Children told me very clearly in The Big Ask, the largest-ever survey of children in England that I conducted in my first year as Children’s Commissioner, how important relationships, sex and health education (RSHE) and broader personal, social, health and economic (PSHE) education is to them. When asked, children are very clear about how highly they value being taught life skills, about finances, and about healthy relationships, in a way that is sensitive and age appropriate. Put simply, children want their education to prepare them for life.
I know first-hand from my experience as a teacher, headteacher, and trust leader how central the teaching of RSHE and wider life skills is for preparing children to be well-rounded and confident adults. These are pillars in children’s lives that deeply affect how they understand the world and interact with each other. It is vital that RSHE is taught well.
Furthermore, it is important that teaching children about healthy and unhealthy relationships, staying safe, and dealing with difficult issues is seen through a safeguarding lens. Keeping children safe, happy and well is everyone’s business. Nothing is more important than children’s welfare. In light of the issues first raised by Everyone’s Invited in 2020 and the subsequent review into sexual harassment in schools by Ofsted, nobody should be complacent about the fact that teaching RSHE well is vital to a healthy school community that is safe for all children.[i]
The duty to protect children from harmful or inappropriate content both online and offline is of paramount importance – but it is just as important that they are given the knowledge and skills they need to navigate the world around them and make sensible, informed judgements. That’s why we must put their views and voices at the heart of how RSHE is taught, while also making sure that parents and carers are given reassurances about what they are learning.
Encouraging positive and healthy personal development is one of the central roles of children’s education in England.
Personal, social, health and economic (PSHE) is an umbrella term for a number of subjects and topics, some of which are statutory parts of the curriculum and others are not. While PSHE as a whole is not statutory, it is explicitly part of Ofsted’s inspection framework under the category of personal development.[ii] Schools have some flexibility to decide how they meet the various responsibilities within PSHE education, according to local priorities and need. There is an overlap between PSHE education and a school’s responsibility for pastoral support and to support children’s personal development. Children may receive parts of their PSHE education in a timetabled class, which may include statutory and non-statutory elements, or outside of the classroom, such as in form classes or tutor groups, through assemblies, or in workshops with external facilitators.
In September 2020, on the basis of legislation in the Children and Social Work Act, the teaching of Relationships Education (RE) was made compulsory for all children in primary education and Relationships and Sex Education (RSE) for all children in secondary schools. Health Education (HE) was made compulsory for all schools except independent schools, for which Personal, Social, Health and Economic Education (PSHE) remains compulsory. The new requirements for schools to teach the relevant elements of the relationships, sex and health education (RSHE) curriculum were fully implemented in September 2021. This updated curriculum is very welcome.
The duty on schools to teach RSHE is laid out by the Department for Education in statutory guidance, along with guidance information on planning a curriculum and teaching materials. [iii][iv][v] Other elements of PSHE, such as financial education, are not statutory parts of the curriculum but some schools may choose to teach them. The House of Commons Library has compiled a summary of the area.[vi]
As part of Relationships Education, primary school children should learn about families and the people who care for them, caring friendships, respectful relationships, including those online, and being safe. In RSE, secondary school students should learn about families, respectful relationships including friendships, safety and privacy online and in the media, being safe, and intimate and sexual relationships including sexual health. HE for primary and secondary students covers mental wellbeing, internet safety and harms, physical health and fitness, healthy eating, health and prevention, basic first aid, the changing adolescent body, as well as drugs, alcohol and tobacco. All teaching should be age-appropriate.
The CCo commissioned a nationally representative survey of 3,022 children aged 9-17 in full-time education in England. The survey was carried out between March 19th-22nd 2022. All findings are weighted to ensure that data is representative of all England children aged 9-17.
The survey included questions about whether the student is currently receiving PSHE lessons, whether they’ve previously received PSHE lessons, the topics they learned about in their PSHE lessons, how helpful or unhelpful they found the lessons on each of the topics, the extent to which they agree or disagree with various statements on PSHE, and overall how good or poor their PSHE lessons were.
At primary school, the current RSHE curriculum dictates that pupils should learn about; families and people who care for the pupil – this includes lessons on the characteristics of family life and discussions around how families in school and the wider world might look different but that stable, caring relationships are at their heart. These lessons should also include how to recognise if family relationships are making them feel unhappy or unsafe, and how to seek help or advice from others if needed; caring friendships – which include how important friendships are in making us feel happy and secure and how people choose and make friends; respectful relationships, including the importance of respecting others, even when they are very different from them, make different choices, or have different preferences or beliefs; and online relationships, which is intended to teach children that the same principles apply to online relationships as face-to-face relationships, including the importance of respect for others online when we are anonymous; and being safe – this includes how to report concerns or abuse and the vocabulary and confidence needed to do so.
There is no list of expectations for sex education in primary schools as it is not compulsory. If schools choose to teach it, the DfE recommends that it should make sure boys and girls are prepared for adolescence and in science explain how a baby is conceived and born in terms of life cycles.
At secondary school, pupils should learn about families and specifically what marriage and civil partnerships are, including their legal status; respectful relationships, including the characteristics of positive and healthy friendships , trust, privacy, consent and how to manage conflict and reconciliation in different types of relationships; online and media – which includes children’s rights, responsibilities, and opportunities online, including that the same expectations of behaviour apply in all contexts and the impact of viewing harmful content; and sexual health and the positive characteristics of intimate and sexual relationships, including trust, shared interests and consent.
