Relationships and sex education: Ensuring inclusion for pupils with SEND

Written by: Lucy Emmerson | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

As part of statutory relationships and sex education, schools will need to ensure that the needs of children with SEND are met. Lucy Emmerson advises

High quality relationships and sex education (RSE) is every child’s right, no matter what their level of need or ability.
Both mainstream and special schools must comply with government guidance on the subject, and new legislation making RSE mandatory applies to every type of school in England.

While the new guidelines on RSE, relationships education (in primary schools) and health education are yet to be finalised, some key principles relating to disabled children and those with SEN are clearly established in the proposals: we can see where swift action is needed by schools to be ready for September 2020.


The Equalities Act provides the guiding principle that disabled pupils must be able to participate in the curriculum, so RSE must be accessible. The guidance acknowledges the need for flexibility, to tailor content and teaching to meet the specific needs of children at different developmental stages, and also advises schools to be aware that some pupils are more vulnerable to exploitation, bullying and other issues due to the nature of their SEND.

Schools are reminded that the Equalities Act allows them to take positive action where pupils with SEND may experience disadvantage because of their “protected characteristic”.

Building the team

What the guidance doesn’t do is tell schools how to meet these needs, so this can feel quite daunting. A great place to start is to allocate leadership. It is essential that the school’s senior leadership team is closely involved and builds a team of committed staff who can effectively deliver RSE.

According to the proposals, “high-quality teaching that is differentiated and personalised will be the starting point to ensure accessibility”.

But high-quality RSE teaching depends heavily on staff being adequately trained. When the Sex Education Forum surveyed teachers of RSE, only 29 per cent said they had received training in the subject and 99 per cent wanted practical advice on meeting the needs of pupils with SEND. The support needs of teaching assistants are also vital to consider given the pivotal role they play in making the curriculum accessible for individual children.

Organise your programme of RSE

With leadership in place, and a good understanding of the training and development needs of staff, a review is needed to focus on the timetabling and organisation of RSE. The draft government guidance recognises that relationships education in particular can be a priority for some pupils, especially those with social, emotional and mental health needs or learning disabilities.

When RSE is at the heart of the school’s curriculum it has the power to respond to these challenges, and other social and educational benefits flow from it too, so it is essential that RSE is a developmental programme of teaching across all years.

A table in the proposed government guidance lists subject content according to “what pupils should know” by the end of primary and by the end of secondary. But how the curriculum is broken down, year-by-year, is left for schools to determine.

To support a review of your curriculum, gather any data you have about your pupils and their needs. Education, Health and Care Plans may be a useful source of information here.

When reviewing the content tables displayed in the draft guidance, ask yourself: “What is the key learning needed to ensure my pupils can be safe, healthy and enjoying fulfilling relationships?”

This process may throw up new ideas about how to organise your curriculum, make thematic links with other subject areas, and create a wish-list for new resources.

A whole-school approach

A whole-school approach is promoted in the proposed guidance, which states “schools should also be mindful of the preparing for adulthood outcomes, as set out in the SEND Code of Practice, when preparing these subjects for those with SEND”.

There are lots of places where this can happen: it can include establishing a school-wide policy for consistent vocabulary in relation to toileting and personal care, with euphemisms avoided, and also taking everyday opportunities to teach about consent and personal space.

Making the links between RSE and safeguarding, equalities, anti-bullying and behaviour policies, and with LGBT inclusive school environments, will help complete the jigsaw and also take pressure off the curriculum as the sole place where learning happens.

Involving parents

Parents and carers have a vital role to play and should be involved from the beginning. Government proposals require that parents and carers are consulted when the school develops and reviews its policy on RSE.

Schools can be proactive in asking parents what areas of RSE they would like help with, so they can support at home. Establishing regular communication with parents about RSE will forge the partnership that children and young people need to ensure their entitlement is met.

Bringing it all together

In the past, teaching pupils with SEND about sex and relationships has often been overlooked, leaving many young people feeling short-changed as they grow towards adulthood. The new legislation means we can expect much better.

We now have a clear indication of what the government expects from schools, and teachers must be bold in establishing an inclusive programme of RSE that meets everyone’s needs.

There is help available, but with the clock ticking down, schools can’t delay.

  • Lucy Emmerson is director of the Sex Education Forum, part of the National Children’s Bureau.

Useful resources and events

  • Relationships education, relationships and sex education, and health education, DfE, July 2018 (consultation now closed):
  • The Roadmap to Statutory RSE has been published by the Sex Education Forum and the PSHE Association. It outlines a 10-step action plan for achieving high-quality RSE:
  • The Sex Education Forum and Council for Disabled Children will host a conference – Countdown to Statutory RSE: Getting relationships and sex education right for disabled children and those with SEN – on March 29:
  • Sex Education Forum members can access a RSE/SEND resource list via


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