As a result of a “shockingly high” increase in the number of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) amongst teenagers and young people, councils say they are concerned that pupils are not being “prepared for adulthood” through effective RSE.

Currently, RSE is only compulsory in the minority of secondary schools that are still LA-maintained; academies and free schools, who are not controlled by LAs and thus not subject to the national curriculum, are not obliged to deliver RSE.

The Local Government Association (LGA) has proposed that introducing RSE as statutory for all schools could reduce the amount of STIs diagnosed. This proposed intervention follows plans by Conservative MPs to extend the statutory requirements of RSE on LA-maintained schools to cover consent and sexting.

In light of recent concerns, this guidance document provides advice for schools in understanding the essentials of RSE, and provides a useful basis on which to develop, or improve the quality of, the RSE they offer.


What is RSE and why is it important?

RSE involves teaching pupils about the emotional, social and physical aspects of adult life, including relationships, sex, human sexuality and sexual health. Effective RSE allows pupils to understand human sexuality, learn to respect themselves and others, and recognise their responsibility in terms of making well-informed decisions about their lives.

Through this education, pupils are provided with the necessary skills needed to build positive, enjoyable, respectful and non-exploitive relationships, and ensure they know how to stay safe both online and offline.

Some aspects of this education are covered as part of the science national curriculum, and others are delivered through PSHE lessons.


What should be taught in RSE?

RSE has three main elements: attitudes and values, personal and social skills, and knowledge and understanding. Schools should understand that RSE is not about teaching pupils to engage in sexual activity from an early age or promoting sexual orientation, but about understanding the importance of marriage and family life, stable and loving relationships, respecting, loving and caring for others, and good levels of sexual health.

1. Attitudes and values:

  • Understanding the importance of values, integrity and morals
  • Understanding the value of family life, marriage, and stable and loving relationships for nurturing children
  • Understanding the value of respecting, loving and caring for others
  • Exploring, considering and understanding moral issues
  • Developing critical thinking as part of decision-making

2. Personal and social skills:

  • Understanding how to manage emotions and relationships confidently and sensitively
  • Developing self-respect and empathy for others
  • Understanding how to make choices informed by recognising the difference of what is right and wrong, and by removing any prejudice
  • Understanding what consequences may occur as a result of the decisions they make
  • Understanding how to effectively manage conflict
  • Learning how to recognise and avoid exploitation and abuse

3. Knowledge and understanding

  • Understanding the process of physical development at different life stages
  • Understanding human sexuality, reproduction, sexual health, emotions and relationships
  • Learning about the different methods of contraception, as well as the range of local and national sexual health advice and support available
  • Understanding the reasoning for delaying sexual activity and what benefits are gained as a result
  • Understanding how to avoid unwanted pregnancy


High-quality RSE

When developing and implementing effective RSE, there are a number of good-practice guidelines that schools should aim to follow.

High-quality RSE:

  • Is a partnership between home and school, and takes parents views and wishes into account in its development.
  • Is based upon pupils’ views, which are used to influence lesson planning, teaching and policy development.
  • Is implemented early, relevant to pupils’ stages of development and maturity.
  • Is delivered by staff who have sufficient knowledge and are confident teaching about a wide range of issues, including those that need to be treated with sensitivity, such as gender identity and abuse.
  • Incorporates the development of knowledge, life skills, respectful attitudes and values.
  • Has sufficient time to cover a wide range of topics and places a strong emphasis on relationships, consent, rights, responsibilities to others, negotiation and communication skills, and seeking support.
  • Assists pupils in understanding how they can stay safe online and offline, violence and exploitation, and the importance of consent.
  • Is medically and factually correct, and treats sex as a normal and pleasurable aspect of life.
  • Is inclusive of difference – whether this be gender identity, sexual orientation, disability, ethnicity, culture, age, faith or belief, or other.
  • Incorporates active learning methods, and is thoroughly planned, assessed and evaluated.
  • Helps pupils understand a range of views and beliefs regarding relationships and sex in society – this includes confusion about gender, sex and sexuality from different sources, such as the media.
  • Helps pupils understand the law in relation to RSE, including their rights to confidentiality even if they are under the age of 16.
  • Is closely linked to school-based and community health services and organisations.
  • Promotes equality in relationships, recognises and challenges gender inequality, and reflects girls’ and boys’ different experiences and needs.

