RSE, health education and parental consultation

Written by: Leah Jewett | Published:
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Parental engagement with statutory relationships, sex and health education is a vital component of a successful curriculum. Leah Jewett offers her advice to primary schools ahead of September 2020

It is no wonder that relationships and sex education (RSE) are the only subjects that require parental engagement in their development. Parents are in fact the missing link when it comes to both RSE and health education. If parents speak openly at home, it is a form of early intervention and on-going prevention – a starting point for safeguarding, improving mental health and strengthening the parent-child connection.

As we prepare for the introduction of the new statutory RSE and health education curriculums in September, supporting parents in their role as their children’s primary educators will help schools because it:

  • Reinforces positive outcomes for RSE and health education at school.
  • Furthers the school-home partnership.
  • Fulfils the requirements for parental consultation in the Department for Education RSE and health education statutory guidance (DfE, 2019a).
  • Meets criteria for Ofsted inspection on parental engagement.
  • Complements other areas of the curriculum such as PSHE, SMSC, citizenship and media and digital literacy.
  • Shores up children’s confidence and resilience and emphasises parents’ role as their children’s primary educators.

Parents and school are children’s top two preferred sources of information about sex and relationships, according to the Sex Education Forum’s Briefing for Parliamentarians (SEF, 2019a). The 2019 SEF Young People’s RSE Poll found that 48 per cent of respondents rated the quality of RSE they received from their parents as “good/very good”. However, 19 per cent – one in five – rated it as “bad/very bad” (SEF, 2019b).

The government’s statutory guidance

In the statutory guidance, parents are no longer considered “sex educators” of their children but rather “first educators” and “prime educators for children on many of these matters”, although “these matters” are never spelled out. The new guidance removes two statements from the previous 2000 guidance that I believe schools should still take into account:

  • The first about parent support: “In some schools, groups of parents have been trained as peer parent sex educators. They work to support other parents and to help develop school/parent partnerships.”
  • The second about agreed values: “Teachers and all those contributing to RSE are expected to work within an agreed values framework.”

To soften parents’ more forceful-sounding “right to withdraw”, the statutory guidance has introduced the idea of children’s “right to be excused”.

There is no right to withdraw from relationships education, which the DfE has said is “important for all children to be taught” (DfE, 2019b). Surely the contents of sex education are also important for all children to learn?

Withdrawal from RSE has long been regarded a risk indicator or child-protection concern. Previously schools were offered a “standard pack of information” to give RSE-opting-out parents. However, as the previous guidance cautioned: “Children cannot always rely on their parents to talk to them about puberty or sex.” To this day there is no way to assess or monitor whether sex education is being delivered at home.

In my experience at Outspoken Sex Ed, few parents actively engage with their children’s relationships, sex and health education, so many are relieved to hand over this responsibility to the school. Ideally schools will work to build a joint understanding with parents about the benefits so there is maximum participation and minimum withdrawal.

The LGBT+ lesson protests

If the 92 per cent of parents who want schools to teach RSE (SEF, 2019a) spoke out, it would be a vital counterpoint to the vocal minority who oppose RSE. As Lynnette Smith, chair of the SEF, wrote recently: “The quiet majority hold the key.” (SEF, 2019c)

A rare display of pro-RSE visibility happened last July outside Fernwood Primary in Nottingham when there was a counter-protest of parents that was double the size of the anti-LGBT demonstration. One parent said: “The protest is a great advert for why RSE lessons are important. We don’t want our children to grow up to be ignorant.”

Parents’ objections often come from defensiveness about religious beliefs or worldviews, fears of children’s emerging sexuality, an idea that RSE will steal children’s innocence, or misconceptions about its delivery, content and purpose. Most objections relate to LGBT content, according to the DfE’s recent guidance about the protests (DfE, 2019c).

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

Parental consultation

Consultation refers to schools giving parents information and hearing their opinions with a view towards taking them into consideration. The statutory guidance states: “All schools must have in place a written policy for relationships education and RSE. Schools must consult parents in developing and reviewing their policy. Schools should ensure that the policy meets the needs of pupils and parents and reflects the community they serve.”

However, parents often interpret RSE and health education consultation to mean that they have a say and a potential veto. Parents can too often assume that consulting means negotiating (George, 2019).

