RSE Statutory Guidance girl writing in notebook by her laptop

In May 2024, the government published a draft of the 2014 RSE Statutory Guidance. This response was written by Life Lessons on 12th June 2024.

In 2020 the government made Relationships, Sex and Health education (RSHE) compulsory in England.

This important policy acknowledged the need to equip young people with information to make healthy informed decisions.

‘Today’s children and young people are growing up in an increasingly complex world and living their lives seamlessly on and offline. This presents many positive and exciting opportunities, but also challenges and risks. In this environment, children and 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.’ (Statutory Guidance: Relationships Education, Relationships and Sex Education (RSE) and Health Education, 2021).

For a subject designed to meet the educational needs arising from our fast changing world, it is right to regularly review the specifics of what is taught and how.

In May 2014, the government published the first ‘Review of the RSE statutory guidance’

Our response to this review is grouped into three sections:

  1. Our view on the reasons for the review
  2. Our views on the specific recommendations
  3. What we would have also liked to see in the recommendations

1. Reasons for the Review of the RSE Statutory Guidance

This review was described in its announcement text as a ‘response to disturbing reports that inappropriate material is being taught in some schools’ (Government press release, 2024).

Life Lessons works with a diverse range of schools across England including large mainstream schools, alternative provisions such as PRUs and faith schools. We only see dedicated individuals working hard to give the pupils the best education in this area. Delivering upon the RSHE statutory guidelines with the guidance and support they have available to them.

We firmly believe that schools are not the source of unhealthy influence, that is in fact more likely to be coming from other sources, for example young people accessing mature content on the internet. Schools are doing their very best to help young people interpret and deal with the consequences of influence occurring elsewhere.

2. Our views on the specific recommendations from the RSE Statutory Guidance

We have grouped the specific review recommendations into 4 areas:

  • Age appropriateness – what is taught to who and when
  • Parent transparency
  • Gender education
  • New curriculum additions

Our comments on each area can be found below, the thoughts expressed here will inform our submitted response to the review.

We encourage others to submit their own response to the review before the deadline of 11/07/2024  which can be done via this link: Submit your response.

Age Appropriateness

We have three main concerns with the recommendations in this area.

RSHE has been evidenced by Ofsted, Youth Endowment Fund, NSPCC and other key organisations as an important means to keep children safe. Indeed the government’s own ‘Keeping Children Safe In Education’ policy document for schools, emphasises that ‘Schools and colleges play a crucial role in preventative education. Preventative education is most effective in the context of a whole-school or college approach’.  Our concern with the age recommendations, specifically around topics such as FGM and domestic violence, means that education will be too late and reactive rather than preventative; so many safeguarding concerns are ‘hidden’. This view is based on the evidence we have seen such as the NSPCC’s research ‘Exploring what young people in Together for Childhood know, think and do about child abuse’.

We feel that schools, in consultation with parents, are best placed to understand the needs of the students in their care. This review recommendation takes that away and puts school staff in a difficult position, raising some of the following concerns: How will staff know if a child is at risk in some way and needs a targeted intervention? How can staff manage and resource such an intervention? How can staff respond to questions that inevitably arise from all young people?

There is ambiguity here for teachers and those planning the curriculum. For example, how can staff manage year 8 students receiving the vaccine for Human Papilloma Virus (HPV), a sexually transmitted infection, if they begin learning about STIs in year 9 as per the proposal. 

Parent Transparency

We agree with the need to provide parents with transparency over what children are learning. 

We feel that in line with British values and the Equality act it is essential for young people to grow up aware of the diverse ways life can be lived, respecting people whatever their sexuality and gender. We are therefore concerned that some schools and some parents will look to these recommendations, should they become law, as an opportunity to distance their children from the values of inclusivity leading to division and misunderstanding.

We urge parents to consider age appropriateness when it comes to access to electronic devices and to control screen time.

