After an almost 40-year-long campaign by Terrence Higgins Trust, in March 2019, MPs finally backed plans for compulsory, LGBT-inclusive Relationships and Sex Education lessons.
How did we get here?
In 2016 we surveyed almost 1,000 young people which culminated in a report on LGBT-inclusive RSE published in 2017, which you can download below.
Young people want RSE but they aren’t always getting it. Our research shows that one in seven did not receive any RSE in school at all.
The quality of RSE varies across Britain, with LGBT issues still not consistently taught as part of RSE.
In England, RSE is only compulsory in maintained secondary schools, but the subject is due to become compulsory in all schools from September 2020.
The government has missed its original target of September 2019 for compulsory RSE lessons in England, with a 12-month delay. We are unequivocal that this timeline must not slip any further and we are following the passage of RSE as it goes through to the Lords some time between April and July 2019.
In Wales, RSE will be a statutory part of the new curriculum, which is being developed and due to be in place across Wales by 2022. For learners under the current curriculum, there will be enhanced provision from 2018, with work to identify learning needs and refresh existing guidance taking place this summer.
In Scotland, RSE is taught through Relationships, Sexual Health and Parenthood Education (RSHP) but is not compulsory. The Scottish Government is currently conducting a review of RSHP.
We have been campaigning for higher quality relationships and sex education for many years.
Our Shhh… No Talking report, published in July 2016, detailed the experiences of RSE lessons from over 900 young people aged 16-25 across Britain. The report highlighted the inadequate or non-existent provision in many schools.
The report’s main findings included:
- 99% of young people surveyed thought RSE should be mandatory in all schools.
- 97% thought it should be LGBT-inclusive.
- One in seven respondents had not received any RSE at all.
- Over half (61%) received RSE just once a year or less.
- Half of young people rated the RSE they received in school as either ‘poor’ or ‘terrible’.
- Just 2% rated it as ‘excellent’ and only 10% rated it as ‘good’.
- 95% were not taught about LGBT relationships.
Meanwhile, several key topics were absent from respondents’ experiences of RSE:
- 75% of young people were not taught about consent
- 95% had not learned about LGBT sex and relationships
- 89% were not taught about sex and pleasure
- 97% missed out on any discussion around gender identity.
When it came to learning about HIV, three out of five respondents either did not receive any information about HIV or did not remember receiving information about HIV in school.
RSE in England
We believe all young people have the right to access high quality, age appropriate and LGBT-inclusive RSE in all schools.
Following the passing of the Children and Social Work Act (2017), all secondary schools in England will be required to teach RSE and primary schools to teach relationships education as of September 2020. This has been a delay of 12 months from the initial implementation date of 2019.
In July 2018, the Department for Education published updated draft guidance for RSE lessons alongside a consultation that closed in November 2018. There were 40,000 responses to that consultation, including our own, where we welcomed compulsory RSE and RE but highlighted our concerns with the Government’s proposals.
In February 2019, the Government laid down the new updated regulations for RSE in Parliament. We're broadly in support of these, although we have some minor concerns about how the regulations and guidance will work in practice.
In March 2019, the House of Commons voted overwhelmingly in support of replacing existing RSE guidance and regulations from the year 2000 that is still used in schools. The House of Lords confirmed this vote and in April 2019 the final hurdle was over and RSE will become mandatory in all schools from September 2020.
This means all primary schools in England will be required to teach Relationships Education, all secondary schools in England will be required to teach RSE, and all schools in England will be required to teach Health Education (HE).
The Government continues to recommend that primary schools deliver Sex Education, although this is not compulsory.
All schools will be required to teach in accordance with the new guidance and regulations for these subjects. The new guidance is the first to be published since its predecessor in 2000.
Schools can begin teaching these statutory subjects in accordance with the new guidance before September 2020, if they wish.
Schools will also be required to have an up-to-date policy statement for teaching RE/RSE that is available to parents and carers.
