As WillisPalmer launched WP-Risk last month to support social workers tackling child sexual abuse, the government made a very key announcement in tackling the problem from the other end of the spectrum in a preventive manner by announcing that Relationships and Sex Education and PSHE would be mandatory.
It is hoped that by making it compulsory for schools to teach children about healthy relationships from an early age, it will become more obvious to children when they themselves are involved in an unhealthy relationship or are growing up in an abusive or unhealthy family situation.
WP-Risk was launched in March in response to an outcry from authorities and social workers for help tackling complex cases of child sexual abuse. WP-Risk will become a national specialist resource offering a comprehensive range of multi-disciplinary expert services to assist in the identification, assessment, management and prevention of risk in identified or suspected cases of sexual abuse
However, the government has tabled amendments to the Children and Social Work Bill to ensure that RSE and PSHE lessons are compulsory and educate children about modern day issues such as pornography, sexting and internet grooming.
‘We need high-quality, age-appropriate content’
Currently only pupils attending local-authority run secondary schools - which represent around a third of secondary schools - are guaranteed to be offered current sex and relationships education, and PSHE is only mandatory at independent schools. Neither are currently required to be taught in academies.
Education Secretary Justine Greening said: “RSE and PSHE teach children and young people how to stay safe and healthy, and how to negotiate some of the personal and social challenges they will face growing up and as adults. These subjects form part of the building blocks young people need to thrive in modern Britain. At the moment, too many young people feel they don’t have the RSE they need to stay safe and navigate becoming an adult.
“It is time to make this change to ensure all children and young people have access to these subjects and to update the current statutory guidance for RSE which was introduced nearly 20 years ago, in 2000. We need high-quality, age-appropriate content that relates to the modern world, addressing issues like cyber bullying, ‘sexting’ and internet safety.
“We will now begin a review and gather expert opinions to ensure these subjects really have a positive impact on young people,” she added.
Growing up in an online world
The amendment will make it a requirement that all secondary schools in England teach relationships and sex education (RSE) and also allow the government to make regulations requiring personal, social, health and economic education (PSHE) to be taught in all schools in England - primary and secondary, maintained and academy - in future.
Relationships education, RSE, and PSHE are designed to ensure pupils are taught the knowledge and life skills they will need to stay safe and develop healthy and supportive relationships, particularly dealing with the challenges of growing up in an online world.
The government is proposing the introduction of the new subject of ‘relationships education’ in primary school and renaming the secondary school subject ‘relationships and sex education’, to emphasise the central importance of healthy relationships. The focus in primary school will be on building healthy relationships and staying safe. As children get older sex education will be delivered in that context.
The Department for Education (DfE) has pledged to engage with stakeholders to set out suitable, age-appropriate content on RSE which focuses on mental wellbeing, consent, resilience, age-appropriate relationships and sex education, and keeping safe online.
‘This will give children the knowledge and skills to help prevent them being exploited’
Children’s Commissioner for England Anne Longfield said she was delighted by the announcement as making relationships and sex education available in every school was one of her first calls when she came into office two years ago.
“Children are asking for lessons to help them prepare for life and protect them from exploitation and abuse. The many cases that have made disturbing headlines in recent years make preparing them for the adult world even more urgent,” said Longfield. ““The lessons are important in building life skills and resilience but will need to be of the highest quality if they are to truly have the impact we wish.”
Barnardo’s Chief Executive, Javed Khan, also welcomed the announcement: “We are thrilled the government has listened to our campaign to provide all school children with age-appropriate school lessons on sex and healthy relationships to help keep them safe. Barnardo’s has long campaigned for this vital education so children can better understand the dangers in the real world and online. We believe this will give children the knowledge and skills they need to help prevent them being groomed and sexually exploited.”
Russell Hobby, General Secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT), said the Association has long advocated age-appropriate sex education and PSHE for all pupils in all schools, to help prepare young people for the challenges they will encounter in their adult lives and the current challenges they will face beyond the school gates. It welcomed the duties set out and was “looking forward to playing our part in ensuring RSE/PSHE delivers for young people”.
There is a compelling case to act in relation to pupil safety
However, some organisations have raised concerns that the proposals could result in children as young as four being taught about sex. The organisation Christian Concern also said it was not for the state to prescribe what was taught in this area. Chief executive Andrea Williams told the BBC: “Children need to be protected, and certainly when they're [still at primary school], we need to be guarding their innocence.
“We need to be protecting them from things, working with parents to ensure that what they might need to know - which will be different for every child, different in every context across the country - is properly looked at.
“But this is something that should be individualised, not something that the state can deliver wholesale,” she added.
However, speaking at a debate on the Children and Social Work Bill in the House of Lords, Lord Nash said: “The growing concerns about child sexual abuse and exploitation, and about children sharing and viewing inappropriate materials, have convinced us that there is a compelling case to act in relation to pupil safety.”
Parents can withdraw children from sex education
The Secretary of State will be required to issue guidance on delivering these subjects to which all schools must have regard, but the government does not want to be overly prescriptive on content and therefore have chosen not to specify in the Bill the exact content of the subjects.
“We know that the rapidly changing risks that young people face mean that the legislation could quickly be out of date if we attempted to list key topics,” said Lord Nash.
Pupils will learn about safety in forming and maintaining relationships, the characteristics of healthy relationships, and how relationships may affect mental and physical health and well-being. The content of these subjects will be age appropriate.
It is likely that the new subject of relationships education for primary schools will focus on:
RSE in secondary schools will include topics such as:
The lessons will complement elements already taught in the science national curriculum and will contribute to wider government efforts to improve all elements of internet safety. PSHE topics are likely to cover healthy bodies, lifestyles and healthy minds, economic well-being and making a positive contribution to society.
“Schools will be able to consider how best to teach these subjects, taking account of the age and religious backgrounds of their pupils, but not whether to teach them,” said Lord Nash.
The amendment does, however, provide for a right for parents to withdraw their children from sex education in RSE for those parents who would prefer to teach some or all of sex education to their children themselves.
The amendment does not provide for a right to withdraw from relationships education for pupils receiving primary education. This is because the government envisages that relationships education will focus on themes such as friendships, family relationships and dealing with strangers which is appropriate and important for all children to learn, Lord Nash added.
Implementation will commence in September 2019
As soon as possible after Royal Assent, the Department for Education will begin the process of engagement with stakeholders and intends to consult on the draft regulations and guidance in the autumn of this year.
“The wider engagement to consider content will begin this spring, and we expect that it will result in draft regulations and guidance for consultation in the autumn of this year,” said Lord Nash. “Following the consultation, we will lay regulations in both Houses, alongside final draft guidance, allowing for a full and considered debate. We envisage that the statutory guidance will be published in 2018, once the regulations have been debated and approved by both Houses, and at least one full year before the academic year 2019-20.”
“We are committed to giving schools time to prepare fully for these important changes, so that they will be ready to teach high-quality relationships education, RSE and potentially PSHE, pending the findings from our engagement and consultation. We therefore anticipate implementation will commence from September 2019,” he added.