curriculum for science.

Learning about the law and legal rights is a consistent thread throughout the guidance, and goes into detail at secondary level, where pupils should know:

  • the legal rights and responsibilities regarding equality (particularly with reference to the protected characteristics as defined in the Equality Act 2010) and that everyone is unique and equal;
  • that some types of behaviour within relationships are criminal, including violent behaviour and coercive control;
  • the laws relating to forced marriage, honour-based violence and FGM.

There is also welcome breadth to the sexual health knowledge that is specified, which includes fertility, menstrual wellbeing (under health education), pregnancy choices, STIs, and how to access confidential sexual and reproductive health advice and treatment.

The new guidance advises schools to ensure that parents know what will be taught and when. As schools begin to plan changes to their curriculum they can also be asking parents which aspects of RSE they want further support with, as well as consulting pupils and staff about the changes. This creates an open and joined-up conversation.

It is helpful to have the new guidance available now so that schools can get on with preparing for statutory RSE ready for September 2020, but what is going to make a real difference is the availability of support to implement the guidance – both through government investment, and through leadership at the school level. A really useful section in the guidance, addressed to governing boards or management committees, says they should make sure that: 

  • all pupils make progress in achieving the expected educational outcomes; 
  • the subjects are well led, effectively managed and well planned;
  • the quality of provision is subject to regular and effective self-evaluation;
  • teaching is delivered in ways that are accessible to all pupils with SEND;
  • clear information is provided for parents on the subject content and the right to request that their child is withdrawn; and,
  • the subjects are resourced, staffed and timetabled in a way that ensures that the school can fulfil its legal obligations.

Effective RSE is a partnership, and it needs an appropriate investment from government so that schools can access training. When the Sex Education Forum surveyed teachers of RSE in 2018 we found that 29 per cent had never attended any training in the subject. Parents, children and teachers want RSE to be high quality and there really isn’t a short cut.    

Lucy Emmerson is Director of the Sex Education Forum, part of the National Children’s Bureau

Useful resources:

The Roadmap to Statutory RSE published by the Sex Education Forum and PSHE Association outlines a 10-step action plan for achieving high-quality RSE.

Our training calendar includes our national conference: ‘Countdown to Statutory RSE – getting relationships and sex education right for disabled children and those with SEN’ – on the 29th March.