The features of effective and high-quality RSE

Written by: Lucy Emmerson | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Ahead of the deadline for entry to the 2021 Relationships and Sex Education Awards, Lucy Emmerson considers the features of effective, high-quality RSE provision in primary schools

Implementing statutory relationships education, relationships and sex education and health education (RSHE) during a pandemic was never the plan. And yet it is getting close to a year since the statutory RSHE guidance (DfE, 2019) became mandatory in all schools in England and much progress has been made.

The law requires schools to provide some relationships and health education to all primary-age pupils in the academic year 2020/21, but the development of a fully comprehensive programme will continue into the next academic year for many schools.

The breadth and depth of subject content introduced through the RSHE guidance has prompted many schools to make changes to timetabling and staffing, giving RSHE more teaching hours and improved status.

It is vitally important that adequate time is available for the subject, and this is something that subject leads often tell us they are still trying to negotiate, but time allocation alone does not guarantee quality.

So, what are the features of effective, high-quality provision?

A developmental curriculum

Investing in the creation of a truly developmental curriculum is the bedrock of effective RSE. The starting point is to plan lessons across all year groups, spanning from the youngest to the oldest pupils. Then make decisions about “what to teach when” based on sequencing knowledge and building on key concepts in a logical way.

Learning needs to be timely for pupils so that they are well prepared for their personal development. Decisions about timing may traditionally have been based around what feels comfortable for adults, rather than what is useful for the child. Topics such as puberty should be covered early on and more than once, rather than “just in time” or “as late as possible”.

Consistency and accuracy

With a developmental curriculum designed and ready, subject leads may be handing over lesson plans to a wider group of staff with a range of levels of knowledge in the subject. This creates scope for a lot of variation in delivery.

It is essential that health and legal information is always accurate and clear. Consistency and accuracy in the use of language is important too, and should be evident in resources, teaching and planning. Avoiding euphemisms and using correct terms for parts of the body (for example vulva, vagina, penis and testicles) needs to become standard practice and will support safeguarding.

Psycho-social factors

To be effective, RSE must acknowledge and address “psycho-social factors”, i.e. pupils’ norms and values. This means planning lessons that give time and space for meaningful discussion and exploration of attitudes. Used skilfully, methods such as values continuums are brilliant for facilitating safe discussion and supporting pupils to articulate and reflect on different perspectives on matters such as friendships, stereotypes and gender.

Opportunities to practise communication skills need to be planned in too, ranging from listening skills to assertive communication.

Confident about inclusion

Excellent provision will not only be rich in knowledge, skills development and addressing attitudes, it will also be confident about inclusion. There are many facets to inclusion. Here are some examples to consider:

  • Provision must be accessible to pupils with SEND but, as well as meeting this legal requirement, is your school’s teaching underpinned by an inclusive approach which assumes that all pupils, including those with SEND, may choose to have an intimate relationship at some point in their life?
  • Government guidance states that teaching about LGBT+ should be integrated in RSE, not a “bolt-on” lesson. Are references to romantic and intimate relationships and families always inclusive?
  • Racism has an impact on the daily lives of Black, Asian and minoritised ethnic (BAME) people in terms of personal relationships, consent, body image, mental health, sexual health and more. Is racism addressed within RSE?

Fully inclusive RSE requires more than just time on the curriculum. It is a continuous process of evaluation, reflection and action and needs the support and trust of senior leaders invested in subject leads and specialists. It is also the only way to ensure that all children and young people receive RSE that meets their needs.


The Sex Education Forum has supported generations of educators with practical advice, training and resources to develop high-quality RSE. We believe that excellent RSE and progress towards that goal should be celebrated.

The RSE Awards 2021 are open for nominations until June 24. Entries can be made under one of three categories: Educator of the Year for Inclusive RSE, Educator of the Year for Most Improved Provision, and Educator of the Year for Innovation in the Covid Pandemic.

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