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After 18 years of waiting the new draft guidance for RSE is here… but was it worth the wait?

This post previously appeared on July 2018

Thursday 19th July finally saw the release of the draft guidance and the opening of a 12 week consultation.

The introduction by Damian Hinds begins… 

“Today’s children and young people are growing up in an increasingly complex world and living their lives seamlessly on and offline. This presents many positive and exciting opportunities, but also challenges and risks.” 


It would lead you believe that the guidance would be much less risk focused and actually highlight some of the very positive influences that new technologies have had on young people and their sexual relationships – as was highlighted in Brooks new research publication this week: “Digital Romance”However, when you review the learning objective for both primary and secondary, disappointingly there is no specific mention of the positive aspects of the internet or mobile technology or how it can help keep young people safe, help them to negotiate sexual boundaries, provide a new platform for difficult conversations or provide needed lifelines to vulnerable children who can seek help anonymously.

Indeed, there is still a massive lack of ‘sex positive’ messages in the new guidance – perhaps that was too much to hope for, despite the growing evidence of the benefits of a positive rather than a risk centred approach to RSE, and the calls by young people for information about pleasure and enjoying sex. The worry being that if we are not the ones to talk to young people about how to make sex a positive experience that is pleasurable for both parties – then they will continue to seek information from other sources, including online pornography as to how to have pleasurable sex. 

Indeed, the guidance seems to be a mix of very positive messages and evidence based practice, that is simply not supported by the compulsory aspects of the curriculum. Instead it is left up to schools to decide what is age appropriate and is relevant to their pupils.

This is no more apparent than in the policy decision to remove the ‘sex’ from RSE in primary. The guidance states:

The Department continues to recommend therefore that all primary schools should have a sex education programme tailored to the age and the physical and emotional maturity of the pupils […] Meeting these objectives will require a graduated, age-appropriate programme of sex education“

So despite the fact that the department recognises the importance of the inclusion of Sex education in primary – they are still not prepared to make it a compulsory part of the curriculum.

Indeed, there does feel like there is much in the guidance that is designed to appease those who fear we might take away children’s innocence if we answer their questions. Rather than making the argument for the evidence base, that shows by introducing these topics earlier, removes the stigma and awkwardness of discussing sex, making it instead just another topic of conversation – plus enables children to grow-up safer and in more positive relationships. There is a massive difference between innocence and ignorance.

Instead they are leaving these conversations up to schools to have with parents without any official support behind them from the guidance.

Indeed, this contradiction continues into the secondary programme as again the Relationship education remains compulsory, and yet parents retain the right to opt their teens out of the ‘sex’ part of the programme. How this will work in practice as the guidance states:

“Schools should develop programmes of teaching which prioritise effective delivery of the content, and do not need artificially to separate sex education and Relationships Education.”

So, practically how will this work? Will some children have to continually leave the classroom as discussion naturally move from relationships to sex and back and forth in this integrated subject? It is baffling. Especially in light of the fact that earlier this year it was officially recognised as a basic human right that children should have access to RSE as it is evidenced to keep them safe, regardless of their parent’s wishes. 

This has been partially recognised as children will be able to overrule their parents request to be removed but only after:

“three terms before the child turns 16. After that point, if the child wishes to receive sex education rather than be withdrawn, the school should make arrangements to provide the child with sex education during one of those terms.” 

Again, this seems to conflict with the earlier recognition that sex education is best delivered incrementally, building on previous messages year by year, which was stated earlier in the guidance…

There is much emphasis still on religious beliefs and protections there of. And despite the fact that it states at a number of points that RSE needs to be inclusive of LGBT issues and young people – these are often omitted in place for religious protections. For example: 

In all schools, when teaching these subjects, the religious background of all pupils must be taken into account when planning teaching, so that sensitive topics that need to be taught are appropriately handled. Schools must ensure they comply with the relevant provisions of the Equality Act (2010), under which religion or beliefs are protected characteristics. 

Gender and sexuality are also protected characteristics under the Equalities Act, and none are hierarchical in value, out scoring each other. How will this work in religious schools, whose values contradict with the law around LGBT marriage, relationships, gender identity, not to mention view around abortion and contraception. There is no support for schools as to how to manage this conundrum – other than to state that all schools need to make children aware of the law of the land…

Indeed, it is worrying that in appendix the only curriculum highlighted as good practice comes from Catholic Education – which instead highlights the role of God instead of including the words, consent, abortion, contraception, or same sex relationships.

Indeed, it is further worrying the continued emphasis on marriage – especially when this might not reflect young peoples families or their own life choices. There still seems to be the belief that a marriage provides a safer environment for children or for sex. This is not the case. Whilst abuse is mentioned in relationships, there still remains the emphasis on marriage regardless of how healthy the relationships may be.

