RSE and parental consultation: Getting it right

Written by: Leah Jewett | Published:
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Parental engagement and consultation is a vital component of effective relationships and sex education. Leah Jewett offers her advice to primary schools on RSE delivery and parental engagement

September marked the long-awaited start of compulsory relationships, sex and health education (RSHE) in England.

With it came the news that the deadline for full implementation now stretches until summer 2021 for those schools whose preparations have been hit hard by Covid-19 (DfE, 2020).

Given the constraints of Covid-19, schools have been challenged not only in delivering RSHE, but also in how they reach out to parents.

This article considers best practice for parental consultation over the RSE curriculum in both secondary schools and primary schools (the sex education elements of RSE are discretionary in primary schools).

Consultation: A statutory requirement

RSE is the only subject that requires parental engagement in its development – not unsurprisingly, because parents are the missing link in their children’s sex education. Parents speaking openly at home is a form of early intervention and on-going prevention – it is a starting point for safeguarding, improving mental health and strengthening the parent-child connection.

Furthermore, parents and school are children’s top two preferred sources of information about sex and relationships, according to the Sex Education Forum (SEF)’s Briefing for Parliamentarians (SEF, 2019a)., which emphasises that both home and school contribute to effective RSE.

The Department for Education (DfE, 2019a) is also clear: “Schools recognise the importance of strong, constructive and open conversation with parents in the education of their children.”

As well as its stipulations over parental consultation, the RSHE statutory guidance also mentions sharing resources with parents so that they can “continue the conversations started in class at home” (DfE, 2020).

While parents were previously cited as their children’s “sex educators”, the new guidance notably demotes them to “first teachers” and “prime educators for children on many of these matters”. However, as the previous sex education guidance cautioned: “Children cannot always rely on their parents to talk to them about puberty or sex.” This is still the case and there is still no formal way to assess or monitor whether parents are delivering sex education at home.

Barriers for parents

In my experience at Outspoken Sex Ed, parents’ barriers to talking openly at home can include a lack of confidence or indeed vocabulary; a perceived need to have all the answers; embarrassment, shame, fear or past negative experiences; the assumption that RSE topics are private or too personal, and concerns about other people being offended, judgemental or ostracising their children.

Speaking at the SEF’s November 2019 conference – Final Countdown to Statutory RSE – former chief prosecutor Nazir Afzal commented: “People say parents can provide RSE learning at home. Often they don’t.” So said former chief prosecutor Nazir Afzal at the SEF’s annual conference in November 2019. “Young people want to be informed; they want parents to be informed. Schools must ask allies from the community how to communicate to parents – and they must relentlessly communicate at every opportunity, not just at parents’ evenings.”

If schools support parents in their role of discussing RSE at home, this in turns helps schools by:

  • Reinforcing positive outcomes for RSE lessons.
  • Furthering the school-home partnership and improving levels of trust with parents.
  • Fulfilling parental consultation requirements in the statutory RSE guidance.
  • Meeting Ofsted leadership and management criteria.
  • Adhering to requirements for safeguarding, child protection and the Equality Act 2010.
  • Complementing areas of the curriculum such as PSHE, SMSC, citizenship, and media and digital literacy.

Elsewhere, although 92 per cent of parents want schools to teach RSE (SEF, 2019), many feel that their school should consult them about RSE teaching and do more to involve and inform them.

However, too many schools struggle to make parental engagement in RSE meaningful. Reasons in my experience can include:

  • Lack of understanding or implementation of RSE.
  • Lack of teacher training.
  • Poor parental interest or uptake of school services.
  • Not having established a common values framework to underpin RSE (as specified in the previous guidance).
  • Fear of opposition or of parents withdrawing children from lessons.

Parental objections

In my experience, parents' objections to RSE frequently come from defensiveness about religious beliefs or worldviews, fears of children’s emerging sexuality, an idea that RSE will destroy children’s innocence, or misconceptions about its delivery, content and purpose.

According to the DfE, most parental objections last year related to LGBT+ content – objections that were made manifest by the 2019 protests in Birmingham and Manchester by parents and others in their communities (DfE, 2019b).

Parents withdrawing their children from RSE used to be regarded as a risk indicator or child protection concern. Recently, however, religious groups have targeted parents through, for example, the Safe at School campaign, anti-RSE letter templates by StopRSE, and the petition and judicial review launched by the Let Our Kids Be Kids Coalition with the claim that RSE is a “breach of parents’ rights” (Middleton, 2020).

In light of this vocal backlash against RSE, it is all the more urgent that schools work with parents towards minimum withdrawal and maximum participation.

Parental engagement and consultation

The statutory guidance declares that schools should engage regularly with parents and work closely with them when developing and delivering RSE. Schools must:

  • Have a written policy for RSE and relationships education which is available to parents.
  • Consult parents in developing and reviewing the policy.
  • Clearly communicate parental rights for withdrawal (and good practice is “likely” to include the headteacher discussing with parents the benefits of sex education and the detrimental effects on children of withdrawal).
The DfE acknowledges that schools commonly think of parental consultation as parental engagement. It considers parental engagement as starting after the school has drafted a programme and policy: “Stage one ... should be information and briefing. Stage two is a suitable method to gather parent views. Both stages could be written or face-to-face.”

Consultation – a form of parental engagement – is a method for gathering parents’ views, involving them in the design of an RSE policy and sharing the relationships education curriculum.

However, parents often incorrectly interpret consultation to mean that they will have a say and a potential veto on a school’s RSE policy or curriculum content. They can also assume that consulting means negotiating (George, 2019).

