Relationships, Sex and Health Education: Statutory Guidance

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons am 12:12 pm ar 16 Mai 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Gillian Keegan Gillian Keegan The Secretary of State for Education 12:12, 16 Mai 2024

With your permission, Madam Deputy Speaker, I will make a statement to the House setting out the Government’s proposals for updating the 2019 statutory guidance on relationships, sex and health education, which my Department has published today for consultation. I thank my Department’s staff for their hard work in getting us to this point.

This Government have a plan to deliver a brighter future for Britain, one where families are supported and given peace of mind that their children are safe, and are being equipped with the skills that they need to succeed. Good relationships, sex and health education—RSHE, as it is known—plays a key role in that. However, following disturbing reports from parents of pupils being taught inappropriate content in schools, and requests from schools that wanted more clarity about when to teach certain topics, the Prime Minister and I decided to bring forward the review of RSHE. We have listened to colleagues from across Government and the House, gathered evidence from stakeholders, and considered advice from an independent panel of experts who generously gave their time, experience and knowledge to support the review last year. I put on record my personal thanks to each individual panel member.

We need to make sure that the content of lessons is factual and appropriate, and that children have the capacity to fully understand everything that they are being taught. We need to make sure that our children are prepared for the world in which they live, but not in a way that takes away the innocence of childhood. In short, we need to allow our children to be children. That is a fine line to tread, and schools need clarity on how to approach the issue. Overall, this guidance is underpinned by three core values: first, that parents have a right to know what their children are being taught; secondly, that teachers are there to teach children facts, not push the agendas of campaign groups; and thirdly, that schools should not teach about the contested issue of gender identity, including that gender is a spectrum.

There are five major policy changes that I would like to set out, the first of which is the introduction of age limits for teaching sensitive subjects. The purpose of the new age limits is to make sure children are not taught things before they are ready to understand them. Informed by the advice of the independent panel and others, the guidance places specific age limits on the teaching of certain subjects. In primary schools, children learn about the importance of boundaries and privacy and that they have rights over their own bodies, but no 10-year-old should be taught about the details of intimate sexual acts, sexual harassment or sexual violence. In primary schools, sex education is not a requirement, and should only be introduced from year 5 onwards. Its content should align with the national curriculum’s science teachings on conception and birth, ensuring that it is rooted in fact. It should absolutely not be preparing primary-age children for sexual activity.

The second flagship change is complete openness with parents. Parents are their children’s first teachers, and they must know what they are being taught. The guidance contains a new section that makes the need for transparency with parents crystal clear and clarifies the scope within the law to share materials. The bottom line is that curriculum providers should not be seeking to hide their materials from parents. That practice is completely unacceptable: parents have a fundamental right to know what their children are being taught about healthy relationships, sex and development.

The third area is teaching about gender reassignment. Many schools have told us that they need clear guidance to help them teach about this highly sensitive and complex issue in a way that is factual and safe. We are making it absolutely clear that the contested topic of gender identity should not be taught in schools at any age. Schools should not be providing classroom materials that, for example, include the view that gender is a spectrum. While protected characteristics such as gender reassignment should be taught about, that must be done on a factual basis at an appropriate age and must not be based on contested ideology. That reflects the cautious, common-sense approach that we have taken in our guidance on children questioning their gender, and also reflects the recommendations of the Cass review.

There is also a dedicated section on sexual harassment and sexual violence. The growth of malign influencers online who pose a risk to children and young people has been significant. It is one of the key ways in which the world has changed for young people since the guidance was originally published—and, indeed, since all of us Members were in school. That new section covers some specific types of abusive behaviour that were not previously discussed, such as stalking, as well as advice for teachers about how to address dangerous, misogynistic online influencers.

I would now like to consider the sensitive, but important, issue of suicide prevention. Ministers and I have met bereaved families, experts and teachers to explore how suicide prevention could be taught as part of RSHE, and I pay tribute to the incredible work of 3 Dads Walking, who have used the unimaginable tragedies in their lives to campaign for important change. The current RSHE guidance already includes content about teaching pupils to look after their mental wellbeing and support themselves and their friends. We have now made clearer how that content on mental wellbeing relates to suicide prevention. Of course, the topic of suicide itself needs to be handled sensitively and skilfully, and not before pupils are ready to understand it. Obviously, children’s maturity varies, but our engagement suggested that children typically develop the necessary understanding from when they are in year 8. We have made sure that the updated guidance acknowledges that it can be important to discuss this topic with pupils, and have added advice to set out how schools could address suicide prevention in their teaching.

Finally, the guidance also includes the new topic of personal safety, which covers additional content on understanding the laws on carrying knives and knife crime, and on the dangers of fire, roads, railways and water.

Together, I am confident that this guidance will give teachers and headteachers clarity about what should and should not be taught. It will provide parents with the peace of mind that their children are being taught in a safe and factual manner, and it will reassure everyone across society that pupils are being taught what they need to know at the right age and time in their lives. A copy of the guidance has been deposited in the Libraries of both Houses. I commend this statement to the House.