Relationship and sex education (RSE) in secondary schools: Why’s it all so complicated?

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I recently delivered some lectures to PGCE Secondary Students in the Department of education and Childhood at UWE, regarding recent changes to sex education. I began these sessions by asking students to stand up if they had received any form of sex education at school; nearly all stood up. I then asked them to be honest and to think about whether this had prepared them well for real life; if so to remain standing. Nearly everyone sat down. This was what I had expected, as it is well understood that UK provision has often been experienced as inadequate.

Prior to the DFE’s consultation on sex and relationship education (SRE) and personal, social, health and economic education (PSHE) the Local Government Association (LGA) which represents councils in England and Wales stated that inadequate SRE was ‘creating a ticking sexual health time bomb’ as rates of sexually transmitted infection (STis) diagnoses in post-school populations was causing alarm. A British Humanist Association study found that the subject received for less attention than others in school and was neglected in Ofsted inspections. Ofsted reported that SRE is not good enough in schools. Some schools cover the basics of biology and sex, others are less sure of the information they can convey and relationship aspects are often neglected. Teachers feel under-trained, under-supported, confused and embarrassed, resulting in a lack of consistency and poor provision in many instances.

MPs stated that action to confront issues of sexual harassment in schools should be taken. This came on the back of an influential report in 2016 from the Women and Equalities Commission which reported that ‘5,500 sexual offences were recorded in UK schools over a three-year period, including 600 rapes’. This report found that sexual harassment and sexual violence in schools had become part of a culture of normalised behaviour passed off as ‘teasing’ or ‘boys being boys’. Guidance on use of technology in school on issues such as sexting was inadequate. Sexual harassment and sexual bullying was not recognised by schools and was omitted from policy such as the 2015 Ofsted Inspectors Framework for guidance on bullying. The report also found evidence of more widespread access to online pornography for children and young people, which was influencing perceptions of sex, relationships and consent. Overall, the report found that sexual harassment and sexual violence is an issue, which is significant in children and young people’s lives. Whilst boys are majority perpetrators, the negative impact of this is felt across the gender spectrum. The report recommended renewed national guidance, which should become statutory and be published and publicised to include:

  • increased guidance and training for teachers in consultation with specialists in the sector
  • direct reference to sexual harassment and sexual violence in policy with clear definitions
  • Ofsted to update their training and guidance and to inspect school effectiveness
  • Schools to record incidence and response data
  • Adoption of a whole school approach.

What are the changes to arise from this? Why make them? What is the response to these changes from those tasked with delivering them; namely schools and teachers?

In the Children and Social Work Act 2017 a new subject of Relationship and Sex Education (RSE) replaced SRE. Between December 2017 and February 2018 the DFE put out a call for evidence so that children and young people would have access to consistent, accurate and relevant information to help them thrive. The draft guidance is now in with final draft guidance expected in early February 2019 and final statutory guidance early 2020, to be implement in 2020. RSE is now compulsory in all secondary schools in England. Health Education is a new and compulsory aspect of PSHE within all state funded schools in England.

By 2020 all secondary schools in England must have a written policy on RSE, written in consultation with parents, including what will be taught and parents’ right to withdraw their child. It must reflect the needs and character of the school and handle sensitive topics appropriately. Schools with a religious character may teach the faith perspective on relationships but this must be balanced with debate on any contentious issues. All teaching from all schools must reflect the law. Schools remain free to determine content and delivery of RSE within statutory guidance boundaries.

RSE must include information on: intimate relationships; staying safe online; consent; LGBT content; confidence, resilience, and self-respect; and contraception, pregnancy and STIs. RSE must be differentiated and personalised and children with SEND should be included and not withdrawn, based on SEND, except in exceptional circumstances. Withdrawal requests from parents should be discussed with parents, highlighting the benefits of their child or young person taking part. After such discussions, a parent may still withdraw their child from part or all of sex education as part of RSE and a school should respect this, except in exceptional circumstances, up to three terms before a young person turns 16. At this point, the young person can choose to receive sex education.

This change to the delivery of RSE is the first comprehensive change since 2000 and as such, this consultation is welcome. However many have the view that it is not sufficient. It has been criticised for continuing to emphasise virtue over enjoyment. Yes, we need to teach young people about risks in RSE but alongside this the enjoyment aspect of what is a natural part of life for most people is important to consider. On many fronts, the outcome is considered too ambiguous. Teachers remain unsure what they can teach and how much detail they can go into. The legacy of Section 28 has a long tail and this impacts upon the integration of LGBTQ+ content into the curriculum. Other criticisms stem from issues with RSE being taught within the tenets of faith, which may undermine a human rights framework. In addition, as parents are still able to withdraw their children and young people this will not provide a consistency of RSE. Adequate training of teachers remains a worry as does priority of RSE in a curriculum that is overloaded; inadequate funding for the changes to be implemented continues to cause concern.

Current changes are a start but they do not go far enough in terms of real issues that young people face such as: sexual harassment and sexual violence, online abuse, access to pornography, LGBTQ+ identity discrimination, hate crime issues, consent, and understanding healthy and positive relationships. So, as a last word, what do the people most impacted by these changes want to see in the first major reform of sex education in the UK for 18 years? The sexual health charity Brook has worked with young people to understand what good RSE might look like and together they have developed an 11 point plan in the Young People’s Manifesto. This includes:

  • being taught by qualified teachers and other specialists, and included in regular lessons throughout the student journey where they feel safe to ask questions
  • the opportunity to learn about equal, positive and happy relationships; where parents are included in content so that this education can continue at home
  • information that is factual, based in law and is able to signpost to good sources of support
  • challenges to all forms of discrimination and promotion of equality for all genders and sexualities and meets all of our needs including those with SEN and disabilities
  • education which helps us to understand the norms, which influence the ways we think, giving us tools to challenge this.


Author – Helen Bovill.

This article is intended only to give an outline of changes to RSE which impact on secondary schools in England– for more information – please access links. The author, Helen Bovill, is currently working on research to challenge sexual and gender violence in student populations and is part of the SpeakUp campaign team at UWE




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