Almost all pupils (91%) said they have had PSHE lessons at some point. When asked about which health and staying safe PSHE topics they have learned about, students were mostly likely to report having learned about how to stay safe online (83%) and least likely to have learned about how to safe out and about (52%). Students were much less likely to report learning about finance and career topics. 32% of students had not learned about any of the finance and career topics and only 8% had learned about financial products.
Learning about drugs and alcohol, relationships, puberty and growing up as well as any finance or career topic was less common among the younger age group (Figure 3). Learning about healthy eating and how to stay safe online were the only topics more common among the youngest age group.
Percentage of students who have learned about each PSHE topic, by age group
The quality of RSHE lessons
Among the pupils who have taken PSHE lessons, three-quarters (76%) think PSHE lessons are very good or fairly good. Across all topics, the majority of pupils reported the lessons being helpful. The most helpful topics were economic wellbeing (88% said this was helpful) and budgeting (87% said this was helpful) and the least helpful topics were relationships (70% said this was helpful) and emotional wellbeing and resilience (77% said this was helpful).
Of the survey respondents who are currently taking PSHE, 63% felt they learned about things they didn’t already know, 68% reported they learn about things that mattered, 60% said they had been able to use what they learned in PSHE in everyday life and 81% said PSHE involved a lot of discussions. 44% of children talked about issues in PSHE that don’t get talked about at home.
There were some differences in perceptions of PSHE lessons by parental background, gender and age. Students whose parents were not working were both less likely to find PSHE lessons on further education helpful (76%) than those with parents working (89%).
Girls who previously took PSHE were more likely to say there were things they did not learn about that they wished they learned about (58%) compared to boys (48%).
Older children were more likely to be critical of the quality of their PSHE lessons and less likely to find them helpful. Older pupils are much more likely to say their PSHE lessons are poor (29% for those aged 16 or 17) than younger pupils (9% for those aged 9-11 and 19% for those aged 12-15). While 70% of pupils said relationship lessons were helpful, there were differences by age group, with 75% of 9- to 11-year-olds reporting that relationships classes are helpful compared to 70% of 12- to 15-year-olds and 65% of 16- to 17-year-olds.
The Children’s Commissioner’s recommendations on the teaching of RSHE – a safeguarding first approach
The underpinning legislation that mandated the teaching of RSHE to all children was based on safeguarding. The teaching of RSHE should, therefore, have safeguarding at its core, in terms of both content and teaching.
Recommendation 1: The primacy of safeguarding in teaching RSHE.
Designated safeguarding leads (DSLs) should curate the RSHE curriculum in each school, and teachers should create it. All teachers should receive better and more thorough training on how to deliver the RSHE curriculum in a way that provides children with the knowledge they have told us they want in an age-appropriate way, and should parents have a concern about the content or delivery of the curriculum, the DSL should be the first port of call.
Recommendation 2: Schools working with parents proactively.
Schools should communicate proactively with parents and carers about the content of the RSHE curriculum before teaching starts each term, including by inviting parents into school to discuss the curriculum where appropriate and responding to concerns sensitively and appropriately. The guiding principle should be transparency, and, to this end, schools should publish their RSHE teaching materials online, alongside their RSHE policy, and have a clear process for raising any concerns or questions.
Recommendation 3: Better support for DSLs.
A qualification for DSLs should be created that is akin to the National Award qualification for Special Educational Needs Co-ordinators (SenCOs). In some schools, this will be the same person, so thought should be given on how to ensure they have the capacity to lead on this important area, including across different agencies and services.
Recommendation 4: Better training and support for teachers.
Teachers should be able to specialise in RSHE as they do in other subjects given the nature and breadth of the topics covered. Poor quality teaching of these subjects is often worse than no teaching at all. Training for teachers on RSHE needs to be regular, high-quality and connected to local services. A high quality National Professional Qualification (NPQ) in RSHE is vital to effectively prepare teachers to deliver and discuss the more challenging or sensitive topics included in the proposed curriculum in an age-appropriate and safe manner.
Recommendation 5: The role of Oak National Academy.
Oak National Academy should be a platform that teachers and professionals can go to access high-quality, kitemarked materials and resources to support the teaching of RSHE. These materials will be freely available and without the copyright limitations that some resources have. Schools must be confident that these materials are age-appropriate, in line with parents’ and children’s preferences, and reflect the statutory guidance.
Recommendation 6: Teaching emerging issues.
The Department for Education should draw up a list of approved resources and guidance for schools, alongside those available on Oak National Academy. This should cover content on both the core elements of the statutory guidance, as well as any emerging or evolving issues, such as online safety. This list will aid heads and teachers to communicate as effectively and transparently as possible with parents and carers about the curriculum ahead of its teaching in school.
Recommendation 7: Making sure children’s needs are being met.
Schools should regularly consult children about issues that they need support with and see respond to them, either within the teaching of RSHE, or in another, more appropriate forum. Children have been clear that they want to learn about the multiple themes and subjects affecting their lives in modern Britain, so it’s vital that the content they are taught reflects their views.
Recommendation 8: Improving the PSHE offer to children.
Children told us how much they valued the teaching of wider life skills, including financial education. They were keen to make sure all children were taught about these issues, either through PSHE or the wider school offer. Whilst PSHE is not mandatory, the Department for Education should update the statutory RSHE guidance to include life skills, including financial education.