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New RSHE guidance: what it means for sex education lessons in schools

The government has published a new consultation on proposed changes to the statutory guidance on teaching relationships, sex and health education (RSHE) in schools which signifies a significant change of approach.


All state-funded secondary schools have been required to teach RSHE since 2020. Last year, the government brought forward the first review of the curriculum following reports of pupils being taught inappropriate content in some schools. 

The government consulted with an independent panel of experts to create the new draft guidance and is now asking for views from parents, schools and others before it is finalised. 

What is in the new updated curriculum?

1. Prescribed age limits

The government plans to introduce age limits on when schools can teach certain subjects, leaving far less discretion for schools to decide when to tackle these.  These are set out in a series of tables. 

2. Ban on teaching about gender identity

The guidance states that secondary schools should teach pupils about the protected characteristics in the Equality Act 2010, including gender reassignment, but should not teach them about gender identity including the view that gender is a spectrum. It defines gender identity as the sense a person may have of their own gender, whether male, female or a number of other categories. If pupils ask questions about gender identity, they should be told the facts about biological sex. And, materials that present contested views as fact should not be used, nor should schools use images such as cartoons which can oversimply the issue. 

This is a significant shift from previous guidance which made various references to gender identity and said that sexual orientation and gender identity should be explored at a timely point and in a clear, sensitive and respectful manner. 

It also refers schools to the non-statutory guidance on gender questioning children which has not yet been finalised.

3. Parents should be given access to relevant materials

The guidance for schools also contains a new section on transparency with parents, making it absolutely clear that parents have a legal right to know what their children are being taught in RSHE and can request to see teaching materials. It says that schools who engage third party providers to teach these topics should not agree contractual terms which prohibit them from sharing information with parents. They then suggest that any agreed terms which do this will be “void” due to strong public interest in parents viewing such materials.

4. New subjects to be covered

The government wants views on whether the following new subjects should be added to the curriculum:   

  • Suicide prevention 
  • Sexual harassment and sexual violence, including fixated and obsessive behaviours such as stalking 
  • Loneliness 
  • The prevalence of 'deepfakes’ 
  • Healthy behaviours during pregnancy, as well as miscarriage 
  • Illegal online behaviours including drug and knife supply 
  • The dangers of vaping  
  • Menstrual and gynaecological health including endometriosis, polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) and heavy menstrual bleeding. 

What are the age limits?

In primary school, the guidance sets out that subjects such as the risks about online gaming, social media and scams should not be taught before year 3. Puberty shouldn’t be taught before year 4, whilst sex education shouldn’t be taught before year 5, in line with what pupils learn about conception and birth as part of the national curriculum for science. 

In secondary school, issues regarding sexual harassment shouldn’t be taught before year 7, direct references to suicide before year 8 and any explicit discussion of sexual activity before year 9. 

There is some flexibility within the age ratings, as schools will sometimes need to respond to questions from pupils about age-restricted content, if they come up earlier within their school community.  

Do schools have to follow the guidance?

This is draft statutory guidance and, once approved, schools must have regard to it, which means they must follow it unless there are exceptional reasons not to. If you depart from it you will need good evidence to substantiate your approach. 

When will the guidance be approved?

The government has said that it will publish the final version “later this year”. The consultation ends on 11 July 2024. By then we may have a new government which could take a different view.

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