Relationships and Sex Education: Implementation date draws closer

31 Dec

I        Introduction

The government has legislated that as from September 2020, all children in primary schools and academies will engage in relationships education. This will be expanded at secondary level to relationships and sex education (RSE).  Pupils will learn about how to keep safe online and taking care of their mental health.  In primary schools and academies, pupils will continue to learn (scientifically) about how, as they physically grow, their bodies morph when moving through puberty.

For primary schools and academies, the guidance about sex education is vague.   It stipulates only that pupils should be “taught lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) content at a timely point”. There is no indication of what is “timely”. However, schools and academies must ensure that LGBT content is “fully integrated into their programmes of study”, not “delivered as a standalone unit or lesson”. Teaching about sexual orientation must be inclusive and respectful and must give pupils “an equal opportunity to explore the features of stable and healthy same-sex relationships”.

Meanwhile, parents will continue to have the right to request that their children be withdrawn from those lessons up to the age of 15.  Headteachers will have the power and responsibility to grant such requests.

After the age of 15, pupils will decide for themselves whether to attend RSE classes. The government guidance states that headteachers are expected to talk to the parents of pupils below the age of 15 (who make the withdrawal requests), discuss the benefits of receiving this important part of the educational provision and “any detrimental effects that withdrawal may have on their children”.

II       Primary

Many of the requirements are non-controversial.  For instance, primary children will be taught about how to look after their mental health.  Pupils will also be expected learn to recognise when their classmates might be struggling and offer them succour.  Lessons will cover how they can take care of themselves, get enough sleep, spend times outdoors and develop positive friendships with their peers.  What is also included will be lessons on the dangers of the excessive use of electronic devices and the importance of limiting time spent on the internet.

In terms of relationships education, primary children will be taught age-appropriate online safety – including what to do if they come across materials with which they are uncomfortable, the importance of respect for others even when posting anonymously and the risks of talking to people (on the internet) who they don’t know in real life.

III     Secondary

At secondary level, pupils will have lessons on health education, especially mental health and well-being. They will learn about the signs of mental illnesses such as anxiety and depression.  Teachers will lead discussions on

  • emotions and how to access professional help when emotionally debilitated and
  • the dangers of imbibing inappropriate drugs and excessive alcohol.

Secondary schools and academies will be required to cover online safety topics, including the hazards of sharing private photographs, the impact of viewing explicit and/or harmful content, what to do when they come across it and how to report what they see.  Some lessons on sex and relationship education will be about how the internet often publishes and promotes harmful materials.

DfE guidance states that pupils must learn “that some people are LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender], that this should be respected in British society, and that the law affords them and their relationships recognition and protection”.  Schools and academies will decide about what is appropriate “to teach on this subject and when, based on the age, development and religious backgrounds of their pupils”.  They “should involve their parents in these decisions”.

The secondary material will also raise awareness about female genital mutilation (FGM) – that it is illegal and the support networks available for women – other forms of honour-based abuse, grooming, forced marriage and domestic abuse.  It will be up to schools and academies to decide when and with what frequency to have age-appropriate lessons.

The guidance which went on-line in July 2019 follows calls for evidence and a three-month consultation period.  The government received more than 11,000 responses to its consultation document.

IV     Reactions

While most of the country welcomed changes in the law, a significant and vocal minority voiced concerns about the issues that will be covered in RSE.  These objectors felt that some topics should not be taught by schools and academies.

For instance, the Parent Power website states that parents should be able to educate children in line with their religious beliefs.  “Children are given too much information too young and don’t have the emotional maturity to process all this information,” Linda Rose from Parent Power told the BBC.  “We are worried that this isn’t upholding religion as a protected characteristic with equal value to the other protected characteristics.”

In Birmingham, parents complained against the plan for their children to be taught about LGBT rights and homophobia. On 25 November 2019, Mr Justice Warby ruled in a High Court judgement for an exclusion zone to remain around Anderton Park Primary School, which was targeted by protesters over many months.   Many parents had claimed that the curriculum contradicted their Islamic faith and was not “age appropriate”.

In the five-day hearing at the Priory Courts in October 2019, Birmingham City Council argued that there were untrue and harmful allegations made about the school on social media with a visiting imam claiming to parents that there were “paedophiles” inside the school and the school had a “paedophile agenda”.  Mr Justice Warby said that none of this was true.   He added that the lessons had been “misrepresented by parents and that the school did not promote homosexuality.

The Council stated that the noisy protests at the school gates were disrupting lessons and preventing the children from using the playground.  It maintained that the court action was responding to campaigners’ behaviour, not the issue of protests.

Following the ruling, Sarah Hewitt-Clarkson, the Headteacher, said staff were “over the moon.  She added: “We knew it (the issue) was misrepresented and that was the frustration when you are trying to go about your daily business as educators and when people say things about you that are not true, that is very difficult. It has been awful, but my staff are unbelievable, and parents are unbelievable, and the children of Anderton Park are incredible human beings and we are a strong school and every single person is part of that strength.”

Charities have generally been positive about the RSE guidance.

  • The NSPCC said that it would help children “navigate the modern world”. Almudena Lara of the NSPCC stated: “The NSPCC firmly believes that every child should be taught from an early age about consent, different relationships, and what abuse and harassment is”, so that s/he learns of her/his right to be treated with dignity and respect. “Teachers must receive high-quality training and support to deliver the new curriculum, so that every school across the country meets the same high standards.”
  • The Catholic Education Service (CES) said it welcomed the government’s announcement. Paul Barber, the Director, said:  “Catholic education is centred on the formation of the whole child and age-appropriate RSE is an essential part of this. It is essential for creating well-rounded young people, for equipping students to make good life choices and for keeping our children safe.”
  • Anna Feuchtwang, chief executive of the National Children’s Bureau (NCB), said the guidance was “a welcome step forward in preparing children for adulthood, improving their well-being and keeping them safe and healthy”.

However, Ann Mroz, Editor of The Times Educational Supplement, was scathingly critical of one aspect of the guidance, i.e. the government dumping the headteachers of schools and academies into make critical decisions about when to teach aspects of sex education and decide on whether or not to allow youngsters (if under the age of 15)  withdraw from these lessons when they parents request.  She remarked that “this deliberate vagueness is a craven attempt to ensure any ire over the matter is directed at our school leaders rather than our political leaders”.

She added: “In dodging the issue, there is room left for doubt and indecision. That’s bad news for an open society accepting of all partnerships, but also damaging for the wider perception of sex education.”  The attention given to the protests creates the false impression that this is where all the problems lie in sex education.

“Children are being exposed to an online world of unhealthy sexual relationships that teachers and parents often have little knowledge of and exposure to. Young people are accessing information and videos before having the media literacy skills to interpret them.

“That’s just the start. The difficulties to navigate are more numerous than ever. It’s not just pressure to have sex: it’s the pressure to take and send intimate pictures, the rise of revenge porn and more.”

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