Implementing a high-quality RSE programme contributes towards:

  • A positive ethos and environment for learning, safeguarding pupils, promoting their emotional wellbeing and improving their progress in school.
  • A better understanding of diversity and inclusion, and a reduction in gender-based and homophobic prejudice incidents.
  • A better understanding of consent and exploitative relationships.
  • A reduction in the level of early sexual activity, teenage conceptions, STIs, sexual exploitation and abuse, domestic violence, and bullying.


Policy development

In secondary schools where it is compulsory to provide RSE, schools must have an up-to-date policy which is readily accessible for inspection and to parents. Governing bodies should ensure that such policies are developed in consultation with parents and pupils, taking into account their views and wishes.

 Schools that do not have a statutory duty to provide RSE, but decide to do so, should also develop a policy as above. The policy should include the following:

  • A definition of RSE
  • A description of how RSE is provided and who is responsible for delivering it
  • A description of how RSE is monitored and evaluated
  • Information regarding parents’ right to withdraw their child from engaging in RSE
  • Clear policy review dates

TheSchoolBus has a comprehensive Sex and Relationship Education Policy, which includes a model programme of study for KS 1-4, as well as procedures for effective delivery and organisation of the programme.


Tips for teaching RSE

It’s important that teachers are sufficiently trained in delivering RSE to pupils, and know how to deal with particularly sensitive issues. Similarly, it is also essential that teachers can help pupils develop confidence in listening to, talking about, and thinking about sex and relationships – in doing so, teachers may need to overcome their own embarrassment and pre-conceived ideas regarding RSE.

1. Establish ground rules

Setting clear ground rules for your lessons are always beneficial, but particularly for RSE where sensitive issues are covered. Doing so will ensure that pupils feel safe, and avoid any embarrassment or anxiousness that may arise from comments from other pupils. Make sure all pupils know how to respect others and adopt a non-prejudice attitude.

Examples of ground rules could include the following:

  • Avoid asking personal questions
  • Do not force others to participate in discussions
  • Only use correct, scientific names for body parts
  • Explain the meaning of terms using sensible and factual language

2. Employ distancing techniques

During RSE sessions, it’s important to make sure pupils don’t feel as though they are being used as examples for topics of discussion, e.g. by drawing on their beliefs. Avoid embarrassment and protect pupils’ privacy by depersonalising discussions that take place, e.g. using case studies with invented characters and asking pupils to ‘act out’ scenarios will ensure they do not feel targeted or singled out during activities.

3. Respond to questions appropriately

Teachers are often concerned about responding to unexpected questions or comments, particularly in a whole-class situation. Teachers should establish from the outset what is appropriate questioning and what is not – this applies to questioning from themselves and from pupils. The most common problems faced are that questions asked are too personal, the teacher doesn’t know how to answer, they are too explicit, or they may raise specific safeguarding concerns. It’s important teachers know how to respond in these situations, e.g. if questioning raises safeguarding concerns, make sure you report this following the school’s safeguarding procedures.

4. Promote discussion and project learning

RSE is particularly effective when taught through active discussions and project learning. Taking part in these structured activities has a wide range of benefits for pupils, but above all, it allows pupils to consider their attitudes, develop greater understanding, draw on previous knowledge, reflect on their learning, and use their learning to influence their future.

Methods involving discussion time could involve whole-class interaction of topics through circle time, case studies and project work involving feedback. Teachers should also consider the importance of providing pupils with written factual information in relation to certain topics for their future reference.

5. Reflect on learning

Reflecting on pupils’ learning is crucial in any lesson as it allows pupils to think about what they have been taught and consolidate their knowledge. During RSE lessons, teachers should encourage pupils to reflect on their learning by using effective questioning such as:

  • How did you feel about the discussion today?
  • What did you take from the discussion?
  • What did you learn from others, especially those that had a different view or opinion to your own?
  • How will what you have learned today influence your future action?
  • What else do you think you need to think or learn about?