Ready for 2020? RSE and health education

Written by: John Rees | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

The consultation over proposed guidance for statutory relationships and sex education and health education has closed. John Rees looks at how schools might begin preparing for these vital new subjects

Links between wellbeing and attainment have long been recognised (Public Health England, 2014) and the Department for Education (DfE) has finally published draft statutory guidance to introduce new subjects: relationships education for primary schools and relationships and sex education (RSE) for secondary schools.

There will also be a new subject of health education for pupils in key stages 1 to 4 in all state-funded schools. The new guidance will replace the now outdated SRE guidance, but does not apply to sixth form colleges, 16 to 19 academies or further education colleges.

The proposed guidance describes what schools should do and sets out the legal expectations with which schools must comply (DfE emphasis) as from September 2020. However, the guidance has a sense of moral purpose, too – “to embrace the challenges of creating a happy and successful adult life, pupils need knowledge that will enable them to make informed decisions about their wellbeing, health and relationships and to build their self-efficacy”.

A consultation over the draft guidance came to a close on November 7. The DfE will later produce the final statutory guidance on the new subjects.

The draft guidance recognises that many schools are already providing PSHE education, which of course they are encouraged to continue to do, ideally based on the programmes of study from the PSHE Association.

Expectations around spiritual, moral, social and cultural education (SMSC) remain unchanged (the National SMSC Quality Mark provides an excellent vehicle to identify strengths and areas for development).

The guidance makes clear links to the national curriculum for PE and computing, notes the importance of linking with the wider curriculum on healthy lifestyles and the provision of extra-curricular activities, and also the importance of flexibility and schools’ freedom to determine an age-appropriate, developmental curriculum which meets the needs of their pupils.

This means that before RSE and health education become statutory, schools may need to revise how they identify the needs of their students.

When creating your curriculum content, local knowledge from teachers, the police, youth and social workers, and local health professionals is vital, as is pupil voice – these all inform your local, tailored curriculum.

To help, pupil surveys and free public health resources such as the Joint Strategic Needs Assessment (see online) can provide useful local data. Furthermore, the Optimus Wellbeing Award for Schools focuses on the social and emotional wellbeing of pupils and staff, and the My Health My School initiative from Leeds will soon be available nationally, too (see further information).

If provision is going to have the desired impact on pupils’ learning and life chances, teaching needs to be effective and so it is essential to review policy, planning and CPD needs. The National PSHE CPD programme is enormously helpful to any professionals seeking to ensure high-quality provision.

Teaching needs to be effective and so it is essential to review timetabling, curriculum planning, staffing and CPD. The proposed guidance explains that core knowledge needs to be identified, broken down into manageable units of work and taught in a carefully sequenced way, within a planned programme. Although off-timetable days can enrich the curriculum, these on their own or one-off talks from external visitors are not going to meet the statutory expectations.

The draft guidance outlines a statutory framework of understanding that pupils should have about RSE and health education. RSE should:

  • Build on what has been taught in primary schools.
  • Provide a developmental curriculum focusing on families and the contribution of different types of committed, stable relationships to personal happiness and bringing up children.
  • Address the characteristics of positive and healthy respectful relationships, including friendships, both on and off-line.
  • Discuss the rights, responsibilities, challenges and opportunities of the online world and in the modern media, including the impact of harmful content.
  • Discuss being safe, which includes the concepts of and law relating to sexual consent, exploitation, coercion and harassment.
  • Discuss intimate relationships and sexual health, which includes the importance of mutual respect, loyalty and trust, as well as the facts around contraceptive choices and STIs. All of this should be taught with relevance to the law.

In terms of physical health and mental wellbeing, secondary schools should teach about mental wellbeing, internet safety, physical health and fitness, healthy eating, drugs (including alcohol and tobacco), health promotion, emergency aid (including CPR) and the changing adolescent body.

Good practice would also develop skills in a values-based or “positive virtues” framework. The importance of teaching about online relationships is emphasised, as is teaching about LGBT issues which should be integrated throughout RSE.

The new expectations emphasise the importance of involving the wider community in developing the curriculum and retaining parents’ right to withdraw their child from some or all aspects of sex education (except science). However, three terms before the young person becomes 16 they may opt in to RSE themselves.

Sceptics should be reassured that teaching about RSE and/or health education does not encourage early sexual experimentation – research evidence suggests that high-quality RSE can improve knowledge and understanding, enable young people to postpone sexual activity, and improve their health choices throughout life – enabling them to develop safe, fulfilling intimate relationships as they emerge into adulthood (see Sexual Behaviour in Britain, Wellings et al, Lancet, 2001:

The draft guidance makes it clear that RSE and health education must be accessible for all pupils and emphasises that high-quality teaching should be differentiated and personalised, which is particularly important when planning for pupils with SEND, especially as some pupils are more vulnerable to exploitation and bullying because of their SEND.

The importance of engaging with external agencies is noted although there is no acknowledgement of the role of local public health or school nursing services to enhance provision, offer specialist support and improve access to services when necessary.

Once the final guidance is published, school policies will have to be updated (and published) and need to be reviewed in conjunction with a number of other important documents, including the Keeping Children Safe in Education statutory guidance (September 2018), the Public Sector Equality Duty (April 2011), Sexual violence and sexual harassment between children in schools and colleges (May 2018), and the published government responses to the Internet Safety Strategy Green Paper (May 2018) and to the Transforming Children and Young People’s Mental Health Provision Green Paper (July 2018).

School leaders might also consider the skills or competences that should be taught to enable pupils to make pro-social, pro-health choices and the role of your local public health and school nursing teams to inform curriculum and CPD.

  • John Rees is a former school leader, who, since 2005 has been an independent educational trainer and coach, specialising in PSHE. John will be speaking at the SecEd Second National Delivering Statutory RSE & Health Education Conference on Friday, November 23. Visit

Further information


Please view our Terms and Conditions before leaving a comment.

Change the CAPTCHA codeSpeak the CAPTCHA code
Sign up SecEd Bulletin