In many regards the guidance is inclusive of LGBT and states that this should not be done in a one off lesson but should instead “that it is integral throughout the programmes of study”. Equally, the guidance seems to be inclusive of children in care or with alternative family structures, as the guidance states:

Families of many forms provide a nurturing environment for children. Care needs to be taken to ensure that there is no stigmatisation of children based on their home circumstances and needs, to reflect sensitively that some children may have a different structure of support around them, e.g. looked after children or young carers. 

This is a very positive move and yet again seems to contradict the aforementioned emphasis on Christian Marriage.

When it comes to the content of the Relationship Education in Primary, much of the content is very positive and include discussion around positive relationships, different types of families; importantly a really emphasis on emotional literacy and emotion health – which is very welcomed. There is also the inclusion of teaching consent and body autonomy. 

“that each person’s body belongs to them, and the differences between appropriate and inappropriate or unsafe physical, and other, contact.”

However, again there seems to be this reticence to specifically use the word consent which is omitted – even though this is clearly what we are talking about.

Equally, despite the fact that in Maintained schools they are required to teach the national curriculum for science. At key stages 1 and 2 this includes teaching about the main external body parts, there is still no mention of teaching children the correct names for their private parts under staying safe – despite the evidence that it helps to prevent sexual abuse and aids the disclosure of abuse. Indeed, we would like to see this included with the specific naming of vulvafor girls (not vagina) to ensure we are giving children the correct names and not reducing female sexuality to merely reproduction which has been case for so long – which is the good practice we have here in Warwickshire.

When it comes to the Secondary guidance for RSE, much of the content is quite positive and certainly a step in the right direction. There is much emphasis on healthy relationships – in terms of both friendships and personal relationships, including same-sex relationships.

There seems to be a disproportionate reliance on the legal frameworks in regards to sex,  rather than exploring attitudes to sex. However, it will be interesting to see how this can be done when the law contradicts religious doctrines, especially regarding young people’s rights as stated in the guidance.

There is specific mention and inclusion of FGM in secondary programme, however this is omitted in the primary section – which is concerning as we know that many young girls that do experience FGM, do so during the transition between primary and secondary, in their prepubescent years. This should be included in both the primary and secondary curriculum. 

There is a similar state of affairs when it comes to menstruation, with much of the important emphasis on supporting young girls in high school, with little regard to those girls that might start early in primary school.

The onset of menstruation can be confusing or even alarming for girls if they are not prepared. As with education about puberty, programmes should include understanding of and preparation for menstruation, for all pupils. Schools should also make adequate and sensitive arrangements to help girls manage menstruation and with requests for sanitary protection.

On this point we would like to see a specific policy being required for school to sensitively manage young women’s menstruation – especially those who might be from poor or vulnerable families. Indeed, many schools lock toilets during lesson times, in an effort to manage behaviour, with little thought of how this may make it particularly difficult for young girls to change sanitary products if they need to during lessons.

As mentioned previously, there is no mention of pleasure in any aspect of the guidance or exploring attitudes or sexual values. There is no mention of preparing young people for a sexual relationship, including discussion of other types of sexual contact other than ‘reproductive sex’. Much of the focus on sex is again through the lens of risk rather than empowerment. Equally, there is again an omission of the positive aspects of the internet or social media to young peoples relationships or seeking help.

There is inclusion of discussion around pornography, even if it is implied rather stated specifically:

“sexually explicit material often presents a distorted picture of sexual behaviours, can damage the way people see themselves in relation to others and negatively affect how they behave towards sexual partners.”

However, it would be helpful if this widened to include discussion about the media as whole, such as reality TV shows such as Geordie Shore, Love Island and TOWIE, magazines such as HEAT magazine and the general press that promotes negative body images, fat and slut shaming and generally poor attitudes. It is easy to target pornography as the problem, however we are missing a trick if we do not talk about the media as a whole in shaping our attitudes to sex and relationships. 

Positively, there is a huge emphasis on young people’s emotional health and wellbeing. Encouraging young people to develop skill around emotional literacy and a positive body image. To explore how their emotional state might affect their behaviours and when to recognise that friends might need help and support. Much of this content is very welcome and we are pleased to see it included.

It is important that the guidance recognises that RSE should not be delivered in a tokenistic fashion, and instead require a whole school approach, where wider policies and practices reinforce the messages around inclusion, safeguarding, behaviour and respect for others. 

Whilst the guidance feels like a step in the right direction – it does ultimately feel a little safe by the Department of Education. I think many schools will feel vulnerable, trapped between knowing what they should do and what they feel supported to do. Many will feel isolated in dealing with difficult parents or religious groups. Many of the policies, are designed to appease more skeptical groups rather than following the evidence.

But it is definitely a start….

Please note: this is an old post that has been moved from another website. Since writing this post – the guidance has now updated and passed. To read the new guidance in full click here:

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