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Relationships and Health Education in UK Schools Gets a Revamp

Every pupil will learn how to stay safe and healthy as Relationships and Health Education gets a revamp…


Sex Education is to be made fit for the 21st century in a major shake-up of the subject to reflect the modern pressures facing children and young people.

Nearly 20 years since the last guidance for the subject was first written, in an age free of iPhones, Instagram and Snapchat, the new subjects will include topics such as mental health, cyberbullying, sexting and how to navigate the virtual world safely.

Under the proposals, relationships education in primary schools and relationships and sex education in secondary schools will be made compulsory for the first time, and the new topic of health education – with a focus on mental wellbeing and physical health – will be compulsory in all state-funded schools.

The subjects have been informed by a wide-ranging engagement process, including a public call for evidence, where over 23,000 parents, young people, schools and experts shared their views.

The new topics will be subject to a consultation to help shape them further and set out how they will be taught in schools. The guidance will become compulsory in schools from September 2020.

In primary schools:

In primary schools, the focus is the key building blocks of healthy, respectful relationships, focusing on family and friendships, both on and offline – as well as understanding how to be healthy.

In secondary schools:

Teaching will develop pupils’ understanding of health, with an increased focus on risk areas such as drugs and alcohol, as well as introducing knowledge about intimate relationships and sex.

The new topics include:

  • Consent and harassment – Young people will be taught how to deal with peer pressure and the importance of consent, in both the virtual and real world. Taught in an age-appropriate way, pupils will learn the building blocks and then the concepts of consent, including their rights over their own bodies, both online and offline. This comes after young people, parents and campaigners, such as the Everyday Sexism Project, have called for lessons on consent to be part of the new guidance.
  • Body image – In the age of the selfie and Snapchat filter, there is relentless pressure on young people to compare and share images of themselves. The new topics will help children cope with the pressures of the virtual world and to understand the difference between images they see online and reality.
  • Sexting and staying safe online – In today’s world, young people are vulnerable in chat rooms and to addiction and graphic violence in video games. Under the proposals, pupils will be taught that people sometimes behave differently online, including by pretending to be someone they are not and that the same principles of respect apply to online relationships and face to face relationships. They will also learn about the benefits of balancing time spent on and offline and positive and negative content online. And at secondary school, content will include learning about the risks of compromising material getting online.
  • Mental health – As well as navigating the online world, children will learn how to make the most of the real one. At primary, this will mean making sure children know how to recognise and talk about their emotions while at secondary school, pupils should know how to recognise the early signs of mental wellbeing issues and mental ill health such as anxiety and depression.
  • Fertility – Secondary school pupils will learn the facts about reproductive health, including fertility and the potential impact of lifestyle on fertility of men and women.

Support for the proposals:

The teaching of these subjects in schools is supported by charities and campaigners, such as NSPCC, Barnardo’s and Stonewall and the wider public, with recent research showing:

  • 9 in 10 children surveyed by Barnardo’s (2017) (96%) said it was important for them to understand the dangers of being online so they can stay safe. 
  • In 2016 the Women and Equalities Committee recommended that every child at primary and secondary school must have access to high quality, age-appropriate relationships and sex education through making sex and relationships education (SRE) a statutory subject.

The BBC has reported that whilst parents currently retain the right to withdraw their child from sex education, new plans will allow 15-year-olds to overrule their parents’ wishes and opt in to sex education lessons they have previously been withdrawn from.

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