A teacher can be seen reading to a group of primary school students in their classroom.
The Department of Education wants to support young people to be healthy and safe. Image Credit: CDC

Relationships, sex, and health education (RSHE) has been compulsory in primary and secondary schools for almost three years.

In 2020, the Department of Education introduced it to “support all young people to be happy, healthy and safe” as they want to “equip them for adult life and to make a positive contribution to society.” It was brought in as part of changes triggered by the Children And Social Work Act 2017.

The DfE guidance also set out the rights of parents and carers to withdraw pupils from sex education but not relationships or health education.

But it has sparked controversy as some parents were opposed to educational professionals teaching their children about what parents say is a ‘taboo’ topic.

Following headlines in March 2023 claiming inappropriate and ‘politically motivated’ content was being taught in schools, the government announced new details on the RSHE guidance.

Details include:

  • Advice on how to put in place clear safeguards to stop pupils from being taught ‘contested and potentially damaging’ concepts
  • Age ratings, and making sure high-quality teaching materials are available for schools
  • Confirmation that schools make sure they share curriculum materials with parents

Charities and sex education providers are calling for the lessons to expand, while some parents, concerned about the content, are fighting for the right to have the curriculum altered to meet safeguarding standards.

Their objections include:

  • Content incites gender confusion
  • Influences underage sexual activity
  • Children should learn about relationships naturally
  • Teachers are not responsible for talking about sex
  • Discussions around consent can instil fear

Those in favour

Lisa Welsh, a sex education specialist who works as a communication liaison officer for the World Association for Sexual Health, is a mother of three and believes that open and honest conversations about RSHE are crucial for the wellbeing of children.

“Including comprehensive education about relationships and sexuality empowers young people to make informed choices, develop healthy relationships, and understand consent,” she says.

“It goes beyond the physical aspects of sex and addresses emotional wellbeing, communication skills, and respect for oneself and others,” she says.

“By providing age-appropriate information, children can grow up with a healthy understanding of their bodies, boundaries, and diverse sexual orientations and identities. It will create a safe and supportive environment for them to ask questions, challenge stereotypes, and gain the knowledge needed to make informed decisions.”

End Violence Against Women (EVAW), a group of feminist organisations and experts from across the UK, says that these new details are “worryingly reactionary, rather than being based on what young people say they need.”

Deniz Uğur, deputy director of the EVAW Coalition, says “It is abundantly clear that this vital education must be driven and guided by a commitment to ensuring all young people receive the education they need to thrive and feel safe, and to tackling the cultural norms which underpin the epidemic of gender-based violence we see today.”

‘Only parents know when their child is developmentally ready to be taught about these delicate issues’

Those against

Opinions among parents have sparked the most debate. Some headteachers have had to act on requests from parents who want their children withdrawn from RSHE because of objections to conversations about the definition of sex, gender identity and how to practise safe sex.

Other organisations have also published guidance on how to consult parents with suggestions such as focus groups.

Others argue that it should be left to parents to decide whether their child participates while still others are calling for a more open discussion between parents and teachers.

A spokesperson from 2 Much 2 Young, a group of parents concerned about the new RSHE curriculum says: “I’m constantly in shock that teachers are prepared to do it [teach RSHE],” adding that teachers should reflect on whether what they were doing was “right”, rather than just following the guidance.

“Our message is simple. Only parents know when their child is developmentally ready to be taught about these delicate issues. Knowledge like this is best given, when asked for, according to their own level of development, by the people who know them best. And that’s not teachers,” they say.

Online groups, such as Bad Education, Playground Voice and Family Education Trust, are among the groups advocating via social media for a review to be informed by expert panels to protect their children in response to the reports of ‘inappropriate’ content being taught.

Bad Education, run by an individual who describe themselves as a “concerned uncle and grandfather” and “living proof of how a poor abusive education can destroy someone’s life” calls for “politically motivated” education groups to be banned from schools. “Using children as political pawns is a massive safeguarding failure.

“I get parents messaging me all the time. They are worried, angry and confused because they see the schools hiding materials from them . . . the biggest problem is the lack of transparency between them.”

The Government has announced that new RSHE statutory guidance will be completed by the end of the year in response to the continued debate around accessibility and safety.

The review will be informed by an independent panel to provide external expertise as well as input from health, children’s development, curriculum and safeguarding, drawn upon close work with Ofsted.

Follow these links to learn more about the current curriculum and the new statutory guidance.