Relationships and health education

Written by: John Rees | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

The consultation over proposed guidance for statutory relationships education and health education has closed. John Rees looks at how schools might begin preparing for these vital new subjects

Links between wellbeing and attainment have long been recognised (Public Health England, 2014) and the Department for Education (DfE) has finally published draft guidance to introduce new statutory subjects: relationships education for primary schools and relationships and sex education (RSE) for secondary schools.

There will also be a new subject of health education for pupils in key stages 1 to 4 in all state-funded schools. The guidance will replace the current outdated SRE guidance.

The proposed new guidance describes what schools should do and sets out the legal expectations with which schools must comply (DfE emphasis) as from September 2020. However, the guidance has a sense of moral purpose, too – “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”.

A consultation over the planned changes came to a close on November 7. The DfE will later produce final guidance on the new statutory subjects.

The proposed guidance recognises that many schools are already providing PSHE education, which of course they are encouraged to continue to do, ideally based on the programmes of study from the PSHE Association.

Expectations around spiritual, moral, social and cultural education (SMSC) remain unchanged (and the National SMSC Quality Mark provides an excellent vehicle to identify strengths and areas for development).

The guidance makes clear links to the national curriculum for PE and computing, notes the importance of linking with the wider curriculum on healthy lifestyles and the provision of extra-curricular activities, and also the importance of flexibility and schools’ freedom to determine an age-appropriate, developmental curriculum which meets the needs of their pupils.

When creating your curriculum content, local knowledge from teachers, the police, youth and social workers, and local health professionals is vital, as is “pupil voice” – these all inform your local, tailored curriculum.

To help, pupil surveys and free public health resources such as the Joint Strategic Needs Assessment (see online) can provide useful local data. Furthermore, the Optimus Wellbeing Award for Schools focuses on the social and emotional wellbeing of pupils and staff, and the My Health My School initiative from Leeds will soon be available nationally, too.

If provision is going to have the desired impact on pupils’ learning and life chances, teaching needs to be effective and so it is essential to review policy, planning and CPD needs. To prepare for the statutory requirements, and improve provision, the National PSHE CPD programme is enormously helpful to any professionals seeking to ensure high-quality provision.

The draft guidance provides a statutory framework of understanding that pupils should have by the time they leave primary school, including aspects of the law that might affect them.

Relationships education includes:

  • Families and people who care for me: respect for different family types, the importance of love, security and stability in families but also how to recognise if family relationships are making them feel unsafe.
  • Caring friendships: the importance of friendships to help us feel happy and secure; that friendships have ups and downs and how to know who to trust.
  • Respectful relationships: the importance of self-respect and of respecting others, types of bullying (including cyber-bullying) and how to get help.
  • Online relationships: including learning that people might behave differently online, but that the same principles apply to online relationships as to face-to-face.
  • Being safe: boundaries in friendships, the concept of privacy and that each person’s body belongs to them, the differences between appropriate and inappropriate contact, how to respond safely and appropriately to others, how and where to seek advice or help for self and others.

Given that 20 per cent of primary school children suffer from a low sense of wellbeing (Gutman & Feinstein, 2008) teaching about mental wellbeing is central to the new subjects and health education includes learning under the headings of: mental wellbeing, internet safety and harms, physical health and fitness, healthy eating, drugs, alcohol and tobacco, health and prevention, basic first aid and the changing adolescent body.

The importance of teaching about online relationships is emphasised, as is teaching about LGBT issues which should be integrated throughout relationships education.

There is also a section on sex education for primary schools. Although sex education is not compulsory, good practice dictates that primary schools should teach sex education that includes naming external body parts, puberty (so that boys and girls are prepared for adolescence), and how a baby is conceived.

In the section on physical health and mental wellbeing for secondary schools there is an acknowledgement that the onset of menstruation can be alarming if girls are not prepared. Given that many girls start their periods in key stage 2, this surely needs to be taught then.

Although the proposed guidance focuses on the knowledge that children should have by the end of key stage 2, good practice would also develop skills in a “positive virtues” framework.

The new expectations emphasise the importance of involving the wider community in developing the curriculum. Parental rights to withdraw their child from some or all aspects of sex education (except national curriculum science) are also to be retained, although the guidance includes advice for schools on ways to discourage parents from doing so.

School leaders should talk through the importance and benefits of sex education and any social or emotional impacts that being withdrawn might have. It might also be useful to point out that even if they do withdraw their child, children may still talk in the playground!

The guidance makes it clear that relationships and health education must be accessible for all pupils and emphasises that high-quality teaching should be differentiated and personalised, which is particularly important when planning for pupils with SEND, especially as some pupils are more vulnerable to exploitation and bullying because of their SEND.

The importance of engaging with external agencies is noted although there is no acknowledgement of the role of local public health and/or school nursing to enhance provision and offer specialist support.

Once the final guidance is published, school policies will have to be updated (and published) and need to be reviewed in conjunction with a number of other important documents, including the Keeping Children Safe in Education statutory guidance (September 2018), the Public Sector Equality Duty (April 2011), Sexual violence and sexual harassment between children in schools and colleges (May 2018), and the published government responses to the Internet Safety Strategy Green Paper (May 2018) and to the Transforming Children and Young People’s Mental Health Provision Green Paper (July 2018).

In addition to the likely statutory requirements when creating the relationships education and health education curricula, we hope that school leaders will also consider the following issues:

  • The role and place of careers education and/or financial education (see Primary Futures for free support).
  • How menstruation needs to be taught in the primary curriculum, for both boys and girls, as part of the changing adolescent body.
  • The role of your local public health and school nursing teams to help inform curriculum and support CPD.
  • Whether your school currently has adequate resources, support and training to be able to implement the guidance? 

  • John Rees is a former school leader, who, since 2005 has been an independent educational trainer and coach, specialising in PSHE. John will be speaking at the SecEd and Headteacher Update Second National Delivering Statutory RSE & Health Education Conference on Friday, November 23. Visit

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