RSE: Preparing for September 2020

Written by: Anna Cole | Published:
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The introduction of statutory relationships and sex education is drawing closer. Anna Cole looks at the aspects that might prove most controversial – or tricky – for school leaders

Controversy and the resultant media attention surrounding the No Outsiders programme in primary schools is unlikely to have escaped your notice.

No Outsiders teaches children about the values of diversity, inclusivity and acceptance through a series of books which include, for example, a story about two male penguins which raise a chick together. It is the depiction of same-sex family relationships that has upset some parents at a small number of primary schools (Headteacher Update, 2019).

All of this comes ahead of the introduction of compulsory relationships and sex education (RSE) in schools from September 2020. This is, of course, entirely separate to the No Outsiders programme, but that controversy does illustrate the sensitivity which surrounds this area of teaching.

In this article, I consider what impact the new guidance on RSE (DfE, February 2019) will have on your school, students and staff, and what you can do now to prepare for its introduction. In particular, this article examines the areas which are likely to prove most controversial.

The first thing to note is that the requirements are different for primary and secondary schools. Primaries will be required to teach only relationships education, and secondaries will have to teach RSE. In addition, health education will be compulsory in all state schools.

The Department for Education (DfE) has published guidance (February 2019) which sets out the requirements and discusses how to develop a policy and to work with parents, carers and the wider community. It has also published some “frequently asked questions” which are useful for answering the questions that you may receive from parents (DfE, April 2019).

In practice, most schools already have a curriculum in place that teaches about these issues. The new requirements, however, place schools under a specific duty and the guidance provides clarity and detail on what needs to be covered to support children growing up in an increasingly complex world where their lives are lived both on and offline.

The right to withdraw from sex education

Parents will have the right to withdraw their child from the sex education element of RSE in secondary schools.

Schools will be expected to grant such a request “except in exceptional circumstances”. There is no indication of what constitutes “exceptional circumstances” although it was recently reported that further guidance will be issued, and this would be helpful for headteachers.

The proviso to the right of parents to withdraw their child is that 15-year-olds will be able to opt into sex education despite the objections of their parents – a right that will apply to students from three terms before they turn 16.

“After that point, if the child wishes to receive sex education rather than be withdrawn, the school should make arrangements to provide the child with sex education during one of those terms,” the guidance states.

The guidance does contain advice on how to deal with requests from parents who wish to withdraw their child from sex education. It suggests that the headteacher discusses the request with the parents and, as appropriate, with the child “to ensure that their wishes are understood and to clarify the nature and purpose of the curriculum”.

And it continues: “Good practice is also likely to include the headteacher discussing with parents the benefits of receiving this important education and any detrimental effects that withdrawal might have on the child.

“This could include any social and emotional effects of being excluded, as well as the likelihood of the child hearing their peers’ version of what was said in the classes, rather than what was directly said by the teacher (although the detrimental effects may be mitigated if the parents propose to deliver sex education to their child at home instead).”

There is no right to withdraw a child from relationships education in primary or secondary schools.

Teaching LGBT issues

The guidance says schools must ensure they comply with the Equality Act 2010, under which sexual orientation and gender reassignment are a among a number of protected characteristics.

It continues: “Schools should ensure that all of their teaching is sensitive and age appropriate in approach and content. At the point at which schools consider it appropriate to teach their pupils about LGBT, they should ensure that this content is fully integrated into their programmes of study for this area of the curriculum rather than delivered as a standalone unit or lesson.

“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.”

In primary schools the guidance simply reflects the fact that children are raised in different types of families, including families with lesbian, gay and transgender parents, in order to educate all children, and ensure all can feel they belong and see their family set-up reflected.

It states: “Teaching about families requires sensitive and well-judged teaching based on knowledge of pupils and their circumstances. Families of many forms provide a nurturing environment for children. (Families can include for example, single parent families, LGBT parents, families headed by grandparents, adoptive parents, foster parents/carers among other structures.)

“Care needs to be taken to ensure that there is no stigmatisation of children based on their home circumstances and needs, to reflect sensitively that some children may have a different structure of support around them; e.g. looked after children or young carers.”

Support and resources for schools

Relationships, sex and health education programmes will require schools to consider both pedagogy and content. Access to quality training for teachers will be critical to the successful implementation of these subjects.

The government has confirmed its commitment to providing support to schools so they can deliver these subjects to a high standard, with an understanding that training is a priority for teachers. We are still awaiting detail from government on the form this training will take.

Effective provision and delivery will also require a range of high-quality resources so that teachers can select the most appropriate and relevant materials to meet the needs of their pupils.

The development of these materials will also require additional funding, and ASCL has emphasised this to the DfE, making clear that sourcing and quality assuring resources must not add to teacher workload.

Pre-September 2020 and early adopter schools

Until the end of June the DfE is encouraging schools to register as early adopters for this curriculum, to start teaching the subjects from September 2019.

Early adopter schools will be provided with further advice on how they can improve their practice, and any lessons learned from these early adopters will be shared with all schools as the programme is rolled out nationwide in September 2020. Schools can register online to become an early adopter.

And finally...

The first line of the statutory guidance contains this summary of the objectives of RSE: “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.”

Whatever the sensitivities of the sometimes fraught discussion around these topics, this is a powerful message around which we can build a consensus.

  • Anna Cole is Parliamentary and inclusion specialist at the Association of School and College Leaders.

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