Relationships, Sex and Health Education

12 Aug

Relationships, sex and health education becomes compulsory in secondary schools and academies from September 2020.  For primary schools the requirement will be to teach relationships and health education.   While academies do not have to follow the national curriculum, they must pay due regard to the advice of the Department for Education.

(1)       What is compulsory for schools

Schools will be required to teach the subject matter at different stages.  However, when and how the subject is taught will be left to governors, headteachers and teachers.

All schools (whether primary or secondary) must have written policies on how they plan to teach relationship and sex education. They must consult parents when developing the policies, make copies available to members of the public who request them and display the policies on their websites.

Schools must take account of the religious backgrounds of all pupils when planning the teaching.  They have to comply with the Equalities Act 2010 and must not discriminate against anyone on the basis of age, sex, race, disability, religion/belief, gender reassignment, pregnancy/maternity, marriage/civil partnership or sexual orientation.

(a)        Primary

At primary level, pupils will learn about the “characteristics of healthy family life” and how other people’s families “sometimes look different” from theirs.  The teaching must inform about relationships that make them feel unhappy and unsafe, how to call for help when needed, the importance of respecting others – even when different – and the way they can keep themselves safe on-line. The guidance explains how to report concerns or abuse and provides the “vocabulary…..needed to do so”.

Health education will cover physical health, including basic first aid, diet/nutrition, drugs, alcohol, puberty, the need for exercise and good quality sleep and mental health issues.  Schools must teach about “community participation and voluntary and service-based activity” along with simple “self-care techniques”.   Teachers must inform pupils about the impact of bullying and rationing their time spent on-line, menstruation, and “the facts and science related to immunisation and vaccination”.

(b)       Secondary

At secondary level, relationships and sex education are to be explored in detail. Pupils 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.  Teachers will warn pupils about the dangers of stereotyping and apprise them about criminal behaviour in relationships – such as violence, coercion, what constitutes sexual harassment and violence, and “why they are unacceptable”.

Schools must teach pupils about their rights and responsibilities online, and how sexually explicit material like pornography presents a “distorted picture of sexual behaviours”. Subjects on sexual consent, exploitation, abuse, grooming, coercion, harassment, rape and domestic abuse will be explored and why forced marriage, honour-based violence and female genital mutilation are illegal and morally taboo.

The content will cover reproductive health and fertility, managing sexual pressure, the range and efficacy of contraception, sexually transmitted diseases, pregnancy and miscarriage. Schools will inform pupils about “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”.

Older pupils at Key Stage 4 will learn the “benefits of regular self-examination and screening”. In covering the health education ground pupils will move on to common types of mental health issues, the unrealistic expectations about body images shown online, the science relating to blood, organ and stem cell donations and the risks associated with alcohol, drugs and tobacco consumption. Personal hygiene and dental health will also be promoted. Secondary schools will teach first aid at a more advanced level than at primary ones, including cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) and other life-saving skills.

(c)        The right to withdraw

Parents/Carers will have the right to request that their children be withdrawn from “some or all” of their sex education at secondary school under the new guidance.  However, the final decision will lie with the headteachers, who are being encouraged by government to grant such requests “except in exceptional circumstances”. The guidance also encourages headteachers to discuss the wishes of parents/carers with them before making such decisions.  I would also urge that headteachers talk to their chairs of governors first before deciding on such sensitive matters.

But once a child is three terms away from her/his 16th birthday, s/he may choose to opt back into being sex education, so s/he can be taught the subject before reaching the age of consent.

At primary level, sex education is optional.  Headteachers must “automatically grant a request to withdraw a pupil from any sex education delivered in a primary school, other than as part of the science curriculum”.  However, there is no right for parents to withdraw their children or for pupils to withdraw themselves from any part of the relationships or health education curriculum.

(d)       Teaching about LGBT relationships

The government “expects” all pupils to have been taught about lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) issues “at a timely point”. But ministers also said it would be up to schools when they teach about these issues and that they should be covered “at the point at which schools consider it appropriate”.

