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Sex and relationships education: getting it right for your pupils

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Lucy Emmerson is Coordinator of the Sex Education Forum, the national authority on sex and relationships education (SRE). She writes SRE resources and edits a magazine on the subject. She campaigns for a guarantee of good-quality SRE for all children and young people.

‘Make SRE statutory’ is the headline recommendation from the Education Select Committee's report ‘Life Lessons’, published in February. The report is groundbreaking because it recognises children’s right to information about their well-being, and represents MPs from across the parties pushing to make both SRE and the broader personal, social, health and economic education (PSHE) compulsory.

The widespread support for statutory SRE was clear throughout the committee's inquiry. A recent survey by the National Union of Students found 9 in 10 students to be in support and a poll of 1,000 parents (commissioned by the Sex Education Forum)  found over three-quarters specifically wanting primary schools to teach children the difference between safe and unwanted touch, and how to speak up if someone treats them inappropriately. School leaders have shown their support too – more than 9 out of 10 (91.5%) who responded to The Key's survey back in October thought that SRE should begin in primary school.

The need for clarity about the status of SRE was another message in the inquiry. MPs struggled to make sense of the scraps of legislation that leave sex education as a narrow set of topics within National Curriculum science and relationships education out in the cold.

With growing political support for statutory SRE, it's a good time to review the provision in your school. Almost two thirds (62.8%) of school leaders in The Key's survey did not think teachers are comfortable teaching sex and relationship education. This is hardly surprising given that many teachers have received no training in the subject. With this in mind, here's a simple guide to help you get started.

Who needs to be involved?

First think about who should be involved:

  1. Do you have a named governor with responsibility for SRE?
  2. Who has responsibility for SRE on the senior leadership team?
  3. Do you have a SRE / PSHE Co-ordinator or subject lead?
  4. Is there a team of specialist SRE teachers?

It's also worth considering if you have the best people for these roles. No pupil wants to be taught SRE by someone who isn't interested in the subject. Equally, it might be time to allocate the role to a new governor who brings relevant experience and a fresh perspective.

What should be included?

In SRE as in any subject, the way a topic is taught needs to be age-appropriate. Themes can be revisited and developed year by year. SRE begins with teaching children about appropriate behaviour, safety and basic understanding of their bodies, and of how families care for them. It is important to teach correct names for genitalia at primary school and to teach about puberty before children experience it. Many schools are currently failing to do this and Ofsted has raised concerns.

At secondary school there needs to be space to explore real-life relationship situations, and to address issues relating to domestic violence, pornography and sexual exploitation. It's also vital that pupils learn about local sexual health services and how to get help if they need it.

How much time does it take?

There needs to be an element of SRE included in the PSHE programme for every academic year in primary and secondary school. We recommend that PSHE has a regular place in the timetable and should not be taught purely through special ‘drop-down’ or off-timetable days (which Ofsted has warned against). A more regular approach still leaves flexibility for schools in designing their curriculum.

What training is needed?

In primary and special schools, all teachers need to be able to teach SRE and PSHE. In secondary school, SRE needs to be taught by a subject specialist – as other subjects are. A range of training is available from the voluntary sector, and some local authorities also offer it. Have a look at the listings here, which bring together training from a range of organisations. Young people repeatedly say that SRE does not meet their needs when teachers are embarrassed and lacking in relevant knowledge. There is nothing more powerful than training to improve teacher confidence and competence, and thus improve the quality of SRE.

Looking to the future, if SRE and PSHE become statutory, it's likely that the need for properly trained specialist teachers would be recognised too, along with the option to train in the subject through initial teacher training.

How will parents be involved?

The majority of parents support SRE – with most recognising that there is a distinct role for schools and for them at home in educating their children about growing up, sex and relationships. Nevertheless, the concerns of a small percentage of parents need to be given consideration. The Key’s survey found that 16% of respondents said parental objections to SRE were an issue at their school. Here are some questions and practical ideas to help your school develop an understanding of what the real issues might be:

  • Do parents know what is taught in SRE and when?
  • Have parents had an opportunity to view resources and understand how they are used?
  • Have parents been asked if they want support to help them talk to their child about growing up and related issues at home?
  • Have parents seen examples of pupils' work in SRE?
  • Is the school's SRE policy up to date and shared with parents?
  • Do parents with a concern about SRE have an opportunity for one-to-one discussion with the SRE lead or relevant member of the leadership team?
  • Is the school's SRE provision inclusive of pupils from a range of backgrounds?
  • Is information about the SRE and PSHE curriculum published on the school website? (this is required for most schools under current regulations)

Rather than waiting for concerns to be presented, why not survey parents? A short informal survey could ask if they are aware of the school SRE policy, if there are any issues they think are missing from the curriculum and if they want support with their role at home. Parents often assume that schools are providing more SRE than they really are, and they may advocate for teaching to begin earlier. Schools have found that shifting to a more comprehensive and developmental SRE programme can prompt discussion with parents – but that once regular SRE is in place, parental concerns reduce.

Parents do have a right to withdraw their child from SRE taught outside of the National Curriculum in maintained schools, and if, after discussion, a parent chooses to withdraw a child, it's important to offer support to the parent in accessing books and resources that they can use at home with their child. Some schools have set up lending collections, or collaborated with local libraries to do so. ‘Let’s work together’ is a toolkit with further ideas about how schools can work in partnership with parents on SRE.

Is it right for pupils?

Finally, don’t forget that pupils can help your school review and improve SRE provision. Whether it's through discussions in the school council, or a classroom-based consultation, pupils need to have a voice in developing the school's SRE policy and programme.

The National Children's Bureau (NCB) has a collection of SRE consultation activities for use with pupils, parents and staff that may be useful. It's free for members of the Sex Education Forum.

With statutory SRE a real possibility under the next government, this is the time to make preparations and make sure you are getting it right for your pupils.


Further reading to help

The government SRE guidance, published in 2000 also provides advice about what to include – and legally schools must pay due regard to this guidance.

The Sex Education Forum has produced a web-based curriculum design tool. This sets out questions to explore in age-bands from age 3-6 up to 16 years old plus.

The Department for Education encourages all schools to look at the more recent ‘SRE for the 21st Century’ which is advice produced by the voluntary sector in 2014.

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