Former Bury St Edmunds headteacher Andrew Hammond explains how the new RSE curriculum will be implemented
As readers may know, the Department for Education have introduced a new curriculum for Relationship Education, Relationships and Sex Education and Health Education, commonly shortened to RSE.
It will be compulsory for all schools to teach this curriculum in September 2020. Acronyms are commonplace in schools (think PSHE, DT or STEM), but the shorthand way of referring to this entire curriculum as ‘RSE’ may be causing anxiety in many parents, and perhaps nervousness in some teachers too, because it implies that if all schools must teach RSE, then primary children as young as five will be taught sex education.
Such a prospect may yield attention-grabbing headlines and ignite some lively debates on social media, but the truth is quite different. The guidance tells us, ‘The Relationships Education, Relationships and Sex Education and Health Education (England) Regulations 2019, made under sections 34 and 35 of the Children and Social Work Act 2017, make Relationships Education compulsory for all pupils receiving primary education and Relationships and Sex Education (RSE) compulsory for all pupils receiving secondary education.’
So, the sex education element in this curriculum is to be taught in secondary schools, and parents have a right to request that their child be withdrawn from some or all of the sex education classes delivered as part of this curriculum until three terms before they reach 16.
There is another important truth that may have been overlooked in recent communications on this subject: primary schools have been teaching sex education for several years already, at various ages and stages. It is worth considering what the term ‘sex education’ actually means and in what context it is being taught.
For example, from as young as five years old, it is important for children to recognise the importance of personal privacy, of respecting others’ personal space, and that we are all custodians of our own bodies and we should look after them and protect them.
There are inappropriate ways of touching others which should not be tolerated, and even appropriate and non-threatening physical contact still requires consent from the person being cuddled. Such lessons are being taught every day in Early Years classrooms and they build important foundations for subsequent lessons in sex education when the children are ready.Teaching the correct names of our external body parts is another important aspect of sex education, appropriate for young children, and it need not be done with stigma or embarrassment.
One could argue that from a safeguarding point of view, it is vitally important for young children to know what their body parts are called so that, in the event of they themselves being touched inappropriately by another person, they are able to articulate accurately where they have been touched and able to feel confident that they will not be blamed or shamed. No one wants to introduce fear and worry for young children where it was not previously felt, but it is equally important to build confidence and ‘a voice’ so that all children can lead healthy and safe lives.
As part of the established KS2 Science curriculum, most primary schools already teach the life cycle of reproduction in animals, including humans. How our bodies grow and change from birth to old age, and the different challenges this brings for all of us, is an important part of a KS2 primary curriculum.Many primary schools teach sex education in Year 5 or Year 6 and have been doing so for some time, in very close partnership with parents.
Open communication is key, preferably delivered in face-to-face meetings with parents and carers after school, with accompanying handouts and FAQs that provide the reassurance that content is always matched to children’s levels of maturity. As the DfE’s guidance says, ‘Children of the same age may be developmentally at different stages, leading to differing types of questions or behaviours. Teaching methods should take account of these differences.’
As a teacher for twenty years, I often encountered questions that were not appropriate in a whole-class setting, but they still needed to be dealt with in a one-to-one or small group setting. Allowing children to ask questions openly, but being flexible enough to address those questions whilst being cognizant of other children’s maturity levels in the same class is an important strategy – but it’s challenging, and perhaps this is why some teachers feel justifiably anxious.
It may not be the content of the new curriculum itself that causes trepidation in teachers, rather it is the potential that an RSE lesson has for evoking unexpected questions from children that take us into areas that are well beyond the ages and stages of others in the same class. The guidance states that ‘teaching methods should take account of these differences.’
So what teaching methods are being referred to here? How does this work in practice? How does a teacher allow children to ask questions without dropping into others’ minds notions and concepts that were not there before; one cannot un-hear what one has heard. Perhaps this is why the guidance that surrounds this subject is as important as the curriculum itself – not only the guidance for teachers, but the guidance which schools produce for their parents and carers.
If ever there was a subject in school that required full partnership with families, it is RSE, and it is pleasing to see a focus in the new curriculum on how families of many forms provide a nurturing environment for children. ‘Families can include for example, single parent families, LGBT parents, families headed by grandparents, adoptive parents, foster parents/carers, amongst other structures.’ Removing all stigmatisation of children who come from different home circumstances is vitally important, and this is a key theme within the new curriculum.
Few schools would not include tolerance and respect of others’ faiths and beliefs in their core values. Schools already promote equality, of course.
Teachers have a duty to explain how some cultures and faiths have different beliefs that deserve respect, and this is encouraged within the new curriculum too: ‘In all schools, when teaching these subjects, the religious background of all pupils must be taken into account when planning teaching, so that topics that are included in the core content in this guidance are appropriately handled.’ Guidance is provided for teachers so that they are able to deliver the curriculum sensitively and respectfully. For example, schools may wish to reflect on faith teachings about certain topics, and the ‘protected characteristics’ of a person, defined under the Equality Act 2010, must be respected.
There will be awkward moments and perhaps even difficult conversations with anxious parents too; we all want what is best for our children but we often have different views on what that is. But there are some universals: we all want to be treated as we would have others treat us – with kindness, consideration and respect; and we all value our personal privacy, as well as honesty, truthfulness and the seeking and giving of permission.
These fundamentals are what the new curriculum is about.
If we focus on the ‘fundamental building blocks and characteristics of positive relationships, with particular reference to friendships, family relationships, and relationships with other children and with adults’, as the new curriculum requires us to do, then we are empowering young people and enabling them to lead healthy and fulfilling lives in adulthood.
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