Relationships and Sex Education in English schools is changing, which has led to debates around the rights of parents to remove their children from classes.

The Children and Social Work Act 2017 and associated regulations require relationships and sex education to be taught in all English schools from September 2020.

Here we take a look at current legislation around sex education and the changes being introduced.

What’s the current situation?

Schools maintained by local authorities in England are obliged to teach Sex and Relationship Education (SRE) from age 11 upwards, and must take into account the Department for Education’s (DfE) Sex and Relationship Education guidance, published in 2000. Academies and free schools, which make up the majority of secondary schools in England, are not under this obligation. Although if they do decide to teach SRE, they also must have regard to the guidance.

In recent years there have been regular calls to make SRE compulsory, often alongside Personal, Social, Health and Economic Education (PSHE), as well as for updated guidance to reflect the changing pressures on young people since the existing guidance was introduced.

What’s changing?

The 2017 Act requires:

  • All primary schools in England to teach ‘Relationships Education’.
  • All secondary schools to teach ‘Relationships and Sex Education’ (RSE).

Sex education is not compulsory in primary schools. It is for primary schools to determine whether they need to cover any additional content on sex education, to that already covered in Relationships Education or as part of the science curriculum.

Revised draft statutory guidance, published in February 2019, provides more detail on what will be taught as part of the changes. The guidance also covers statutory health education, which is being introduced alongside these subjects. Draft regulations to implement the changes are currently before Parliament.

What will be taught after the reforms?

Relationships Education at primary level, and RSE at secondary level, cover a wide range of topics.

In Relationships Education, children will learn about subjects including families, friendships, relationships and being safe, including characteristics of healthy family life. This covers varieties in family life, and how to recognise if family relationships are making them feel unhappy or unsafe, the rules and principles for keeping safe online, and appropriate boundaries in peer friendships.

RSE builds on what is learned at primary level, for example that there are different types of committed, stable relationships, and the importance of those relationships in raising children. It also covers why marriage is an important relationship choice for many couples and why it must be freely entered into, alongside different types of bullying (including cyber bullying), and the concepts and laws relating to sexual consent, sexual exploitation, abuse, grooming, coercion, honour-based violence and female genital mutilation (FGM). RSE also introduces teaching about intimate and sexual relationships, including sexual health.

Schools are responsible for the materials used to teach RSE, ensuring that they are age appropriate, including those used by any external speakers. The new draft DfE guidance includes suggested resources, such as from the PSHE Association on consent, from Stonewall on LGBT inclusivity, and lesson resources for RSE published by the Catholic Education Service.

Can faith schools opt out?

The changes apply to all schools, regardless of whether they have a faith designation.

The draft guidance states that all schools should take the religious background of their pupils into account when planning teaching. It notes that faith schools may use their faith to inform what is taught, “for example, the school may wish to reflect on faith teachings about certain topics as well as how their faith institutions may support people in matters of relationships and sex.”

How is LGBT content addressed?

The draft guidance states that schools are free to determine how they address LGBT specific content, but the DfE expects, “all pupils to have been taught LGBT content at a timely point,” and that “they should ensure that this content is fully integrated into their programmes of study for this area of the curriculum rather than delivered as a standalone unit or lesson.”

Can parents withdraw their children from RSE?

Currently, parents have the right to withdraw their children from sex education outside of National Curriculum Science. The right to withdraw applies to sex education only, and not to relationships education more widely.

From the start of its reforms, the Government was clear this would change, and that clarification was being sought on, “the age at which a young person may have the right to make their own decisions.”

It also said a blanket right for parents to withdraw their child from sex education was no longer consistent with English case law (or with the European Convention on Human Rights and The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child).

The revised guidance sets out two steps for future requests to withdraw a child:

  • Parents have the right to request to the head teacher that their child is withdrawn from sex education delivered as part of statutory RSE (outside of the science curriculum).
  • Acceptance of the request would then depend on the age of the child and any exceptional circumstances:
  • At primary level, the request would automatically be granted.
  • At secondary level, the request would be granted in all but exceptional circumstances, which are understood as relating to safeguarding issues. This would apply until three terms before a child turned 16, at which point a child would be able to opt-in to sex education for one term if they so choose.

Further reading

About the author: Robert Long is a social policy researcher at the House of Commons Library, specialising in education.

Image: Office Coworking Space / home thods / CC BY 2.0