Getting statutory RSE right for SEND students

Written by: Adele Bates | Published:
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Relationships and sex education is statutory from September 2020 for all pupils, including those with SEND. Adele Bates advises schools on how to ensure this group does not miss out on these vital lessons

In 2020, the government will make health education and relationships and sex education (RSE) compulsory, which makes most of the PSHE curriculum now mandatory for all pupils in all schools. This also applies to special schools, PRUs, alternative provision (APs) and for all pupils with SEND in mainstream schools.

This article opens the discussion on how we make the new RSE content appropriate and useful for our pupils with additional needs – as directed by the Ofsted Education Inspection Framework – and the importance of doing so.

Teaching young people about sex and relationships can be a daunting task for some teachers. It can trigger emotional experiences in themselves and, if they have not received adequate training, it can be a challenge to create a safe space where our young people can get the answers they need.

For pupils with disabilities and other additional vulnerabilities the lessons may need deeper thought and repetition, to ensure that all pupils are receiving age-appropriate, useful RSE that ultimately enables them to live healthy, safe lives.

The Department for Education’s (DfE) statutory guidance for RSE and health education states: “Schools should consider the make-up of their own student body, including the gender and age range of their pupils, and consider whether it is appropriate or necessary to put in place additional support for pupils with particular protected characteristics (which mean that they are potentially at greater risk).” (DfE, 2019).

When adapting resources and lessons for particular minority groups the first step is to ask: who are your pupils exactly and what are their specific needs? Not all disabilities are the same, and not all special needs have the same requirements.

It can be tempting to shy away from awkward questions – or wrongly assume that these pupils will not need to know about certain areas of RSE. However, these young people can be particularly vulnerable to sexual abuse and non-consensual sexual experiences (three times as likely according to the NSPCC); they also have the right to enjoy safe, healthy relationships and positive sexual experiences with their own bodies and with other people’s, the same as any human.

RSE across the curriculum

RSE should be weaved into other subject areas to ensure that messages are reaffirmed and that conversations on the topics become normal, as advised by the statutory guidance. This will help to embed the learning for pupils who may not understand through one context.

School trips to a hospital or GP could also include introducing the clinics and professionals specific to sexual health. It is also important that pupils have a few adults they can trust to talk to.

Pupils with learning difficulties and autism

Pupils with learning difficulties and autism may physically be developing at a different rate to their mental capacity, as such this can make them particularly vulnerable. Ensure that lessons and resources are delivered in a way that they can understand and yet still cover the content that would be appropriate for their age and bodies.

Avoid using metaphors and euphemisms that could cause confusion, e.g. “others shouldn’t touch you down below without your permission”. Also, avoid generalisation – statements such as “touching yourself in private is okay” may be difficult to interpret. Be specific, “in your bedroom, when alone” or even have visuals to help aid understanding. Visual aids are also helpful when teaching about genitalia.

The social side to RSE can be hard for these pupils. They may not understand social signals in the same way as others.
Jo Billington, an autism doctoral researcher, lecturer in SEND and inclusion, and a mother of autistic boys, said: “I think there needs to be so much more focus on supporting the social aspect of RSE for autistic students. How on earth is my son supposed to understand flirting, for example?”

Role play, discussions using sentence starters and scripts, using actual examples in films or working with visiting actors can help the topic become accessible. This should be revisited often to ensure deep learning. I have created a year 7 and year 8 RSE six-week scheme of work that has been successfully used with SEN pupils with learning difficulties in a mainstream setting (see further information).

Deaf and visually impaired pupils

Ensure resources are accessible to them, and that they are given equal chance to ask questions with trusted adults. The NSPCC has recorded a British Sign Language resource around consent that can be shared with adults and children (NSPCC, 2019).

