Statutory RSE: 5 key questions

Expert outlines issues for school leaders when implementing relationships and sex education reforms.

The government has published draft statutory guidance for school leaders on how to implement new requirements to teach pupils about health, relationships and sex.

It is part of reforms that will strengthen the status of personal, social, health and economic (PSHE) education on the curriculum over the next few years - currently, it is only compulsory in independent schools, and effectively optional in maintained schools and academies.

Despite this, 93 per cent of schools offer some kind of PSHE. Many of them do a great job, and in such cases it's very popular with pupils and parents. In too many cases, however, PSHE curriculum time is under pressure, or it's delivered through occasional off-timetable days or other ineffective models. Quality also varies and teachers are often not given the support they need to teach it well.

How significant is the change?

The government's commitment to compulsory relationships education in all primary schools, compulsory relationships and sex education (RSE) in all secondary schools and compulsory health education across all schools from 2020 is a major development.

These changes should go a long way towards ensuring every child benefits from high quality provision.

The new statutory guidance outlines what schools must cover from 2020, but not everything that schools should cover to ensure their PSHE fully prepares young people for the world we live in. That said, the guidance, though not perfect, is broad in scope.

What are the key requirements?

Keeping children safe is presented as its primary aim and it states that all schools and colleges "should ensure children are taught about safeguarding, including how to stay safe online, as part of providing a broad and balanced curriculum".

Regarding health, the guidance emphasises the importance of mental health and emotional wellbeing, including when and how to get help.

Physical health topics such as the importance of sleep, first aid, cancer education and diet are covered, and it's great to see the links between physical and mental health outlined, including how one can impact the other.

Drugs and alcohol are included as you would expect, although it's important to go beyond the facts and knowledge about drug types and the law, and - as with all aspects of PSHE - to ensure young people are equipped with skills and strategies to deploy when faced with potentially risky situations.

And what about the relationship aspects?

The guidance explores what constitutes healthy, safe relationships - and stresses that pupils should understand consent as well as the importance of staying safe from online harm. This is a much-needed update considering existing guidance on RSE is now 19 years old.

Clearer wording on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT+) inclusivity is also a welcome addition, particularly where it states that schools "should ensure that this content is fully integrated into their programmes of study for this area of the curriculum rather than delivered as a stand-alone unit or lesson".

Do schools need to add ‘new subjects' to the curriculum?

The short answer is: no. Schools may be confused by reference in the government guidance to "new subjects" to describe something they're teaching already.

However, they should be assured that the health and RSE requirements simply outline which parts of PSHE will be compulsory for all schools.

When introducing the guidance, the Department for Education clearly stated: "All elements of PSHE are important and the government continues to recommend PSHE be taught in schools."

Therefore, schools should continue to teach health and relationships education through broader PSHE, which also covers elements of economic wellbeing and careers.

The PSHE Association has published a guide for schools on how to incorporate the guidance into their PSHE programmes.

Any other areas to consider?

When it comes to safeguarding, the emphasis is usually on areas of PSHE such as safe, healthy relationships or mental health, but economic wellbeing plays an important role.

Think of the safeguarding implications of online fraud or young people becoming "money mules" for example. There is thankfully reference to online gambling in the guidance, but economic wellbeing should be a core theme of every school's PSHE curriculum.

This guidance provides a basic framework, which many schools will already be exceeding through their PSHE provision.

Schools should not teach to the guidance, but incorporate it into their broader PSHE programmes in order to do everything they can to teach children and young people to be safe, healthy and prepared for the modern world.


  • Relationships education, relationships and sex education, and health education: government response, DfE, February 2019
  • PSHE guide for schools, PSHE Association
  • Programme of study for PSHE, PSHE Association

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