Gender Education

There is a disconnect between the needs of young people and the review’s recommendations on gender identity. According to the 2021 census, 1% of 16-24 year olds identify as something other than their biological gender. This age group makes up the largest proportion (24%) of the total population who identify as a gender other than the one allocated at birth. Young people questioning their gender is a complex issue with a huge range of influencing factors.

Whilst we respect the CASS report recommendations on how to support young people who are questioning their identity, the reality is that neither schools nor the NHS currently have the resources to support young people adequately. We fear that closing down conversations among young people in the safe environment of school is going to create more problems than it aims to solve and instead would set a precedent that we cannot address complex issues. The NSPCC’s research ‘How young people are learning about relationships, sex and sexuality’ for example tells us that young people are turning to online spaces for support with LGBTQ+ identities and would like to have a fuller and more comprehensive RSE curriculum that covers areas of sexual and gender identities. Instead we would welcome more support for teachers to guide them through these conversations with pupils. 

It will make it harder for schools to support young people, and for young people to ask questions about things they want to understand. More worryingly it could lead to increased isolation, bullying and discrimination against young people that do identify as something other than their biological sex. 

New Curriculum Additions to the RSE Statutory Guidance

We welcome all of the proposed additions to the curriculum listed below. We are especially pleased to see suicide prevention and the focus on womens’ health.

  • Suicide prevention 
  • Sexual harassment and sexual violence 
  • Loneliness 
  • The prevalence of ‘deepfakes’ 
  • Healthy behaviours during pregnancy, as well as miscarriage 
  • Illegal online behaviours including drug and knife supply 
  • The dangers of vaping  
  • Menstrual and gynecological health including endometriosis, polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) and heavy menstrual bleeding

3. What else we would have hoped to see in the RSE Statutory Guidance

Training for Staff

Staff confidence is the biggest barrier to effective RSHE teaching and is directly linked to the possibility of ‘inappropriate material is being taught in some schools’ that was cited as the main catalyst for this review. Recognising the link between RSHE and safeguarding, mental health and a feeling of belonging in schools, all staff should be given RSHE training in the same way all staff are required to complete safeguarding training. All members of staff who teach the subject should be given additional time for more specific RSHE CPD on an ongoing basis. 

Statutory Curriculum Time 

In many schools RSHE is taught in curriculum time, in form time or drop down days. To adequately cover the breadth of the curriculum and to equip young people with the grounding that was the original intention of the introduction of RSHE as a statutory subject, it should be timetabled, with at least 1 hour taught per week. This is to ensure adequate time to dedicate to the content but also to support the buy-in for the subject as one that is crucial for supporting a healthy school culture and safeguarding.

A Focus on Skills

The curriculum focuses on the breadth of knowledge that should be gained before the end of primary and secondary. It does not focus on the key skills that students must develop in order to make informed choices and form healthy relationships inside and outside of school. Key skills we would have liked to see mentioned are listening, critical thinking and oracy skills. 

Additional Topics

We believe that there could have been more content that prepares young people for experiences or challenges they may face as adults. Specifically, the inclusion of content covering the range of ways menopause could be experienced and opportunities for support would be valuable. 

There is also a place for preparing young people for future triggers of stress and resulting mental health concerns. For example, discussing the known challenges faced with major life events such as changing jobs and moving house. 

This review would also have presented a good opportunity to expand young people’s understanding of the range of ways that people experience the world and the impact that these differences impact relationships. We would have liked to have seen deeper content on neurodiversity and the ranges of ways this changes how people relate to each other and respond to a range of life experiences.  

In Conclusion 

We welcome the process of curriculum review, especially with a subject so aligned with our changing world.

We hope that the government, following the general election, incorporates the new curriculum additions and further considers the age restrictions as described in their current form, referring instead to the wide body of evidence describing the risk to young people. 

We encourage all young people, school leaders and staff, parents and carers to consider their views on these recommendations and to submit a response before the deadline of 11th July.