Protecting children in Relationships, Sex and Health Education: new draft statutory guidance

28th June 2024

Teenage pupils being taught

On 16 May 2024 the Department for Education (the “DfE”) confirmed that, to offer protection to children when being taught sensitive topics in school, draft updated Relationships, Sex and Health Education (RSHE) statutory guidance (the “guidance”) has been produced and is applicable to all schools.

The overarching aim of the updated guidance is to ensure that the RSHE content taught in schools is factual and appropriate to the age of the child, and that children have the capacity to fully understand everything they are taught.

It was only in 2020 that relationships education was made compulsory for all pupils receiving primary education, and relationships and sex education was made compulsory for all pupils receiving secondary education. The proposed updates to the guidance demonstrates the complexity of teaching children RSHE, particularly given the increasing online presence of children.

Age limits to teaching

Whilst sex education it not compulsory in primary school, if it is taught then, pursuant to the draft guidance, it should only be taught to children from Year 5 onwards. Alongside this, teaching must be solely from a scientific perspective, providing information needed to understand human reproduction and for their own safety. Prior to Year 5, children will not be taught sex education.

When children move in to secondary school, they will be taught about legally ‘protected’ characteristics. These include a person’s sexual orientation and gender reassignment. However, pupils will not be taught about gender identity.

Pupil wellbeing

The updated guidance includes information related to suicide prevention. Schools will be expected to equip pupils to recognise when they need help, or when their peers may need help. Starting from primary school, this will involve teaching pupils to recognise and talk about emotions, and to consider whether their feelings and behaviours are appropriate.

Pupils should also be taught simple self-care techniques, and where and how to seek support for themselves and others, as part of the curriculum. When schools are teaching suicide prevention, in line with the updated guidance it will be important not to make direct references to suicide before Year 8 given the sensitivity and complexity of the topic.

With children spending increasing amounts of time online, the updated guidance also aims to support pupils to limit the time they spend online, and to understand the impact to their wellbeing if they do not limit their online presence.

Linked with suicide prevention support, the updated guidance also sets out the risks to children of viewing content that promotes self-harm and suicide. Schools should be prepared to support pupils in understanding their online presence and put boundaries in place to limit exposure to certain topics.

Sexual harassment and sexual violence

The DfE has noted that it is aware of rising levels of misogynistic behaviour being seen in schools. In an attempt to combat this risk to children, the updated guidance includes a section on sexual harassment and sexual violence.

The updated guidance details types of abusive behaviour not previously covered, such as stalking. Schools are also provided with guidance to support them in addressing misogynistic online influencers. When being taught about misogynistic behaviours, sexual harassment and sexual abuse, pupils should understand the importance of challenging harmful beliefs and attitudes, and should understand that sexism and misogyny can be linked to violence against women and girls.

It is important in line with the updated guidance that, where misogynistic ideas are expressed at school, staff are equipped to challenge the ideas and support pupils to reflect on their attitudes.

Practical steps for schools

Given the complexity of the topics covered by RSHE, schools should use this as an opportunity to revisit their current RSHE practices and ensure that, when teaching sensitive topics, a cautious approach is taken in line with the guidance.

Materials which present contested views as fact must not be used, and this includes materials which teach about the concept of a gender spectrum. The DfE’s gender questioning guidance should be reviewed to ensure that schools understand the department’s cautious approach to teaching RSHE to best protect children.

As well as reviewing teaching materials internally, schools also need to make RSHE teaching materials available to parents and ensure that they have an awareness of what their children are being taught. As confirmed in the updated guidance, copyright law is not a barrier to sharing the teaching materials with parents.

Schools should also be aware that discussions about sensitive topics in RSHE can lead to increased safeguarding reports. All staff should know what to do if they have concerns that a pupil is being abused or neglected or have witnessed abuse, making this an opportune time to revisit the school’s safeguarding training and policy.

Next steps

The updated guidance opened for consultation for a period of nine weeks from 16 May 2024 during which time the DfE sought views on the proposed changes to the guidance.

When it has been finalised schools must follow it, and it is therefore important to become familiar with the guidance to have an awareness of potential changes at an early stage prior to implementation. It may be pertinent to consider drafting a new RHSE policy following the consultation period.

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