Sex and relationships education: what your child learns

Children learning in the classroom
Sex education teaching varies hugely from school to school. We explain what goes on in KS1 and KS2 SRE lessons and outline the proposed changes to sex and relationship education in primary school from September 2020.
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Sex education might be a difficult subject to handle, but it’s an essential area of learning for your child.

‘Primary school children need information about sex and relationships in a timely fashion, which means, for example, that they should learn about puberty before they experience it,’ says Lucy Emmerson, coordinator of the Sex Education Forum.

However, the legal requirements for primary schools to provide sex and relationships education (SRE) are minimal. So what can you expect your child to learn and when?

Sex education and the National Curriculum

Under the National Curriculum, the basics of sex education fall within the science curriculum. ‘The statutory content requires maintained schools to teach children about human development, including puberty, and reproduction,’ says Lucy.

In Year 2, children learn that animals, including humans, have offspring that grow into adults. They should be introduced to the concepts of reproduction and growth, but not how reproduction occurs.

In Year 5, children are taught about the life cycles of humans and animals, including reproduction. They also learn about the changes that happen in humans from birth to old age. This includes learning what happens in puberty.

Academies and free schools aren’t required by law to follow the National Curriculum, and so may not follow these programmes of study. However, they do have to teach a broad and balanced curriculum that includes science. ‘This is entirely achievable even in faith schools, because the school values are often in tune with the focus in SRE on relationships and caring for each other,’ adds Lucy.

Sex education guidance

In addition to the National Curriculum, the Department for Education (DfE) published Sex and Relationships Education Guidance in 2000, which, although it isn’t statutory, schools must take into consideration. Primary schools should:

  • Have an SRE programme tailored to the age and maturity of children.
  • Ensure that boys and girls know about puberty before they experience it, and how babies are conceived and born.
  • Focus their relationships education on friendships, bullying and self-esteem.

The guidance suggests that most of this should take place in Year 6, before the transition to secondary school. However, many campaigners, including the Sex Education Forum, believe that starting in Year 6 is too late and that pupils benefit from a developmental programme of SRE throughout primary school.

Schools must have an up-to-date policy that sets out how they define SRE, how it’s provided and who is responsible for it, how it’s monitored and evaluated and how parents can withdraw their children from SRE lessons. This must be available to parents and reviewed regularly.

What does a sex education lesson look like?

The quality and quantity of SRE varies enormously in primary schools; indeed, Ofsted has recently pointed out failings across the board, such as leaving teaching about puberty too late, and not teaching the correct anatomical terms for genitalia.

‘Ideally, schools should dedicate teaching time to SRE in every school year, so that they can revisit and build on what children have learned,’ says Lucy. ‘This could begin in the lower years with learning about the differences between boys and girls and how families care for each other, and develop so that by the time children leave primary school, they’ve covered a wide range of topics.’

Techniques that schools may use to deliver SRE include:

  • Games: for example, a parachute game to explore different types of families, where children run underneath if they live with two parents, one parent, have siblings, are an only child, and so on.
  • Using storybooks that open up discussions about sex and relationships.
  • Circle time and question box activities, where children can post anonymous questions for group discussion.
  • Drama, role-play and puppets.
  • Art: for example, children drawing pictures of what they think a child older than them might look like, clothed and unclothed.
  • Watching videos and discussing what children have learned.

Some SRE may be taught as a whole-class exercise, but children may also be split up into boys and girls or small groups at times: for example, children might be taught about puberty in single-sex groups.

‘If the class is broken down into smaller groups, they should come back together afterwards to share what they’ve been learning,’ Lucy adds. 

Governors are responsible for agreeing the school’s SRE policy, and then it’s up to staff to decide how to organise the teaching. It may be that the class teacher or a subject lead for SRE and PSHE teach on rotation.

It’s important that teachers get training and support with the subject. ‘The teacher responsible should be competent and trained in delivering SRE so that they can manage the teaching process, set ground rules, and treat it as a proper subject, monitoring, assessing and evaluating what children learn,’ says Lucy. ‘What children really want are open conversations with reliable adults.’

Involving parents in sex education

The government’s SRE guidance says that schools should consult parents about what will be taught in SRE. This should include supporting parents in talking about sex and relationships at home, and linking it with what will be taught at school. For example, schools might invite parents in to look at the resources that will be used in class, or even provide materials to be used at home.

If you’re not happy with your child taking part in SRE at school, you have the right to withdraw them from any or all of it, and the school should make alternative arrangements for your child for the duration of the teaching. The exception is the SRE content covered in the National Curriculum for science, which children at maintained schools have to be taught.

Teaching diversity

There has been a lot of debate in recent years about how schools should handle relationships education. The government’s current guidance says, ‘pupils should learn the significance of marriage and stable relationships as key building blocks of community and society. Care needs to be taken to ensure that there is no stigmatisation of children based on their home circumstances.’

Although there’s no specific requirement for schools to teach children about same-sex relationships, they are required to abide by equality legislation.

‘It’s important that schools show images of different types of family,’ says Lucy. ‘Children will have questions about what terms like “lesbian” and “gay” mean, and it’s appropriate to explain them, but the main thing is that children learn that relationships should be loving, equal and safe across the board.’

