The Department for Education has published its response to the consultation it held at the end of last year on relationships and sex education (RSE), relationships education and health education. All schools will have to teach these subjects from September 2020.

The revised statutory guidance and regulations have not yet been published, but the Department’s response provides us with some pointers as to what changes will be made to those that were published in August last year.

The ‘Guiding principles’ for RSE / relationships education and health education are that young people need to know how to be safe and healthy and how to manage their academic, personal and social lives in a positive way. This includes their online lives. Teaching must be age and developmentally appropriate. The backgrounds and beliefs of pupils and parents must be respected, while providing pupils with the knowledge they need to prepare them to play a full part in society as a whole as responsible citizens.

At primary school relationships education should establish the basis for understanding positive and safe relationships of all kinds: starting with family and friends, and moving on to other kinds of relationships, including online. While puberty would come under health education, schools may also cover the topic in relationships education. There is no requirement on primary schools to provide sex education, but the DfE recommends that primary schools should have age and developmentally appropriate sex education programmes.

At secondary level RSE should cover sex and relationships and laws relating to them: including those relating to consent, exploitation, abuse, grooming, coercion and harassment. Pupils should be taught about sexual health, and the effects of relationships on mental wellbeing.

RSE should be inclusive of all pupils, whatever their developing sexuality or identity.  To understand the world in which pupils are growing up, they will need to understand that some people are LGBT and that the law affords them and their relationships recognition and protection. Nevertheless, it is likely that schools will still be able to teach a distinctive faith perspective on relationships.

The current ‘right to withdraw’ a pupil from sex education is not compatible with case law.  In an endeavour to balance the parental ‘right’ with the child’s right to education, parents will still be able to request that their child be withdrawn up to and until 3 terms before the child turns 16. The DfE indicates that requests should be respected, except in ‘exceptional circumstances.’

In primary schools health education should focus on physical and mental health. In secondary schools, it should enable pupils to understand how their bodies are changing. Menstruation and menstrual well-being should be taught in both primary and secondary schools. Pupils should be taught why terms associated with mental and physical health should not be used pejoratively.  Teaching should cover not just online safety but also the risk of harm from excessive screentime.

Aside from the pointers outlined above indicating how the statutory guidance and regulations may change from those published last August, we now await the publication of the amended documents in ‘Spring 2019’.