The situation now and going forward
Schools have been invited to sign up as ‘early adopters’ to follow the guidance from September 2019 if they are ready. These schools are likely to have good RSE provision already – though support will help them to excel.
It is unclear what, if any, resource will be available for schools that do not adopt early. In these schools, the journey to high-quality RSE may need more intensive support. When the Sex Education Forum (SEF) surveyed 240 teachers of RSE in 2019, they found that 29% had never received any training in the subject. That’s a lot of teachers needing to access training on topics such as the harms of explicit content, pregnancy choices, LGBT relationships and mental health.
To embed the RSE reforms effectively and reach children in every school in England, we (along with Stonewall and SEF) are calling on the Treasury to commit an uplift of funding for the implementation and training of RSE education.
A total of £177 million was invested by Government in maths in 2017-18, but RSE, RE and HE are new subjects and need to be taught by teachers with knowledge in the subject, so that information ranging from STIs and fertility to FGM and emotional well-being is factually correct.
So far, £6 million has been committed by the Department for Education for the implementation of statutory Relationships Education, RSE and Health Education, and no detail about how this will be spent.
However, the Department’s Impact Assessment, published in February, calculated that £33.65 million would be required to prepare schools to implement this new teaching. It is essential that this £27 million shortfall is made available to schools, so that by September 2020 they are equipped to teach these subjects to a high standard, and engage effectively with parents.
Addressing this shortfall is particularly important, given the recent protests we have seen in opposition to Relationships and Sex Education and LGBT-inclusive teaching in Birmingham.
We are concerned that the proposed £6 million allocated to RSE in the first year will not be sufficient. It needs to be funded properly so that teachers have access to high quality continual professional development and good resources so that they are equipped to delivered excellent lessons.
The primary element of RSE is called Relationships Education, which is compulsory and has no parental right to withdrawal. This is due to safeguarding and the need for nurturing awareness of different relationships.
The Department of Education published the statutory guidance on Thursday 25 July 2019.
The Government have stuck by their guidance on LGBT lessons in schools. The Secretary of State for Education said that he strongly encourages primary schools to discuss with pupils how there are different, strong and loving families, including families with same-sex parents.
The statement by the Secretary of State is a clear signal to schools when it comes to talking to pupils about the different kinds of families and relationships they may encounter in their lives.
On sexual health, each pupil should know the following before they leave school:
- How sexually transmitted infections (STIs), including HIV and AIDs, are transmitted.
- How the risk of transmission can be reduced through safer sex (including through condom use).
- The importance of and facts about testing for STIs.
- The prevalence of some STIs, the impact they can have on those who contract them and key facts about treatment.
The secondary element of RSE is also compulsory, but parents are able to withdraw their parents up to three terms before they turn 16.
The guidance states, at secondary level, ‘before granting any such request it is good practice for the head teacher to discuss the request with parents’ – including ‘discussing with parents the benefits of receiving this important education and any detrimental effects that withdrawal might have on the child. This could include any social and emotional effects of being excluded, as well as the likelihood of the child hearing their peers’ version of what was said in classes’.
Following those conversations, except in exceptional circumstances, the parents/carers’ request should be granted.
At primary level, head teachers will be required to automatically grant any request to withdraw a pupil from sex education, apart from teaching in the science curriculum.
Schools can explain their position on, for example, being LGBT but then must explain clearly the facts about what is legal in this country, e.g. LGBT relationships, marriage and adoption.
However, there is still a lot more to do to ensure RSE is fully inclusive and schools get the funding, support and materials they need to teach high-quality RSE.
Key priorities going forward
- Invest sufficient funding for training, resources and support to ensure that inclusive RSHE (including LGBT) is taught to a high standard in all schools.
- Commit to high quality Face to Face training for teachers in every school to ensure that they feel confident in teaching inclusive RSE and engaging with parents.
- Commit to ensuring that every school has access to quality-assured, inclusive teaching materials.
- Ensure that OFSTED have a meaningful role in monitoring how these subjects are taught.