The future of sex education in English primary schools

In the spring of 2019, in response to a consultation period, the Department for Education (DfE) announced an overhaul of sex, health and relationships education in both primary and secondary schools.

For primary schools, the main points are:

  • Health and relationships education will become compulsory. Sex education will remain optional (although it will be compulsory in secondary schools).
  • Relationships education in primary schools will cover Families and People who Care for Me, Caring Friendships, Respectful Relationships, Online Relationships and Being Safe.
  • To reflect modern society, children will be taught about such things as civil partnerships as an alternative to marriage, preparing for the online world, and unhealthy relationships, including violence, abuse and bullying.
  • Teachers should be aware that children will come from a variety of different family backgrounds, and should take this into account when preparing lessons.
  • Puberty will still be covered under the science curriculum, and as part of health education. Schools will be able to tailor the ways in which they teach it as they see fit, but the DfE says that teaching about menstruation is suitable for both primary and secondary school pupils.

Responses to the proposed changes have been mixed. Although seven out of 10 parents feel that primary school children should be taught about things such as what to do if they find pornographic pictures online, and the difference between safe and unwanted touch, many have protested against some of the proposals.

Some feel that the suggested changes take away parents’ rights to decide how and when to teach children about sex and relationships.

Commenting on a story on SchoolsWeek, one mother said, ‘As a parent of young children it is solely my right to teach my children about relationship[s], and when they reach the right age, sex education. Parents feel like [their] rights are being taken away.’

However, the DfE has confirmed that parents’ right to withdraw their children from sex education lessons (but not health or relationships education, or the compulsory content of science) will remain under the new curriculum.

A particular area of concern for parents is if – and how – children should be taught about LGBT relationships.

In spring 2019, there were widespread protests against pupils being taught about LGBT relationships at a Birmingham primary school.

Speaking to The Guardian, one of the parents involved in the protest said, ‘We are not a bunch of homophobic mothers. We just feel that some of these lessons are inappropriate. Some of the themes being discussed are very adult and complex.’

In response, the DfE has clarified that although teaching children about LGBT relationships will not be compulsory in primary schools, pupils growing up in families with LGBT members or beginning to understand they may be LGBT themselves ‘should feel that relationships education is relevant to them.

‘Pupils should receive teaching on LGBT relationships during their school years – we expect secondary schools to include LGBT content and primary schools are enabled and encouraged to cover this.’

It added that ‘schools should make decisions about what is appropriate to teach on this subject and when based on the age and development of their pupils.’ Schools will also be advised to involve the parent body in these decisions.

Director of the Sex Education Forum, Lucy Emmerson, welcomes the proposed changes. ‘We know that the majority of children, young people and parents want an education that reflects the realities of growing up in modern society and equips them to enjoy safe and respectful relationships. The new guidance from the DfE opens the way for this to happen.’

The proposed changes to sex, health and relationships education will now be debated in Parliament. If they are passed, they will become statutory from September 2020.

The future of sex education in Welsh primary schools

Primary schools in Wales are also set to get a curriculum revamp in the near future, which includes what will be known as Relationships and Sexuality Education.

It will be one of the compulsory components of the Curriculum for Wales. Schools will have the freedom to design their own programme of teaching, but it’s thought that many will base it around UNESCO guidance, which covers:

  • Relationships
  • Values, rights, culture and sexuality
  • Understanding gender
  • Violence and staying safe
  • Skills for health and wellbeing
  • Human body and development
  • Sexuality and sexual behaviour
  • Sexual and reproductive health

The aim is for Relationships and Sexuality Education to be a progression from five to 16, so children will be taught in an age appropriate way at each stage.

While it’s not specified if or how schools should address LGBT+ issues, the draft guidance says that Relationships and Sexuality Education must reflect diversity across relationships, sex, gender and sexuality, and represent the personal circumstances of individual pupils. There will also be a focus on respect.

The biggest change to Relationships and Sexuality Education is that parents will no longer be able to opt their children out of lessons, even at primary school level.

Announcing the move, Welsh Education Secretary Kirsty Williams said it would ensure that all pupils learned about issues such as online safety and healthy relationships.

Unsurprisingly, the removal of the opt-out clause has had a mixed response.

Speaking to The Guardian, Debbie Laycock of the Terrence Higgins Trust said: ‘Until now far too many young people have learned about sex through whispers in the playground. This decision by the Welsh government will go some way to fixing this.

'It’s absolutely vital lessons are LGBT+ inclusive and have a strong focus on HIV and sexual health so all young people have the knowledge they need to form healthy and fulfilling relationships.’

But Chris Denning, Education Officer for The Christian Institute, expressed concerns about the news.

‘I think it is it is an assault on the freedom of the parents to make sure that their children are brought up with the values that they hold, which is protected in the European Convention on Human Rights,’ he told Premier News Hour, urging schools and parents to work closely together to take parents’ religious views into account.

Compulsory Relationships and Sexuality Education in Wales is expected to come into effect before the new Curriculum for Wales launches in 2022.

Sex and relationships education: primary parents' questions answered

For more detail about exactly what children will be introduced to in SRE, read our guide, parents' questions about sex and relationships education in schools answered.

For information about SRE for your primary school child, visit the Sex Education Forum's resources page.