What is – and what could be – taught in schools about sex and relationships. By Anne-Marie Corvin
Sex and relationships education in the UK is not currently compulsory in schools and guidance differs within the different regions.
In Scotland, relationships, sexual health and parenthood education forms a part of Health and Wellbeing within the Curriculum for Excellence. In Northern Ireland, grant-aided schools are allowed to develop their own policy on how they will address RSE and it ‘should reflect the school’s ethos.’
In England and Wales, primary schools can currently decide for themselves what and how they teach pupils about relationships, while only state secondary schools must teach sex or relationships education, although many independent schools and academies choose to. That’s set to change following the government's announcement that sex and relationship education is to be mandatory in all schools in England, including primaries, from September 2019.
But what is sex and relationships education, what should pupils be learning and at what age?
SRE vs PSHE
Sex and relationships education (SRE) involves learning about the emotional, social and physical aspects of growing up, relationships, sex, human sexuality and sexual health.
Some aspects are taught in science, and others are taught as part of personal, social, health and economic education (PSHE).
What do schools currently teach?
At present in England, SRE is only mandatory from the age of 11 in state schools. It is not compulsory in academies (which now comprise the majority of UK secondary schools) or private (independent) schools.
Faith schools are allowed to opt out of teaching subjects contrary to their religious beliefs, such as information on homosexuality and contraception.
The compulsory parts of sex and relationship education from Year 7 teach children about reproduction, sexuality and sexual health. Sex education doesn’t promote early sexual activity or any particular sexual orientation.
Parents have the right to withdraw their children from all other (non-compulsory) parts of sex and relationship education if they want.
All schools must have a written policy on sex education, which they must make available to parents for free.
Why has there been pressure for current sex education policy in England to be revised in schools?
The consensus is that the PSE syllabus hasn’t kept up with the challenges that children and young people now face following the advent of smart phones and social media, and the fact that younger children can access sexual imagery on the internet.
Many feel that a combination of compulsory science subjects and online pornography does not teach children about the difference between acceptable and abusive behaviour, consent and sexual health, nor promote loving, respectful relationships.
‘PSHE and SRE teaching varies wildly in quality from school to school’
School inspectors have observed that PSHE and SRE teaching varies wildly in quality from school to school and its delivery depends very much on the individual school head.
This inconsistent approach to sex education has prompted organisations and numerous government committees to urge the government to introduce compulsory, age-appropriate sex education in all primary and secondary schools.
Many experts argue that SRE needs to start early in primary school, so that children can learn what is safe and unsafe and get help if they need it.
Reports following the sex abuse cases in Rotherham and Oxford have all concurred that PSHE keeps children safe and that it should become mandatory in all schools.
What should best practice SRE look like?
Three experts in SRE (Brook, the PSHE Association and the Sex Education Forum) advise that it should begin in primary school and then be built on year-on-year to enable young people to understand a wide spectrum of issues, including the safe use of technology. It also needs to include information for older children on topics that are missing from the current guidance, such as pornography, sexual consent, violence and exploitation.
The following guide, produced by the Sex Education Forum, suggests what subjects to explore with children and young people from age 3 to 18.
• 3-6: Children are interested in the differences between boys and girls, naming body parts, where babies come from, and friends and family. It’s also important at this age to convey to children what areas of the body are private and should not be touched.
• 7-8: Children are curious about the changing nature of friendships; what children can do if they are being bullied; the emotional and physical changes of growing up; coping with strong emotions.
• 9-10: They will be interested in knowing about love and different kinds of families. Many will be on the brink of puberty and so will be curious about menstruation, sexual feelings and changing body image.
• 11-13: At this age, most children will be entering puberty and will be interested in hormones and how they will be affected by them. They will also want to know about the difference between sexual attraction and love, and whether it is normal to be attracted to someone of the same gender.
• 14-16: By now, some will be sexually experimental or know friends who are, despite the legal age for having sex being 16. They will be interested to know what they should expect of a relationship and may want more information on contraception, sexual health and how to access services. They will want to know more about coping with strong feelings and the pressure to have sex.
• 16-18: As teens reach the age of consent and some start to form intimate relationships, they will be interested to know about the challenges of long-term commitments and the qualities needed for successful loving relationships. They may want to learn more about being gay, bisexual or transgender and to discuss gender stereotyping, violence, exploitation, the law and discrimination.
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The advice published on Parent Info is provided by independent experts in their field and not necessarily the views of Parent Zone or CEOP.
First published: February 2017
Updated: May 2018