The new RSE Curriculum and what this means for primary schools
As Senior Director of Learning at Discovery Education, I am proud of our brand new programme, Health and Relationships, which empowers teachers in primary schools to deliver the new RSE Curriculum through high-quality films, informative learning materials, and extensive guidance for teachers, parents and carers.
As readers will know, the Department for Education has 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.
If you read some of the newspaper headlines or follow certain feeds on social media, you would be forgiven for thinking that this means children as young as five are now going to be taught sex education. This is simply not true.
As 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, despite what you may read in the press or on social media, primary schools will not be required to teach sex education to young children. The sex education element of the new RSE curriculum is for secondary schools and parents have a right to request that their child be withdrawn from some or all of sex education delivered as part of this curriculum until three terms before they reach 16.
As part of the established KS2 Science curriculum of course, 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 and should be taught without stigma or embarrassment. Giving children the accurate terms that are used to name external parts of our bodies, for example, is an important part of their education and need not be controversial.
The topics to be taught in primary schools under the new Relationships and Health Education curriculum include: Families and people who care for me; Caring friendships; Respectful relationships; Online relationships; and Being safe. There is an emphasis on treating each other with kindness, consideration and respect. The concept of personal privacy is also taught, alongside honesty, truthfulness and the seeking and giving of permission.
As a parent of four children myself, I find it reassuring that we are teaching character traits and positive personal attributes that enable young people to build healthy relationships with others and to lead happy and fulfilling lives, in safety.
I am more concerned about what is being taught to young children outside school, in the world around them. The uncomfortable truth is that children of primary school age today are surrounded by sexually explicit material in the songs they listen to, the programmes they may watch and the conversations they may participate in on social media. Popular television programmes still considered to be ‘family viewing on a Saturday night’ are now rife with sexual references and innuendo. Seeing children write out the lyrics of their favourite pop songs fills me with concern, such is the explicit nature of the content and messages contained within them. I worry about the premature adultification of children and the loss of innocence in childhood. One cannot ‘un-hear’ what one has heard, or ‘un-see’ what one has seen. I don’t believe that school is making this worse, rather I think it can play an important role in providing reassurance and comfort to children, in full partnership with their parents and carers – the most important educators in their lives.
One can only imagine what some young children may be thinking when they return to school on a Monday morning, having spent the weekend watching programmes, listening to songs or engaging in online conversations that expose them to adult content, and it is only right that they have the chance to ask questions freely. How schools handle those questions is crucial and children should be able to express what is on their mind in the safety of a school environment. If teachers were unable to receive any questions relating to sexual behaviour I am certain that the children would look elsewhere for answers, and who knows how reliable those answers would be.
But there is a difference between being open to all questions from children and formally teaching them content that is inappropriate for their age and stage in life. In primary school there is no requirement to teach pupils sex education, but teachers have a duty to respond when questions are asked.
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.
What I find encouraging is that ‘the focus in primary schools should be on teaching the fundamental building blocks and characteristics of positive relationships, with particular reference to friendships, family relationships, and relationships with other children and with adults.’
A good school is built on love and respect, just as a family is. This has always been a mantra for me and I have said it in every leadership role I have held. We begin with love and mutual respect and we work outwards from there. I am pleased then 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.
As a former teacher and headteacher, I think the guidance accompanying our new programme, Health & Relationships, is as important as the curriculum content it delivers. Equipping busy teachers with the advice and guidance they need to communicate effectively and sensitively with parents and carers is of paramount importance to us. I welcome our new programme and I am excited for the good work it will do in helping children to recognise the importance of maintaining positive relationships, showing tolerance and respect for others, and growing up healthily and safely. I wish the programme had been available when my own children were in primary school.
For more information on Discovery Education Health & Relationships, do get in touch. I will be delighted to tell you more about it.