Preparing for statutory relationships and health education

Written by: Lucy Emmerson | Published:
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I disagree that young children should learn about sex in that young age

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The government has finally published its draft guidance for the new subject of relationships and sex education – and has also set-out plans for statutory health education. Lucy Emmerson advises schools on how to begin preparing

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 Draft guidance, published in July, is open for public consultation.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 (relationships education in primary schools) 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 in the guidance 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 and curriculum.

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 primary school. The thematic categories are helpfully organised: families and people who care for me; caring friendships; respectful relationships; online relationships and being safe.

Look too at the tables on the new compulsory subject of health education, which cover learning about feelings and emotions, more on internet safety and also puberty.

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”, and that relationships education starts from the beginning of primary school, building on early education.

This spells an end to RSE being delivered purely through drop-down days or as a one-off talk 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 early in primary school and progresses throughout primary and secondary education, and the guidance leaves flexibility for schools to organise the curriculum as they wish.

However, at the Sex Education Forum 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.

Take for example a theme like families – where the guidance stipulates that by the end of primary school pupils should learn “that there are different types of committed, stable relationships”, and “how these relationships might contribute to human happiness and their importance for bringing up children”. This is work that can begin in Reception by, for example, asking pupils to draw and describe their families, leading to conversations about how families care for children and discussing similarities and differences between families.

Relationships education must be inclusive in-order to comply with the Equality Act. Discussion about families will naturally include diversity in terms of family size, who is caring for children, same-sex relationships, adoption, step-families, extended family, marriage and other partnerships.

Some children may also know that they were conceived using donor egg or sperm and this could be part of their understanding of family. Others may refer to the death of a parent or family member or siblings due to be born.

Schools should not be afraid of the way discussion about family links with human life-cycles and a wide range of relationships.

The new guidance does recommend that all primary schools have a sex education programme, along with the compulsory relationships education. It is in any case artificial to separate the two.

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 all primary teachers should have. However, not all staff will feel comfortable with the specific RSE topics and yet it is essential that RSE is taught by educators who are confident and unembarrassed.

An activity that we regularly use in training is to ask school staff to reflect on their own experiences of 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 a step further, share our free Principles of Good RSE poster (see further information) and ask staff whether following these 12 principles would have made their own RSE any better. From here, you can discuss how they 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 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 a 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. Lucy will be delivering the keynote presentation Statutory RSE & relationships education at Headteacher Update’s Second National Delivering Statutory RSE and Health Education Conference on November 23 in Birmingham:

Relationships Education & Health Education

Primary schools will have to deliver the new-look subjects of relationships education and health education from September 2020, the Department for Education confirmed during the summer.

New statutory guidance for relationships and sex education (RSE) in secondary schools and relationships education in primary schools had been expected ever since the government legislated last year to make the subjects statutory.

However, in an announcement in July, ministers confirmed that the implementation date is to be pushed back from September 2019 to September 2020 – although schools that are ready to deliver the new-look subjects are encouraged to begin as soon as supporting materials are available.

At the same time, the DfE has also confirmed that it is to introduce statutory health education, also from September 2020. Draft statutory guidance covering both subjects has now been published for consultation.

A DfE statement said: “Schools will be supported as they prepare to teach the new subjects and will be able to begin doing so as soon as the materials are ready and available from September 2019, building on the existing best practice that will be shared by high-performing schools.”

The updated guidance details that teachers will talk to primary school pupils in “an age-appropriate way” about the features of healthy friendships, family relationships and other relationships they are likely to encounter.

At secondary level, teachers will “build on the foundation of relationships education in primary and, at the appropriate time, extend teaching to include intimate relationships as well”. Primary schools may also choose to teach sex education.

At both primary and secondary, pupils will also learn about staying safe online – complementing the existing computing curriculum – and how to use technology “safely, responsibly and respectfully”. Lessons will also cover how to keep personal information private, challenge harmful content and balance the online and offline worlds.

Health education will teach pupils about the benefits of a healthier lifestyle, what determines their physical health and how to build mental resilience and wellbeing. It will tackle the prevention of health problems and will promote the development of qualities such as confidence, resilience, self-respect and self-control.

The DfE added: “It will also make sure children and young people learn how to recognise when they and others are struggling with mental health and how to respond.

“Good quality education on wider social and economic issues will continue to be taught in schools across the country through PSHE or other subjects, for example teaching about financial issues through maths and citizenship.”

Parents will retain their right to withdraw pupils from sex education, but not relationships education. The draft guidance states: “This guidance also sets out both the rights of parents/carers to withdraw pupils from sex (but not relationships) education and the process that headteachers should follow in considering a request from a parent. Parents have the right to request that their child be withdrawn from some or all of sex education delivered as part of statutory RSE.”

  • Compiled by Pete Henshaw, editor, Headteacher Update.

Further information

  • Open Consultation: Relationships (and Sex) Education and Health Education, Department for Education, July 2018 (closes November 7, 2018):
  • Delivering RSE and Health Education, Headteacher Update’s Second National Delivering Statutory RSE & Health Education conference takes place on Friday, November 23 in Birmingham. It will feature keynote addresses from the PSHE Association and the Sex Education Forum focused on the draft guidance and latest DfE announcements. The event also features a range of workshops focusing on best practice in RSE and PSHE. For details, visit
  • You can sign up to receive news, resources and advice from the Sex Education Forum via For more information on its regular training and CPD days.
  • Principles of Good RSE, Sex Education Forum, November 2017:

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