RSE: We have come a long way

Written by: Anna Feuchtwang | Published:
Anna Feuchtwang, chief executive, National Children’s Bureau7

There are still challenges ahead, but the RSE and health education guidance is a step in the right direction to helping children grow up healthier and happier, says Anna Feuchtwang

When new government guidance requiring schools to provide relationships and sex education (RSE) and health education was put before Parliament in February, it coincided, almost to the minute, with a debate elsewhere in Westminster Hall resisting the change.

The debate was triggered by a petition signed by a vocal minority of parents unhappy about not having the right to withdraw their child from the new relationships classes.

Sadly, objections to teaching about same-sex relationships surfaced from the debate, but the secretary of state was clear in his conviction that “this is a diverse society and children need to know that this is a diverse society”.

In this context, education must respond to and reflect all kinds of difference, whether that is LGBT identities, cultural or religious beliefs or disability. While there is clearly work ahead to ensure parents understand what LGBT inclusive relationships education involves in practice, we should not lose sight that this was a significant step forward in education.

Let’s talk about the sex education bit first. The Sex Education Forum (SEF), part of the National Children’s Bureau, has campaigned for compulsory RSE for more than 30 years. When the SEF started its work, RSE was often applauded for the role it could play in reversing the UK’s dire record on teenage pregnancy, or in meeting the challenge presented by STIs including HIV.

Evidence emerged that good quality RSE resulted in young people delaying first sex. But since then it has become apparent that RSE has a far wider role to play in other areas: empowering children and young people to recognise and report sexual abuse and exploitation; preventing discrimination and homophobia; and preparing children to use digital technology – where explicit content is only a few clicks away – both safely and responsibly.

And let us not forget the most common sense reason of all: that children and young people must be guaranteed their right to reliable information about their bodies, puberty, sex and the human life-cycle.

To protect this right, while parents will be able to withdraw their child from sex education in secondary schools, the pupil themselves can override the decision.

Young people will be able to opt in to sex education in secondary school from three terms before their 16th birthday even where their parents object.

This is progress compared to the previous legislation; it recognises young people’s stake in decisions about their education and allows them to access learning before reaching the age of sexual consent.

The health education curriculum, meanwhile, is also an important opportunity to add to children’s understanding. The health curriculum covers important subjects like puberty and menstruation, but it also contains a welcome focus on mental health and wellbeing.

Given the alarming prevalence of mental illness – with one in four girls and one in 10 boys suffering from symptoms of depression at age 14 – the new subject is responding to a pressing need.

Understanding how to “critically evaluate when something they do or are involved in has a positive or negative effect on their own or others’ mental health” is a valuable step to improved wellbeing.

It will now be a requirement to teach children about the link between physical and mental health, and to explore the impact that things like drug-taking, an unhealthy body image and cyber-bullying can have on their emotional health.

Health education and RSE form a holistic curriculum where inter-related issues can be tackled and joined up with whole-school approaches.

For example, bullying and poor mental health affects LGBT young people at alarming rates. Nearly half of LGBT pupils (45 per cent) – are bullied for being LGBT at school (Stonewall, 2017). Teaching about friendships and respect for differences through relationships education will lay better foundations for future generations.

Of course there are challenges ahead: the need for schools to engage with parents as they introduce these new topics is vital and the guidance recognises and supports this.

Paragraph 41 of the guidance states: “Schools should ensure that parents know what will be taught and when.”
This is really important because children want to have discussions with their parents too. By keeping families informed about topics covered in school lessons it makes it easier for parents to initiate their own conversations at home.
Schools will also need adequate support. When the SEF surveyed school staff who are already teaching RSE they found that only 29 per cent had ever received training in the subject. If the new subjects are going to be treated seriously then on-going investment will be needed to close this gap.

We should not forget that the majority of parents welcome all schools teaching these lessons –
92 per cent in a PSHE Association poll – and with cross-party support from MPs too, there is no doubt that this is an important milestone, and an emphatic improvement on the existing guidance for teaching these subjects.

The last update to sex education guidance, published almost 20 years ago, was woefully lacking in certain areas and inadequate for preparing children and young people for the realities of growing up in modern 21st century society.

Even if there is further work ahead to ensure the new requirements fulfil their potential, we should take a moment to welcome the new curriculum and the promise it holds for helping children to grow up healthier and happier.

  • Anna Feuchtwang is chief executive of the National Children’s Bureau.

Further information

  • Consultation outcome: Relationships (and sex) education and health education, DfE, Updated February 2019:
  • A Q&A about the new RSE curriculum is available on the Sex Education Forum’s website:
  • The NCB’s Wellbeing Award for Schools recognises outstanding work being done to promote mental health and wellbeing within school communities across England:


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