Relationships and Sex Education in Schools (England)

This House of Commons Library briefing provides an overview of the current rules and recent reforms to relationships and sex education in English schools.

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What must be taught and the parental right to withdraw their children

Local authority maintained schools in England are obliged to teach sex and relationships education (SRE) from age 11 upwards, and must have regard to the Government’s SRE guidance

Academies and free schools, the majority in secondary education in England, do not have to follow the National Curriculum and so are not under this obligation.  If they do decide to teach SRE, they also must have regard to the guidance.

Parents are free to withdraw their children from SRE if they wish to do so.  The only exceptions to this are the biological aspects of human growth and reproduction that are essential elements of National Curriculum Science.

From September 2020: statutory RSE

On 1 March 2017, the then Education Secretary, Justine Greening, announced her intention to put ‘Relationships and Sex Education’ – rather than SRE – on a statutory footing.  Section 34 of the Children and Social Work Act 2017 provides for relationships and sex education to be taught in all schools in England. 

The changes involve:

  • All primary schools in England teaching ‘Relationships Education’
  • All secondary schools teaching ‘Relationships and Sex Education’
  • Reformed statutory guidance, following consultation
  • Retaining the parental right of withdrawal from sex education, with new rights for children to ‘opt-in’ as they approach age 16
  • Flexibility for schools in their approach, including for faith schools to teach within the tenets of their faith

The Relationships Education, Relationships and Sex Education and Health Education (England) Regulations 2019 confirm that these changes will come into force in September 2020. Statutory health education in schools is being brought in as part of these changes.

Final statutory guidance on Relationships education, relationships and sex education (RSE) and health education was published by the Department for Education in June 2019.

The DfE also published a FAQs briefing on the changes.

Earlier reviews and proposals for change

The future of SRE has been a topic of keen parliamentary interest and wider debate in recent years, and has been the subject of numerous parliamentary debates, legislative proposals and outside campaigns.  Section 3 of this briefing provides an overview of developments since the Labour Government’s review of SRE in 2008.

Teaching about same-sex marriage

During and following the passage of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013 there was considerable debate about the implications of the legislation for teachers whose religious beliefs led them to oppose the measure.  The then Equalities Minister stated that teachers would be able to describe their belief that marriage is between a man and a woman, while acknowledging that same-sex marriage will be available within the law. 

Reforms for schools to ‘actively promote’ British values, prompted fresh concerns from religious organisations that teachers could be required to promote same-sex marriage to which they were opposed. The Government stated that schools should encourage pupils to respect other people, even if they do not agree with them.


This briefing applies to England only.

  • Commons Research Briefing SN06103
  • Author: Robert Long
  • Topics: Schools

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