Relationships and sex education guidance updated after nineteen years.

18 Apr

The updated draft guidance on sex and health education was published on 25 February 2019 following the first draft on which the government consulted over 2017 and 2018.  This includes minor changes. The public’s response to the government’s consultations elicited widespread opposition to some Relationship and Sex Education (RSE) elements in its guidance.

From 2020, relationships, sex and health education will be compulsory in all secondary schools and academies, while all primaries will have to teach relationships and health education.  Currently, academies are not compelled to teach this subject because they don’t follow the national curriculum.

Schools and academies “must have regard” to the guidance, 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 several aspects of the subject pupils should know by the end of certain stages. There are too many to go into here.

The rest of the article is based on the briefing that The Key, a governors’ services organisation, has given to its members, for which I am deeply grateful.

  1. General requirements for schools and academies

Much of the guidance covers what schools and academies should teach pupils at different stages.  However, when and how these issues are taught will be left up to heads and teachers.  But there are a few actions in the guidance which schools and academies MUST take to be compliant with the law.

New regulations were laid before parliament stating that “pupils receiving primary education must be taught relationships education”.  Those “receiving secondary education must be taught RSE and all primary and secondary pupils must be taught health education”.

Schools and academies must have a written policy setting out plans to teach relationships and sex education and consult parents when developing and reviewing their policies. They must make copies of the policies available to all who request them and put them on their websites.

Schools and academies are required to consider the religious background of all pupils when planning their teaching. They also must ensure they comply with equalities legislation, make the subject accessible for all pupils and not discriminate against anyone based on age, sex, race, disability, religion or belief, gender reassignment, pregnancy or maternity, marriage or civil partnership, or sexual orientation.

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

  1. The Primary Phase

In relationships education at primary level, pupils are to learn about “characteristics of healthy family life” and that other people’s families “sometimes look different” from theirs.  Materials are to cover how to recognise if relationships are making them feel unhappy and unsafe, and how to seek help if needed. They must respect others, even when they are different.  The school/academy must apprise pupils of the rules and principles for keeping themselves 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 mental health issues.  The subject must cover the “range and scale” of human emotions and how to talk about them. Pupils should 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, must be discussed, and schools and academies will be expected to teach pupils about the benefits of rationing time spent online.

Teaching about menstruation has 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”.

  1. The Secondary Phase

When pupils move on to secondary school/academy, they 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.

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

Pupils will 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 cover sexual consent, exploitation, abuse, grooming, coercion, harassment, rape and domestic abuse. Information on forced marriage, honour-based violence and female genital mutilation are included.

There is content on reproductive health and fertility, managing sexual pressure, the range and efficacy of contraception, sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and facts around pregnancy, including miscarriage.

Pupils are to be taught that 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”.

At a later stage in the secondary phase, pupils are to learn about the “benefits of regular self-examination and screening”.

Health education must cover common types of mental health issues, the unrealistic expectations about 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 are to be covered and the teaching of basic first aid will become more advanced than at primary school, to include cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) and other life-saving skills.

  1. The right to withdraw

Parents will have the right to request that their children are withdrawn from “some or all” of their sex education at the secondary stage under the new guidance, but the final decisions 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 decisions.

Once a child is three terms away from her/his 16th birthday, s/he can choose to opt back in to sex education.

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

However, 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.

  1. Teaching about LGBT relationships

The government has strengthened its guidance on teaching about lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (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”. The operative word is “recommends”, as this aspect inflames passions.

However, ministers have also sought to clarify that it will be up to schools and academies when they teach about this aspect of the curriculum. Such content will be taught only “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 angered religious and conservative bodies, whose members have demanded the right to opt their children out of the lessons.

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

  1. Modifications for SEND pupils

The new guidance explains that in special schools and for some Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (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, in addition, explained how schools and academies should process requests to withdraw SEND pupils from sex education, stating that there may be “exceptional circumstances” where the headteacher may want to take “a pupil’s specific needs arising from her/his 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.

  1. Public Response

The public’s response to the consultation is not supportive of many of the proposals.  For example, 64% of respondents said the proposed content for relationships and sex education at secondary level was not “age-appropriate”, while 58% raised the same concern about relationships education at primary.

A “large proportion” of respondents disagreed with the position on teaching about LGBT issues set out in the guidance, but ministers have added a clause making it clear it’s up to schools and academies to decide when LGBT issues are taught. The government believes that this is the right approach.

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