Visually impaired pupils will not have the same access to information on RSE as their sighted peers will have and this can affect the development of their sexuality. “This is not a reflection of mental deficiency, lack of vision seriously undermines children’s ability to gather information about sexuality.” (Davies, 1996)

For example, how have you adapted the lesson about putting condoms on safely for your visually impaired students? Are you/your staff able to explicitly and confidently explain what is going on? Do your visually impaired pupils know what other genders’ bodies are like? Do you have anatomically correct models that you can use?

BBC Radio 4 has a useful discussion on RSE for visually impaired pupils (2018). And the RNIB shares information about 3D models that can be printed (2017).

Pupils with SEMH

Pupils who have social, emotional and mental health (SEMH) issues may find RSE education difficult. Their already existing challenges with engaging in social situations, dislike of change and difficulties around forming healthy, trusting relationships can all be barriers.

Some SEMH pupils have an “act tough” persona – which may well have helped them to survive in past traumatic experiences. Teachers need to realise that the bravado and claimed expertise around sex could be hiding lack of knowledge, fear or even a disclosure about past abuse. Creating safe spaces for these pupils to learn RSE is vital, and staff need to be sensitive to possible triggers, safeguarding and child protection policies and procedures.


Menstruation is now a part of the curriculum. For pupils with SEND this change in the biologically female body can be challenging. They may not understand it, they may not have the capacity to ensure their own hygiene or communicate when pain or other symptoms occur. Menstruation should be taught to all genders. Menstruation affects all of us, and can act as a great information tool about health and stress levels in a particular environment. The autism-friendly guide to periods and Red School are great resources (see further information).


Some SEND pupils will also be LGBT+ and some SEND pupils will have LGBT+ parents or carers, family and friends. Unfortunately, where RSE is taught to pupils with SEND the LGBT+ part of the curriculum (compulsory from 2020 in secondary schools) is often missed. However, young people with learning disabilities are more likely to express themselves authentically, become attracted to whoever they are attracted to, and not conform to the general cis-heteronormative bias of western society, and many other social norms (Abbott, 2015).

The statutory guidelines (DfE, 2019) state that: “Schools are free to determine how they do this, and we expect all pupils to have been taught LGBT content at a timely point as part of this area of the curriculum.”

For further advice on LGBT+ within RSE, see my next article for SecEd, due to publish in January.

Parents and carers

It is best practice to work in collaboration with parents and carers on delivering your RSE. Some may have concerns that their child’s additional needs mean that they should not be taught RSE.

Topics such as masturbation (for all genders) being taught as a “private act in your own bedroom” may be challenging for parents and carers. But communication is key. Health and relationships education (taught in all primary schools) is compulsory.

However, parents and carers have the right to withdraw their child from sex education (which will be delivered in primary schools at the discretion of the school and delivered in all secondary schools from September 2020).

Heads are advised to meet with these parents and carers and highlight the detrimental affect that withdrawal may have on a child, who will be excluded from lessons and at risk of learning about issues of RSE via hearsay in the playground from their peers.


The new legislation, while a positive step in the right direction, does not answer all the questions that arise when considering how to adapt RSE for SEND pupils. On-going staff training will be essential – especially in an area that historically has been taught by non-specialist teachers. Staff opinions may vary, but the message to the pupils needs to be consistent.

Some schools will have begun their new RSE curriculum in September 2019 and will be sharing their examples of best practice. In addition, good practice is to set up links across your school to discuss RSE as well as linking with outside specialist agencies.

As with all our pupils, taking the time to know them, their learning methods and their social context alongside a solid knowledge of the curriculum content will give us the best clues on how to approach these vital areas of education.

  • Adele Bates is a behaviour and education specialist, teacher, speaker, writer and educator for students with emotional and behavioural difficulties. Visit

Delivery Statutory RSE & Health Education

Adele Bates will be presenting at SecEd’s Third National Delivery Statutory RSE & Health Education Conference on January 22 in London. She will present two workshops, one themed on LGBT+ in the RSE curriculum and a second focusing on RSE for pupils with SEND. Visit

Further information & resources


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