New RSE Guidelines Pose Serious Challenges for Schools

As schools prepare to deliver the government’s new guidance on RE and RSE, there are many options and challenging questions to be answered. Relationships expert Sarah Calvert explains why it is so important that schools take the changes seriously and embed the key messages into the culture of the school.

At the beginning of the next academic year, September 2020, the new statutory guidance for Relationship Education, Relationship and Sex Education and Health Education for primary and secondary schools will come into force and schools will be expected to be ready to implement the government’s new guidelines.

The last changes were introduced 20 years ago, making this new guidance, in my opinion, well overdue, especially considering the changes and developments during this period with regards to technology and its impact on our lives, in addition to our thinking around gender, sexuality and mental health. Add to that the fact that children are physically developing earlier, with some girls starting menstruation as young as eight, it’s safe to say that the last 20 years have seen a lot of change.

Some of the changes in thinking and understanding have been reflected legislatively. In 2003, for example, Section 28, which banned local authorities and therefore schools, from promoting homosexuality, was repealed. In 2004, the Gender Recognition Act was introduced, giving transsexual people ‘legal recognition as members of the sex appropriate to their gender’ and allowing them to legally apply for a new birth certificate to represent their ‘acquired’ gender. In 2010, the Equality Act was established.

Technology has advanced rapidly over the last 20 years and looks set to continue, but currently, it is left for parents and educators to take responsibility for children’s safety in the online world. With 99 per cent of 12- to 15-year-olds now online, the government’s Online Safety Bill, April 2019, which lists protecting children online as one of its integral functions, is very welcome. However, robust education for children from early years to the end of their school life is necessary to prepare them adequately for the world around them. A recent study by the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) revealed that more than half of children have encountered porn by the age of 11 to 13 and children as young as 7 years old are accessing pornography online. It’s becoming clear that mandatory teaching around how to enjoy technology safely and in balance with children’s offline lives is an essential part of RSE. So how can school leadership teams support and prepare their staff to deliver the new RSE curriculum successfully?

What the new RSE guidelines mean

First, it’s important to examine understand why children’s education provision needs to align with changes in thinking and understanding to be able to best meet children’s needs. The changes are not without their controversy and some schools and teachers have already found themselves on the receiving end of anger from communities who find that the new statutory guidance is at odds with their cultural and religious beliefs.

Schools are expected to consult with parents and communities about what they intend to teach and how they intend to go about it. I would imagine that schools will continue to come up against resistance from faith communities and some parents. These new regulations will challenge the crux of some communities’ belief systems and that can understandably be confronting and difficult.

You may be required to support teachers with the unenviable task of justifying to parents and carers why this teaching is necessary to prepare their children for the society in which we live. Schools play a vital role in developing children’s understanding of the world, which is why schools have to comply with and promote Fundamental British Values (democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, mutual respect for and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs and for those without faith), and the equality act 2010. It is therefore vital that when teaching RSE, schools teach an understanding of difference. When people have an understanding of difference, it dispels fear and opens up an atmosphere of acceptance and tolerance.

Schools that are tempted to teach only the minimum RSE requirements rather than potentially antagonising local communities run the risk of depriving children of vital teaching, and this halfway house may still result in opposition from the naysayers. It’s important to open up discussion without alienating communities by empathising, listening to and examining and exploring concerns.

Amanda Spielman, the Head of Ofsted, has been quoted as saying she supports the teaching of same-sex relationships in primary, as well as secondary schools. However, parts of the new regulations are vague in terms of when to introduce specific areas and the depth of teaching required. The government is assigning schools the discretion to decide what is taught and when, depending on their pupils’ needs. It leaves teachers on the frontline, vulnerable, exposed to hostility and having to make decisions about children’s needs in this area, which they may not be adequately trained to do. When talking about the introduction of Wales’ proposal for RSE, Nazir Afazal, the Welsh government’s advisor, suggested that Wales would take more of a lead, rather than leave it up to schools, and described the English government as ‘quite cowardly’ in this respect.

Without adequate knowledge of the subject and its impact upon children and their development, teachers may find it difficult to determine and understand just what is required. Their own confidence level in delivering and opening up discussion with children about sex and relationships will also be a factor. The result is likely to be a lack of continuity with different schools teaching different levels of content around the RSE.

Supporting staff with implementation of the new RSE guidance

School leadership teams will not only need to support teachers with RSE training but may also find themselves having to justify the need for RSE to parents and carers. Here are some key factors to consider:

Confidence in the classroom

Despite the fact that sexual imagery and messages seem to be ubiquitous today, sex remains a difficult subject to address in many cultures and the notion of discussing sex brings about a lot of fear and anxiety. It’s no different for teachers—although they are professional educators, they may feel uncomfortable discussing sex and relationships.

First and foremost, staff need to consider how they personally feel about the subjects of sexuality, gender, mental health issues and relationships. Without proper reflection and reflexivity, it will be difficult to deliver teaching on these subjects. It’s not only knowledge that is needed, but also an appreciation of their own beliefs. Without this self-awareness any potential discomfort and bias may impact how they teach and what pupils infer from the lessons. As we know, children are sensitive and pick up on unconscious nonverbal communications and adult discomfort.

