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Relationships Education and Relationships & Sex Education – new DfE guidance


Following our article published in June 2020 on Compulsory Relationships and Sex Education and the Requirement for Parental Consultation, the Department for Education (DfE) released some guidance at the end of September. As the title Plan your relationships, sex and health curriculum suggests, it is a practical guide to help schools plan, develop and implement the new compulsory subjects: Relationships Education for primary pupils and Relationships & Sex Education (RSE) for secondary pupils. [1]

When must schools start teaching Relationships Education and RSE?

Schools had been encouraged to start teaching Relationships Education in primary schools and RSE in secondary schools from 1 September 2020,  but due to the inevitable disruptions caused by the coronavirus pandemic, the DfE said that schools could delay teaching until the start of the summer term 2021 at the very latest.

However, independent schools will be less able to rely on coronavirus as a reason for any delay, given they already teach a lot of the new curriculum as part of their existing PSHE syllabus (which is compulsory under the Independent Schools Standards), and any new content can be taught in PHSE lessons rather than as its own separate subject.

Further, whilst Ofsted intends to keep routine school inspections suspended until January 2021 (including those carried out by the ISI), some schools may receive visits and inspectors will evaluate the provision of the new curriculum in accordance with their school inspection handbook and the DfE guidance. We therefore recommend that independent schools start teaching Relationships Education to primary pupils and RSE to secondary pupils, with reference to the guidance, as soon as possible.

What is the purpose of this new guidance and how is it different to the guidance published in June?

The statutory guidance published by the DfE in June contains information on what schools should do and their legal duties, like having a written policy which covers the new curriculum – a summary of these requirements can be found in our last article.

The September guidance by contrast sets out the basic principles for the new curriculum and explains how schools can implement these in practice, including how to exercise their flexibility in designing their own curriculum to meet their pupils and community’s specific needs. It is important and sensible for schools to read both guidance documents alongside one another. 

What advice does the guidance offer to schools?

The guidance provides practical advice to schools, including in the following areas:

  • Dealing with the pandemic – schools should think about how the pandemic will impact the delivery of the new curriculum and adapt their approach. For example, many of the topics addressed will help pupils with their experience and understanding of coronavirus.

  • Deciding what to teach at primary and secondary level – schools can introduce secondary requirements, like sex education, to primary pupils who they consider are ready (with parental consultation and consent, including the right to withdraw their child) or include primary requirements in secondary teaching if there are gaps in their pupils’ understanding.

  • Planning the curriculum – schools should link Relationships Education and RSE to other subjects, such as biology in relation to sex education, or English when literary texts touch on emotional aspects of relationships. School leaders should also consider the most appropriate way to teach certain topics, for example through regular lessons or assemblies.

  • Using external agencies to provide resources and speakers – schools should check that an agency’s approach and resources are balanced, age appropriate and comply with their school policy, the relevant standards and key legislation like the Equality Act 2010. External speakers should comply with the school’s safeguarding policies.

  • Creating an inclusive classroom – teachers should consider how a diverse range of pupils (including those at different cognitive development stages or who have special education needs and disabilities) will relate to the topics. A sensitive teaching style should be used to ensure that all students feel safe and able to engage. Secondary schools should include LGBT content in their teaching and primary schools are strongly encouraged to include families with same sex parents when teaching about family types.

  • Ensuring content is appropriate – teachers and external speakers should not set assignments where there is a high risk that a pupil could be accidentally exposed to age inappropriate material, like pornography. Content about sex and sexual health should be delivered in a non-judgemental and factual manner that allows pupils to ask questions in a safe environment. Likewise, teaching on gender and biological sex shouldn’t reinforce harmful stereotypes.

  • Dealing with sensitive issues – a safe environment can be created through setting ground rules for lessons, using distancing techniques (like using fictional case studies as examples), not promising confidentiality to pupils who make disclosures in lessons and explaining to pupils that they can ask for help and they will be taken seriously.

  • Handling difficult questions – strategies for dealing with such questions include having a word with the pupil outside the lesson, referring to a more senior member of staff or offering a holding answer and bringing up the question with their parent or carer at the end of the day.

  • Identifying teachers’ needs – school leaders should be understanding of teachers’ individual circumstances and the support they might need when delivering the curriculum. For example, a topic might trigger traumatic feelings in a teacher when they are teaching. Teachers’ needs should therefore be considered in advance of delivering any teaching, for example, teacher training could be offered.

  • Assessing pupils through tests or assignments – schools should have high expectations for pupils in these subjects and provide regular feedback on their pupils’ progress. Lessons should be planned to challenge pupils of different abilities and the needs of those that may need additional support should be assessed in advance.

[1] Please note, the guidance also applies to Health Education. This article does not address Health Education because independent schools are already obliged to teach this as part of the PSHE syllabus in accordance with the Education (Independent Schools Standards) Regulations 2014 (Independent Schools Standards).

If you require further information about anything covered in this briefing, please contact Katie Fudakowski, Xinlan Rose, or your usual contact at the firm on +44 (0)20 3375 7000.

This publication is a general summary of the law. It should not replace legal advice tailored to your specific circumstances.

© Farrer & Co LLP, November 2020

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About the authors


Katie Fudakowski


Before joining Farrer & Co as a Partner, Katie had built up a decade of experience in employment and safeguarding law practising as a barrister at Old Square Chambers. Katie is valued her for her ability to cut through to the key issues and grasp the nettle with decisive and clear advice.

Before joining Farrer & Co as a Partner, Katie had built up a decade of experience in employment and safeguarding law practising as a barrister at Old Square Chambers. Katie is valued her for her ability to cut through to the key issues and grasp the nettle with decisive and clear advice.

Email Katie +44 (0)20 3375 7361
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