Relationships education: What should we expect?

Written by: Suzanne O'Connell | Published:
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The campaign has been long and difficult, but at last those determined to see the introduction of statutory relationships and sex education have been rewarded. What can primary headteachers expect now as the discussions and consultations set in? Suzanne O’Connell reports

On March 1, 2017, education secretary Justine Greening made the announcement that relationships and sex education (RSE) will be compulsory in all schools in England from September 2019. For around 30 years there has been a campaign to make RSE statutory but its pace and strength had grown recently. Associations, such as the Sex Education Forum, had been joined by House of Commons Select Committees in calling for official status for this very important part of the curriculum.

Until now, Department for Education (DfE) resistance had been firm. As recently as February 2016, the then education secretary Nicky Morgan stated clearly that sex and relationships education would not be compulsory in all schools. Undeterred, the campaign continued.

Relationships education for primary schools

In primary schools it will be called “relationships education” and currently the focus is proposed to be on building healthy relationships and staying safe. In addition to this, schools will have the option of teaching age-appropriate sex education. This will complement the primary science requirement to teach puberty and reproduction.

What the new legislation will ensure is that it is not only those schools tied to the national curriculum that will be required to teach it. All primary schools, including maintained, academies or independent, will need to find the space on their timetable.

The DfE has made clear that it intends to discuss, debate and consult on what the actual curriculum must include. There is to be a comprehensive programme of engagement to establish the age-appropriate subject content and then subsequently there will be a full public consultation.

According to the DfE policy documents so far, the likely focus of content will be:

  • Different types of relationships including friendships, family relationships, dealing with strangers and, at secondary school, intimate relationships.
  • How to recognise, understand and build healthy relationships, including self-respect and respect for others, commitment, tolerance, boundaries and consent, how to manage conflict, and how to recognise unhealthy relationships.
  • How relationships may affect health and wellbeing, including mental health.
  • Healthy relationships and safety online.
  • Factual knowledge, at secondary school, around sex, sexual health and sexuality, set firmly within the context of relationships.

The work to develop content is now beginning and it is expected that the timeline will include:

  • Draft regulations and guidance to be drawn up by autumn 2017 for consultation.
  • Final draft guidance and regulations to be debated by Parliament following the consultation.
  • Statutory guidance to be published in early 2018.
  • The new curriculum to be taught from September 2019.

Flexibility is a key issue here. The DfE states that it does not want schools to feel tied to a rigid format. They must allow for the huge breadth there now is in primary education across the country.

All schools must be able to shape the new curriculum component according to their ethos. Finding the framework to enable them to do this, without delivering an unconvincing watered-down version, will be hard.

Guidance will be produced that is “fit-for-purpose” and we are told that it will consider the needs of vulnerable children and young people, including those with SEN. The DfE will also be seeking evidence on how to build the skills and knowledge of teachers – a very important element if the new project is to make the difference to children’s skills and understanding that it should.

PSHE for the future

The case for obligatory PSHE has also now been laid but will not be introduced immediately. The amendments to the Children and Social Work Act 2017 will lay the foundations for this enabling the government to make regulations in the future. The requirement could cover all schools in England including academies.

Ms Greening said: “By creating a power on PSHE, we are allowing time to consider what the right fit of this subject is with relationships education and relationships and sex education.”

However, again, early indications from the DfE show that PSHE is expected to cover:

  • Healthy bodies and lifestyles, including keeping safe, puberty, drugs and alcohol education.
  • Healthy minds, including emotional wellbeing, resilience, mental health.
  • Economic wellbeing and financial capability.
  • Careers education, preparation for the workplace and making a positive contribution to society.

Interestingly, the DfE is also considering a change of name for PSHE, although it isn’t indicated in its statement, exactly what this might be.

Already in place

Those primary schools who already have well-developed programmes of RSE and PSHE will be anxious to see if their current provision can be tailored to the new guidance and requirements.