- Require and support schools to find time in the timetable to deliver these lessons.
- Require Schools to link up with local authorities and local providers to enable teaching of sexual health and HIV to be informed by local health priorities and point to local services.
See below for our consultation responses to the Department for Education.
RSE in Wales
In December 2017 an expert panel established by the Welsh Government published its report The Future of the Sex and Relationships Education Curriculum in Wales.
The report contained 11 recommendations, including that SRE be made a statutory part of the new curriculum for all primary and secondary schools in Wales under the revised name of Sexuality and Relationships Education, and specialised SRE teacher training to be introduced with clear career progression routes.
The findings of the SRE expert panel’s report reflected many of our concerns about the content and delivery of RSE to date: it has historically been inconsistent, heteronormative and often negative, with little reference to matters around consent, pleasure, and the positive aspects of sex and relationships.
RSE has also had a low status and priority in schools, resulting in poor training and support for teachers and a lack of resources for the subject overall.
In May 2018, the Cabinet Secretary for Education announced that she would be accepting all the recommendations of the review. SRE would become Relationships and Sexuality Education (RSE) in advance of the new curriculum being rolled out nationally in 2022, with updated guidance issued for schools.
The revised guidance was issued for consultation in February 2019. While the emphasis on inclusivity was welcome, we were disappointed by the lack of detail about what children and young people were expected to learn at each age/developmental stage.
There was also no indication of what the RSE curriculum should actually cover. While we appreciate the Welsh Government’s ambition for a less prescriptive approach to the new curriculum, we are absolutely clear that this is not appropriate for RSE at this stage.
Provision has been so patchy and the lack of professional training and initial teacher education in RSE means that we simply do not have the same established body of expertise and high quality resources that other subjects enjoy.
Most schools do not have specialist RSE teachers and there is still a lack of clarity within the profession about what should be taught at what stage.
There is also the matter of faith schools, which can continue providing only RSE that is ‘consistent with their ethos’.
While many faith schools in Wales have been supportive of the new RSE proposals, we nevertheless believe that there needs to be much greater clarity about what happens if a school’s ‘ethos’ conflicts with legal equalities in relation to marriage, sex, sexuality, and gender reassignment for example.
There is also potential for conflicts with the rights of children and young people to impartial information with regards to sexuality and sexual health.
Much more detailed guidance overall is necessary and the process by which this will be achieved is still unclear.
Where we are now
In October 2019, the Welsh Government issued a consultation on removing the option for parents or carers to take their children out of RSE lessons. This is something we strongly supported and have lobbied on.
Ensuring that all children and young people are able to receive clear, objective, age appropriate information is essential to help them form healthy relationships, understand their bodies and to protect their sexual health throughout their adult lives.
In January 2020, the Education Minister confirmed that under the new curriculum, there would be no right for parents and carers to remove their children from RSE lessons. This is another big step forward and we commend the Minister for taking this action.
We welcome the Minister’s engagement with faith and BAME communities and the establishment of a specific involvement group for these communities to support the development of RSE guidance. We believe this will go a long way to addressing misperceptions about the nature and scope of RSE.
We urge, however, the establishment of a parallel group comprising academic, public and third sector representatives from, for example, education, child development, health and sexual health, to ensure that the new RSE guidance benefits from as wide a range of expertise as possible.
We'll continue to work with the Welsh Government and third sector partners as the process of developing new RSE guidance and curriculum content progresses.
RSE in Scotland
We have contributed to research conducted by HIV Scotland looking at the teaching of Relationships, Sexual Health and Parenthood Education across the 32 local authorities in Scotland.
In September 2017, HIV Scotland published its report calling for a 21st century approach to teaching HIV, including providing young people with information about HIV treatment and prevention. We continue to support the work of HIV Scotland in lobbying the Scottish Government to make the subject compulsory in all schools.
We have a history of collaboration on sex and relationship education with partners at the Sex Education Forum. You can find out more about their work on their website.