It considers parental engagement as starting after the school has drafted a programme and policy: “Stage one ... should be information and briefing. Stage two is a suitable method to gather parent views. Both stages could be written or face-to-face.”

Ultimately it is the school’s decision as to whether parents’ “strongly held” views will lead it to “adapt when and how (to) approach certain topics” (DfE, 2019a).

Speaking in October at the SEF’s online conference Countdown to Statutory RSE – North East, the DfE’s Helena Wright reiterated their outlook that “parental engagement helps to develop a shared set of values between parents and schools and to ensure that everyone understands what is being taught, when and how”.

She added: “It is crucial to dispel myths about RSE, to help parents to understand how they can support what their child is learning in school with their own teaching at home and to consult with parents in a meaningful way so that they feel brought along and their voices are heard.”

Listening out for “the quieter voices” in face-to-face discussions is advocated by the SEF as a key aspect of consultation. Due to Covid-19 restrictions, consultation methods have increasingly gone virtual, including the use of Zoom or Microsoft Teams meetings. The SEF continues to recommend surveys – online or on paper – of both students and parents, with anonymous responses from students.

So how are schools planning to involve parents in RSE? According to pre-pandemic research, methods include: by : forming a working party with parents (24 per cent), holding information sessions (23 per cent), surveying parents (17 per cent), and , having an open-door policy (12 per cent) . However, 17 per cent do not know how they will involve parents and nine per cent have no plans to consult them (Allen-Kinross, 2019).

A poll of attendees at this year’s SEF conference revealed that 85 per cent had not done any parental consultation since lockdown began in March. When asked at what stage they were in the consulting process, they replied: “Still thinking about it” (45 per cent), “Have provided parents with information only” (33 per cent), “Carried out at least one activity asking for parents’ views” (18 per cent), and “Completed parental consultation activities” (three per cent).

Here is my view of a school’s ideal parental consultation journey:

  1. Understand the legal requirements around parental consultation.
  2. Design a new RSE policy or audit the current one (including such factors as parental engagement and staff and student needs).
  3. Survey parents and students so that their views can inform RSE provision.
  4. Hold Give a parent workshop webinar as consultation, showing parents the student survey results.
  5. Form a working group (of parents, students, staff and governors).
  6. Publish the RSE policy.
  7. Give parents regular information about what is being taught and when.

Assessing what parents need

Studies have often looked at how parents communicate with their children about RSE, but not at how they articulate their needs as educators.

Research by Outspoken co-founder and RSE consultant Yoan Reed for her King’s College London Master’s thesis (2017) shows that when it comes to engagement over RSE, parents have explicit needs (improved school-home communication, resources, guidance, parent education) and implicit needs (understanding comprehensive RSE, gender approaches and family roles; challenging heteronormative and religious interpretations of sex education; services to educate parents about children’s sexual development and lived experiences).

Best practice – though not in times of a global pandemic – involves running focus groups as needs assessments to both address parents’ issues and inform the curriculum.

Avenues to explore in a parents’ survey, suggests the SEF, could include: “Which values do we have in common? Are there any beliefs or practices relevant to puberty, relationships and sex education that are important to your culture/faith that we might not be aware of? Which topics do you want more help with at home? What was your sex education like? How do you want it to be for your child?”

Additionally, the SEF’s Parental Engagement Surveys About RSE (£5.99 for non-members) set out eight sample questions that can be a first step before gathering parents’ views.

Advice for schools from educators

At both the 2019 and 2020 SEF conferences I gleaned useful advice for schools from headteachers, public health practitioners and RSE providers, which I summarise here:

Communicate through various methods: Be transparent – publish everything online such as meetings and lesson details. Link the school’s policy/vision to an evidence-based RSE statement celebrating diversity and referencing the Equality Act 2010. Use voting systems, even in face-to-face meetings, so parents who find it hard to say RSE-related words out loud can write down questions and concerns. Share polls then follow them up with virtual meetings. Ask for written feedback that is confidential but not anonymous so that you can reply. Do a voiceover on PowerPoint, for example explaining parents’ rights, and include links. Share policy updates on social-media posts. Text parents or use messaging apps. Use mailshots or enclose information in reports that are sent home.

Engage parents: Have an open-door policy. Move from consultation to participation by asking: “How can we teach this in a different way?” you are asking parents to give their perspectives. Run through an RSE session for parents with a nurse there. Use evidence – for example, explain that sex education does not go hand-in-hand with earlier sexual activity. Show parents what terms of questions children have searched for on the school computers. Put in place an infrastructure for parent collaboration such as an informal parent group or forum, a steering group of parents, staff and students, parent class representatives, or a school board that includes 50-50 parents and staff.

Engage students: Do a walk-through as a temperature gauge of things like how the school presents gender or diverse families in displays or via library books. Have youth ambassadors share key messages with parents. Give students PSHE homework, which will help them engage with parents. Do an anonymous student consultation and share it with parents so they understand what their children identify as being important to learn about.

Engage staff: Challenge their misconceptions and build their confidence in using language. Equip all staff, even office staff, with clear answers to parent questions. In the staffroom, have a worry wall of RSE concerns.

What to aim for: Prioritise building trust. Emphasise safeguarding children. Tell parents that RSE will help their children to become citizens who are healthy, both physically and mentally.

  • Leah Jewett is a founding director of Outspoken Sex Ed, a resource for parents that supports them in their role as their children’s RSE educators. Visit

Fourth National Relationships, Sex & Health Education Conference

The fourth national Relationships, Sex & Health Education Conference runs online from November 30 to December 3 from 4pm to 6pm each day. There are 12 best practice sessions. Advice on delivering statutory curriculum, best practice, lessons learned so far & more. Only £99:

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