Implications of RSE reforms

New guidance sets out what should be taught in relationships and sex education, but questions remain.

The long-awaited updated guidance on relationships and sex education (RSE) was published last week, the first government update on RSE for almost 20 years.

The new guidance is significant because it comes with legislation that makes relationships education mandatory in all primary schools, and RSE a requirement for secondary schools - a move that will help protect children and guarantee them important information about their bodies and growing up.

The surprise announcement of mandatory health education goes a long way towards providing children and young people with a complete curriculum for health and wellbeing (see below).

The draft guidance lists what children should know by the time they leave primary school and by the time they leave secondary school.

There is not a year-by-year programme of study as is provided for other subjects in the curriculum, but the guidance says that learning needs to start at the beginning of primary. The approach is intended to give schools some flexibility.

Key features of the new relationships education curriculum at primary are "families and people who care for me", and friendships - including bullying, cyberbullying, online relationships and staying safe. As previously, primary schools are recommended to have a programme of some elements of sex education, which includes preparing pupils for the changes adolescence brings and learning how a baby is conceived and born.

Confidence and clarity

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

A classic question is whether or not to teach children correct terms for genitalia. 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 that children should have "the vocabulary and confidence to report concerns or abuse", but why not spell it out?

The themes introduced at primary are developed through secondary RSE, with more in-depth learning about areas such as stereotypes, the law and equality.

There is a substantial list of knowledge that should be taught to support good sexual health - the facts about the full range of contraceptive choices; around pregnancy including miscarriage and that there are other choices; information on sexually transmitted infections and how to get help from services. This is supported by sections on consent, with emphasis on being able to actively communicate and recognise consent from others.

Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) issues are described as something that should be integral, not taught as a one-off lesson. From our experience, schools will need more information about what LGBT inclusive RSE looks like in practice - and we've developed primary and secondary training courses that do that.

The announcement explained that schools that are ready to deliver high-quality RSE from September 2019 should do so, while those needing more time to prepare can focus on September 2020, which will be the start of mandatory provision for all schools.

The coming academic year is therefore a key period for preparation. Support may be available from local public health teams, and investing in training will be key. The government is yet to commit money to this.

This is not the final RSE guidance - a consultation runs until 7 November - but it gives a clear indication of the direction of travel. It is also bound to raise further questions for schools wanting to plan ahead - for example, how to manage the reformed parental right to excuse children from sex education.

The guidance may not answer all the questions that teachers have on this important subject area, but it is an important step forward.

  • Lucy Emmerson is director of the Sex Education Forum

Expert view
Requirement for health education will help schools focus on mental health and wellbeing

By Anna Feuchtwang, NCB chief executive

The inclusion of health education as a new area of the curriculum won't require schools to cover the whole range of subjects that campaigners wanted.

The children and young people we work with have often stressed the importance of financial and economic education, for example - but the requirement for comprehensive education on health, including a crucial focus on mental health and wellbeing, is to be warmly welcomed.

The focus on mental health in the new curriculum covers important issues such as the interplay between physical and mental health, the harm of alcohol and drug abuse, bullying and the potential impact of the internet.

These changes to the curriculum sit alongside other welcome measures in the green paper on children's mental health, including training for designated mental health leads to co-ordinate activity across each school.

However, unless the government goes further and formally promotes the whole-school approach to wellbeing and mental health as a priority for the education system, mental health education will just be something children learn at school, not something they experience. Emotional good health must be a shared goal for everyone in the school community.

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