The DfE has laid its draft Regulations on Relationships and Sex Education (RSE) and Health Education (HE) before Parliament and has published accompanying draft statutory guidance.
These Regulations intend to make the teaching of these subjects compulsory in schools (specific elements being phase dependent) from September 2020 (although schools can start a year earlier if they wish).
All primary schools will have to teach ‘relationships education’ and all secondary schools will have to teach ‘relationships and sex education’. Health education will be required in all maintained schools. Please note, the health element would not be applicable to independent schools as this is already required under the broader PSHE curriculum they must comply with through the Independent School Standards.
There has been significant media interest in this topic and commentary has not all been supportive of the changes to the regulations. Many of the concerns raised relate to the content of the curriculum, particularly educating about lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) relationships, and this has caused some contention.
To respond to some of the key concerns raised by parents, charities and groups of interested parties, the DfE has released accompanying FAQs. These FAQs are helpful at setting out the position of the various aspects of the regulations and guidance. This includes the setting of policies, consultation with parents, content and parents’ right of withdrawal from sex education (apart from biological aspects of human growth and reproduction that form part of the curriculum). It also covers the new proposed right of children to ‘opt-in’ as they approach 16 years old. This will give pupils more autonomy regarding their own education in this area.
It should also be noted that the new guidance gives flexibility to schools in their approach to teaching. This will allow faith schools to teach these subjects but within the tenets of their faith, allowing these important subjects to be taught sensitively and inclusively, and with respect to the backgrounds and beliefs of pupils and parents while giving pupils the knowledge they need to live safe, fulfilled, healthy lives.
The new stance on RSE/HE is to ensure that children and young people are prepared and able to make informed choices about relationships as they grow. It is a vital life skill for children to stay safe and develop healthy relationships in the increasingly complex lives we lead. This is more prevalent with young people spending more time developing relations online and increasingly exposing themselves to risks. Schools pride themselves on looking after the ‘whole’ child and, therefore, these topics should be given adequate time and space within the curriculum.
However, there will be challenges in making sure that the teaching is carried out by the right people at the right level to ensure it is effective. Schools will need to be committed to delivering these subjects. Content will need to be age-appropriate, well delivered and inclusive, and clearly embedded into other school policies, requiring the input of young people and their families through open discussion. Schools will be required to consult with parents when developing and reviewing their policies for Relationships Education and RSE. This will help inform schools’ decisions on when and how the subject’s content is covered. Consultation does not, however, provide parental veto on what and how the subject is taught, as ultimately that is a decision for the school.