Diane Compton-Belcher, headteacher at Michael Drayton Junior School in Warwickshire, uses a programme called Spring Fever to help deliver sex and relationships education.

“As a school we already cover the proposed content. We spend time within the school year delivering Spring Fever. This relationship and sex education programme, with the emphasis on relationships, is a wonderful resource.”

Like many schools, Ms Compton-Belcher and her staff have forged their own curriculum to cover the many aspects of RSE and PSHE that they feel are important to primary-age children. They also use Taking Care, which is a local authority protective behaviour scheme, along with “Be the Best you can Be”, which is a 21st century legacy programme to develop self-esteem and aspirations. The Michael Drayton curriculum also includes the PATHS programme which aims to empower children to develop a range of fundamental social and emotional thinking and learning skills.

However, Ms Compton-Belcher recognises that financial capability is an area that they might need to look at in more detail in future.

A flexible approach

Although it is recognised that there will be a core focus of content, there must also be the opportunity to vary delivery according to the needs of the local community and school catchment. Lis Carney-Haworth is headteacher of Torpoint Nursery and Infant School in Cornwall. She is acutely aware of the challenges that many of her children face from birth.

She told Headteacher Update: “We need to understand what their life experience has been up to that point. We then need to ensure good relationships with parents so that they will come and talk to us about other issues that are affecting a child’s life while they are at our school.”

The school engages with parents at a very early stage to establish if they have experienced any Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). Ms Carney-Haworth continued: “Schools work in very different ways and it’s crucial that we can approach the what and how in ways that are right for our children.”

Ms Carney-Haworth is keen that her school can continue to focus on ACEs and the impact that these have as part of any newly emerging RSE and PSHE curriculum: “We talk about healthy relationships in our two-year-old nursery and build on this. Our behaviour and PSHE policies reflect the fact that, as a nursery and infant school, we see these aspects of our work as just as important as teaching our children the rest of the curriculum.”

Putting it into practice

However, it would be naïve to think that the DfE’s about-turn will lead automatically to a panacea of high-quality RSE and PSHE. Alex Smythe is executive headteacher of Newcroft Primary Academy and Thornton Primary School in Leicestershire. He believes that there must be plenty of flexibility in DfE expectation due to the pressure of content-overload that the curriculum is already suffering from.

The provision of resources and materials also concerns Mr Smythe. He explained: “PSHE throughout the primary school years is crucial and schools would benefit hugely from a more centralised approach to this with resources that support delivery. The government’s approach to curriculum has been ‘on the cheap’ for many years now.”

Ms Compton-Belcher points out: “I think more training on supporting mental health issues would benefit many school professionals. Increasingly attachment is becoming more prominent within schools – this means as teachers we are filling voids that some children have. Not all teachers understand how attachment impacts on learning and, more importantly, our pupils’ wellbeing.”

She is also concerned that NQTs entering the profession are given greater understanding of children’s mental health and wellbeing, especially more understanding of Attachment Theory and the negative impact this can have on pupils’ lives and success in general.

She continued: “I would like to see the inclusion of ‘different families, same love’ when exploring different types of relationships. This should include gender mixes, foster and adoptive parents. I think we also need to cover areas of family break up and blended families.”

A difficult balance

We should not underestimate the task that the DfE has ahead. The potential content for RSE and PSHE is huge and the views of professionals varied.

The way ahead will need to find a curriculum with sufficient teeth to ensure that key elements are delivered while also finding acceptance across the UK’s mix of schools.

The proposed outline content may not be contentious. ‘‘I do not think that anyone would argue with the broad brushstroke draft statements,” points out Ms Carney-Haworth. But there may still be dissension as more detail emerges.

However, the break-through that this new legislation represents must not be undermined. As Ms Carney-Haworth said: “This is an incredible opportunity to devise a curriculum and guidance that can really make a difference to children’s lives and change our society in the future for the better.”

  • Suzanne O’Connell is a freelance education writer and a former primary school headteacher.

Further information

The DfE Policy Statement on relationships education, RSE and PSHE can be found at

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