Statutory RSE & health education

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

The government has finally published its draft guidance for the new subjects of relationships and sex education and health education. Lucy Emmerson looks at how we can prepare

Relationships and sex education (RSE) is finally being updated. Draft guidance, published in July, is open for public consultation. Schools that are ready to provide high-quality RSE should do so from September 2019 and those needing longer to prepare have until September 2020 before they must be teaching the new curriculum.

So what does this mean for your school? While some of the details could change, the draft sets out a clear direction of travel. For the first time, every school in the country must prepare to provide RSE – and schools that are doing so already will need to review and update their teaching.

A good starting point is to look at the content tables in the guidance, which set out what pupils should know by the end of secondary school. The thematic categories are organised: families, respectful relationships including friendships, online and media, intimate and sexual relationships, and being safe. Look too at the tables on the new compulsory subject of health education, which cover learning about mental health, internet safety and harms, and the changing adolescent body.

The new guidance stipulates that for teaching to be effective “core knowledge is broken down into units of manageable size and communicated clearly to pupils, in a carefully sequenced way, within a planned programme or lessons”. This spells an end to RSE being delivered purely through drop-down days or as one-off talks from external visitors. If your school has previously opted for this more ad-hoc approach it is essential to begin looking at timetabling, curriculum planning and, of course, staffing, as soon as possible.

It is essential that the curriculum content is presented through a scheme of work that begins in year 7 and progresses throughout secondary education, and the guidance leaves flexibility for schools to organise the curriculum as they wish.

However, at the Sex Education Forum (SEF) we know from years of training teachers that concerns about what is appropriate to teach at what age is a major stumbling block, and the draft guidance does not provide much clarity here. We also know that young people repeatedly criticise RSE for addressing key issues too late.

Take for example a theme like “being safe” – where the guidance stipulates that by the end of secondary school pupils should know “the concepts of, and laws relating to, sexual consent, sexual exploitation, abuse, grooming, coercion, harassment and domestic abuse and how these can affect current and future relationships”. It may feel overwhelming to address such a list with year 7, yet we know from evidence that it is younger pupils who are most vulnerable to sexual exploitation, for example. A positive approach to relationships and sex will help from the outset and it’s never too early to teach about consent. Younger pupils can start by examining how consent operates in non-sexual situations, such as borrowing a friend’s mobile phone.

Make sure pupils are learning the signs of grooming behaviour, and don’t be afraid to start discussing consent to sexual activity. Young people have told us that RSE often lacks real-life examples about relationships and consent, so as the programme of teaching develops it is vital to include real scenarios and stories.

When choosing resources make sure that same-sex relationships are represented. The new guidance is clear that LGBT issues must be integrated and not covered just as a standalone topic.

In fact, any topic in RSE can be taught in a way that is appropriate to the age and maturity of pupils. The trick is designing lesson activities that pupils can relate to, that draw on their lived experience, prompt participation, and help them understand the world around them. These are teaching skills that many secondary teachers have, but not all staff will be comfortable or motivated to teach the specific RSE topics. Yet it’s essential that RSE is taught by educators who are confident and unembarrassed – creating a well-led specialist team is key.

An activity that we regularly use in training is to ask school staff to reflect on their own RSE when growing up. Did they get any RSE at all? At what age? Was it confusing, helpful or too late? It is often adults’ own poor experiences of sex education that create a barrier for open communication with children.

Having reflected on these experiences, staff are then asked to consider what they want RSE to be like for the next generation. This activity may help identify a lead teacher for RSE, perhaps spurred on by their own negative experience and determined to make a difference. A discussion with staff will also begin the process of assessing training and CPD needs.

To take this further, share our free 12 principles of RSE poster and ask staff whether following these principles would have made their own RSE any better. From here, you can discuss how the principles can be applied now in your school’s approach to RSE.

It is really important that the member of staff leading on RSE has support from the headteacher and that the role is valued. Getting RSE right will have wider benefits for the school and is a fantastic opportunity to engage with parents and to involve pupils. The new curriculum is a chance to pro-actively support safeguarding, and promote a whole-school approach to bullying, equalities, behaviour and pupil wellbeing.

Teachers have a lot to work on over the coming months as they digest and respond to the new RSE guidance. But there is lots of support available and the benefits for pupils are undeniable. Statutory RSE is one of the biggest developments in education in recent times and we must seize the opportunity it presents.

  • Lucy Emmerson is director of the Sex Education Forum.

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