The basis of good relationships and sex education

Written by: Lucy Emmerson | Published:
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Lucy Emmerson considers the three key principles that should underpin statutory RSE

With the Children and Social Work Bill passing into law earlier this year, relationships and sex education (RSE) becomes a mandatory subject in all schools in England. But what exactly are schools being asked to teach? And how can schools ensure they are ready for the September 2019 start date?

The change in law is important because it applies to all schools – independent, academy, free, maintained, mainstream, and special. There is also a requirement for primary schools to provide relationships education.

The new legislation places RSE in the basic curriculum, as opposed to the national curriculum. Therefore there is unlikely to be anything as detailed as a Programme of Study, but the government will issue statutory guidance in the coming months. There is also the potential for the broader subject of PSHE to become mandatory in a similar way. RSE is naturally tethered to PSHE because of the package of skills and inter-related themes that they both address.

The first task for schools is to review the timetabling and staffing of RSE and PSHE. There need to be regular, planned lessons and a curriculum that spans all key stages. Changes to staffing may be needed to ensure that there is a lead teacher for PSHE including RSE, and that staff are appropriately skilled.

Schools can take confidence from the fact that there is widespread public and political support for RSE to have statutory status, and a clear body of research evidence demonstrating the benefits for young people. It is imperative that schools develop RSE provision using evidence-based good practice. The following three principles are key:

Distinguish between fact and opinion

Good-quality RSE is based on reliable sources of information, and gives pupils opportunities to reflect on values and influences, such as from their peers, the media, faith and culture. It is essential that the curriculum includes information about the law in relation to sexual behaviour and legal rights, for example to access medical advice and treatment. Discussion about what people think and believe is just as important, but opinion needs to be clearly flagged as just that.

Promotes healthy relationships

Well-taught RSE is not value free. RSE should be clear about its aspiration for relationships that are safe, equal, caring and enjoyable. This applies to friendships, family relationships, intimate and sexual relationships. These same qualities are often evident in a school’s ethos and mission, and as schools prepare for statutory RSE there is an opportunity to make this link. Check that the RSE programme includes discussion about real-life relationship issues such as consent, relationship abuse, sexual exploitation and online safety.

Accurate information about sexual and reproductive health

For RSE to be effective in protecting young people it must be sufficiently comprehensive. Medically correct information about both conception and contraception, the facts about transmission of STIs and prevention using barrier methods, and pregnancy options must be included. Teaching about sexual health must be done in an inclusive way, fostering gender equality and LGBT+ equality. This is something that teachers often worry about, but with the right training and support an inclusive approach becomes integral to lesson planning and delivery.


To be outstanding RSE needs to be responsive to pupils’ expressed needs. Young people say repeatedly that they would like RSE to give a positive view of human sexuality. The evidence shows that RSE results in young people choosing to wait until they are older to have sex for the first time, and being less likely to be involved in abusive relationships. By putting our trust in pupils to make the best choices they can, based on the best learning opportunities, we can start designing RSE based on aspiration and evidence rather than fear.

  • Lucy Emmerson is coordinator of the Sex Education Forum, which offers resources and guidance, including one-day RSE courses to help schools prepare for statutory RSE. Visit


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