I would urge teachers to spend some time thinking about messages they have received, implicit or explicit, about gender, sexuality, relationships and mental health issues, and reflect upon the impact of these messages in terms of how they may have shaped their attitudes and beliefs, and how this may affect the way they teach.

Technological considerations

Children have easy access to all kinds of sexual content through the internet or social media outside of the home, no matter what safeguards parents have in a place. Research shows that technology is impacting children’s development and sexual development, so children need a safe place to explore, learn and contextualise subjects such as gender identity, consent, pornography, as well as subjects like LGBTQ+, grooming and healthy relationships.

Promoting equality

It’s not enough to teach sex education from a heterosexual/procreation perspective. This outdated concept teaches a reduced form of sexuality that suggests sex is limited to penile/vaginal penetration; we need to move away from this penile-centric notion of sex. Humans are innately sexual beings and we have to be open to thinking about other forms of sexual expression, not just in same sex relationships but also in heterosexual relationships.

Children need to be supported to develop in line with who they are, in terms of their gender and sexuality and relationally. A sense of judgement, or children feeling that they have to supress aspects of their selves as they develop, will undoubtedly result in a knock-on effect upon their self esteem and sense of who they are, and could, in turn, have a detrimental impact on their mental health. It’s essential that schools think outside of the heteronormative box and be mindful about how the heteronorm implicitly impacts children and their development and the culture of the school.

It’s important to keep that thinking in mind for RSE lessons. Teachers must encourage acceptance and tolerance so that children know it’s ok if they feel different to the ‘norm’ they have encountered. As a school, you will also need to be able to address bullying around LGBTQ+ issues in addition to problems with children being bullied for being non-binary or for identifying differently to their gender assigned at birth, or being ostracised because their family doesn’t confirm to societal ‘norms’.

Encouraging a healthy view of sex

The new reforms focus mainly upon safeguarding and protecting children rather than on emphasising pleasure and fulfillment. By negating the pleasure that sex brings we automatically run the risk of instilling in children a sense of shame around having pleasurable sexual lives, whether that is with themselves or others. It is imperative that RSE is taught with a positive focus to ensure that children grow up with a healthy attitude to sex and relationships. If we focus solely on the protection and safeguarding without the positive side, we are teaching a distorted, shame-based concept of sex and relationships.

Adopting best practice

Leadership teams need to be aware that implementing the new RSE Guidance is not just about addressing the legislative changes; it’s about changing the school’s culture, which takes a lot more time and effort. In Karolina Beaumont’s 2013 study Policies for Sexuality Education in the European Union, she states that honesty, openness and tolerance are qualities that are all present in successful sex education.

Beaumont’s five factors for effectiveness are:

  1. The comprehensive/holistic approach—sexuality education is taught with a biological and an emotional view
  2. The involvement of the parents
  3. Teaching of the subject in schools by specifically trained teachers
  4. Mandatory attendance of pupils to the sexuality education lessons
  5. Programmes that talk about a wide range of subjects without taboo

It is clear that legislation changes do not necessarily equate to improvements in Sex Ed—there is more at play here. The education of teachers and their comfort with these subjects is paramount to successful delivery—leadership teams need to ensure teachers know what to teach and how to teach it, and that is what ‘facilitates success’. Beaumont’s study showed that it was teacher education and teacher/school beliefs and their ‘competency’ that mattered. Teacher beliefs, attitudes, education and comfort around these subjects is the real crux to effecting change.

Selecting an RSE Lead for the school is really important and that person should be someone who is ideally passionate but definitely curious and open to looking at ways to engage with this subject. Curiosity acts as an antidote to judgement and defensiveness. The lead should have access to professional training, be happy to advocate RSE issues within the school environment and feel confident to talk and pass on information to other members of the school.

The new guidance makes clear that rather than this teaching being confined to lessons, the ethos needs to be consistent throughout the school. This means integrating an atmosphere of tolerance and understanding harmoniously into the day-to-day life of pupils which, in my view, requires everyone from playground duty attendants through to governors to be on board to deliver a consistent message to children and parents.

Many of us have such a discomfort around talking about sex and relationships, so why do we assume that educators will be different? It’s a lot to expect. There is so much pressure put upon teachers already, and it may seem easier to go with the mandatory requirements rather than meet the needs of the children, which will incur extra work—from deciphering what the specific needs of the children are to extra consultation with parents and potentially coming up against hostility and negativity.

As leaders, I would urge you to hold in mind that the new guidance doesn’t go far enough to meet the needs of children. Striving to change the school culture may go beyond the mandatory guidelines, but it is essential if you want to ensure your teachers are properly developed and supported in their role as educators, providing children with adequate teaching about the world in which we live.

Sarah is a UKCP, CORST Psychotherapist, Psychosexual & Relationship Therapist, specialising in psychosexual and relationship issues. Find out more at

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