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

(e)       Modifications for SEND pupils

The new guidance explains that in special schools and for some special educational needs and disabled (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 forms of education, schools should ensure that their teaching is sensitive, age-appropriate, developmentally appropriate and delivered with reference to the law.”

The government explained how schools should process requests to withdraw SEND pupils from sex education, stating that there may be “exceptional circumstances” where the headteacher will 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.

(2)       Action for the Governing Board

What should the governing board do to prepare for the school to deliver Relationships, Sex and Health Education?

(a)        Appoint a governor or committee to oversee the new RSE requirements.

(b)        Assess the changes that the school will need to make to what is currently taught in it.

(c)        Ask for the headteacher to request the lead teacher to make a presentation on the subject to the governing board at a future meeting.

(d)        Where there is a body over the governing board, such as in an Anglican school (the Diocesan Board), the local authority (in the case of an LA school) and the trustees in a Multi-Academy Trust, and this overarching body controls key policy matters, speak to it, check the level of delegation, and take appropriate action.

(e)        Ask the headteacher the following questions at a meeting of the board or at a working party, if the matter is delegated to it.

  • What is changing to ensure that the school is legally compliant?
  • Who is doing the ground work?
  • How is the school involving the parents/carers on the proposed changes? Are we anticipating opposition and how will we deal with it?
  • Have we considered cultural and religious sensitivities?
  • Will the RSE curriculum be aligned to the ages of the pupils?
  • How will we decide on pupils whose parents/carers wish them to be withdrawn from lessons in RSE?
  • How will we oversee the RSE curriculum?
  • What are the resource implications, and should the governing board keep a budget for the development of RSE? If so, how much?
  • What arrangements are being madeto train staff to deliver RSE and should the board bring in external support?
  • What are the budget implications?

(f)        Make arrangements to consult parents on what the governing board intends to implement and amend the plans based on responses if needs must.

(g)        Finally, to use the sentence the late Magnus Magnusson of Mastermind would have used, “We’ve started so we will finish!” the governors should set a timeline for action so that changes are implemented in September 2020 and ensure that what is happening on the ground is monitored, evaluated and made better with the passage of time.

(3)       Parental reactions to plans hit the headlines

The reactions of several parents were reported in the national press towards the end of the summer term 2019. The Sunday Times reported that parents were planning protests in the early autumn and “headteachers across England are bracing themselves for angry scenes”.  In Parkfield Primary School, Birmingham, 350 children were withdrawn because teachers refused to cease using books teaching young children that same-sex relationships were normal. The High Court banned demonstrations outside Anderton Park Primary School, also in Birmingham, because of ugly scenes which upset the pupils and staff.

The Headteachers of 70 schools in the country contacted the National Association of Headteachers to raise concerns that their schools/academies were being ambushed by parents trying to stop lessons.  Rob Kelsall, a national organiser at the NAHT, said: “The list of schools that have asked us for help reaches from Croydon to Kirklees. There is a lot of nervousness that if the secretary of state does not get a grip on this issue this summer, we could see protests right across England in the autumn.”

Susan Mason, a Christian and mother, has set up a website called to oppose the lessons. She and her supporters leafleted dozens of schools in the home counties. She said: “There is a small, very vocal minority being listened to by the government — and everyone else is being ignored. I think that LGBT teaching should be discussed in the home . . . this role is being taken away by the state.”

In a BBC Panorama film, the presenter, Sima Kotecha, said many Muslim parents were confused about what would be taught in the new lessons.  “Parents come up to you and say absurd things — kids are being taught about anal sex or about how lesbians make love. There is a lot of misunderstanding and panic about the mechanics of sexuality being taught to primary school children.”

The DfE said it had “already sent resources, including myth-busters to every school in England”.  But maybe on this occasion, myth-busting may just not be enough.   If, according to former prime minister Harold Wilson a week is a long time in politics, a year in the run-up to the teaching of Relationships, Sex and Health Education is a very, very long time and much can happen before September 2020.

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