The DfE document Parental engagement on relationships education states: “Schools recognise the importance of strong, constructive and open conversation with parents in the education of their children.” 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.” Parents can “feed in their views”, but the school decides if “any strongly held views of their parent body should lead the school to adapt when and how they approach certain topics” (DfE, 2019d).

A 2014 University of Bath paper distinguishes among parental involvement with schools (a transfer of information), parental involvement with schooling (on the school’s terms), and parental engagement with children’s learning (a commitment to lifelong influence at home through conversation). Parents are aware of the importance of being “co-educators” of their children, yet “they have decreasing confidence” (Goodall & Montgomery, 2014).

Research by Outspoken co-founder and RSE teacher Yoan Reed for her 2017 King’s College London Master’s thesis 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 involves running focus groups as needs assessments to help address parents’ issues and inform the curriculum.

While it is only relationships education that is statutory at primary level, the statutory guidance states: “The DfE continues to recommend that all primary schools should have a sex education programme tailored to the age and the physical and emotional maturity of the pupils. It should ensure that both boys and girls are prepared for the changes that adolescence brings. As well as consulting parents more generally about the school’s overall policy, primary schools should consult parents before the final year of primary school about the detailed content of what will be taught.”

That process should include “offering parents support in talking to their children about sex education and how to link this with what is being taught”.

An effective way to do this is parent support programmes that are warm, non-judgemental and targeted at particular groups (important for minority ethnic and disadvantaged parents). What is important for schools in upskilling parents is parental-needs analysis. Studies have often looked at how parents communicate with their children about RSE, but not at how they articulate their needs as educators.

So how are schools planning to involve parents? According to research, by: forming a working party with parents (24 per cent), holding information sessions (23 per cent), surveying parents (17 per cent), 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).

Advice from Parentkind

Among the sessions at SEF’s November conference, the charity Parentkind offered its advice, which I summarise here.

  • Know your parent community, the challenges they face, the key issues that matter to them, their barriers to engagement. Be conscious of those who are harder to reach. Notify parents about meetings in advance. If you can, set up an after-school creche and provide refreshments.
  • Develop a strategy for communicating proactively, and early, about the RSE and health education curriculums to address parents’ worries and provide any reassurance necessary. Text or use messaging apps. Do parent surveys. Take into account language barriers, do not overcomplicate your message and avoid jargon.
  • Put in place an infrastructure for parent collaboration that goes beyond the curriculum such as: an informal group or forum that will not intimidate parents who had negative school experiences; a steering group of parents, staff and students; parent class representatives; a school board that includes 50-50 parents and staff. This can build trust and pre-empt potential controversial issues.
  • Teachers and non-teaching staff are a vital resource in developing positive school-home relationships. Teachers need in-depth training to become confident. Office staff often field questions by phone or in person. So equip all staff – through meetings or external workshops – with clear answers to parent questions.

Further advice from the SEF November conference

Headteacher Lindsay Gamble, from Our Lady of Mount Carmel Catholic Primary School in Doncaster: Be transparent about RSE by giving parents facts and information about what is taught, when and why. Prioritise building trust. Emphasise safeguarding children. Ascertain if parents have expectations that are not being met and let parents air opinions – answer their questions prior to delivering the curriculum. Have an open-door policy – but with challenging issues, arrange to meet on a different day. Ask for written feedback that is not anonymous so you can reply. Keep parents in on the feedback-loop process. Treat everyone with respect.

National PSHE and RSE advisor Josie Rayner-Wells: Consider how we present and entitle talks about RSE and health education so that parents come with less anxiety and so that more dads might show up. One title recommendation is: “Keep your child safe in the modern world.”
Link the school’s policy/vision to an evidence-based RSE statement celebrating diversity and referencing the Equality Act 2010, and make it integral, not bolted on. Do an anonymous student consultation and share it with parents so they can see children’s questions. Report students’ RSE and health education assessments and progress to parents. Have external providers to enhance, not replace, the curriculum and in the staffroom have a worry wall of RSE and health education concerns on sticky notes. With students, do a walk-through temperature gauge: how does the school present diverse families, what do the library books imply, what impression does the school give about girls versus boys?

  • 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 and health educators. Visit

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