Humanists UK encourages responses to guidance on relationships and sex education

6 November, 2018

Humanists UK has responded to the UK Department for Education’s draft statutory guidance on the teaching of Relationships and Sex Education (RSE) and Health Education in English schools.

As a result of legislation passed last year, all English primary schools will be expected to provide Relationships Education from 2020 onwards. In addition, all secondary schools will also be expected to provide Relationships and Sex Education (RSE) from this date, and all schools will be expected to provide Health Education. The draft guidance sets out what pupils ought to know by the end of each stage of their education and outlines ‘the legal duties with which schools must comply’ when teaching these subjects.

Humanists UK broadly welcomes the guidance. If applied properly and taught well by fully trained, adequately resourced teachers, much of it promises to provide pupils with the knowledge and skills necessary to have healthy, happy, and safe relationships from childhood onwards into their adult lives.  However the guidance is not perfect. There are areas in which it lacks clarity and gives faith schools too much leeway to teach the subject inadequately.

Humanists UK Education Campaigns Manager Ruth Wareham commented: ‘The Government’s draft guidance marks an important step towards ensuring that, once compulsory RSE is introduced, all children and young people are given the opportunity to develop the knowledge, skills and dispositions necessary to make wise decisions and have healthy, fulfilling relationships throughout their lives.

‘But, while this move is to be applauded, in its current form the guidance risks allowing schools to sidestep their duties. For example, schools wishing to avoid teaching about issues like abortion or discussing matters like sexual orientation can justify the decision on the grounds that such teaching is not “age-appropriate” or sufficiently in-line with the religious perspective of the school. For this reason, the guidance must be amended to ensure that it fully applies to all children and young people in all schools.’

Humanists UK is encouraging all of its members and supporters, particularly parents, carers, and school staff, to respond to the consultation before 11.59pm on 7 November 2018. It is not necessary to answer every question. The most important consultation questions are 10-15 (on the overall adequacy of the content of the guidance at primary and secondary level), 20-21 (on engaging with parents and the wider community) and 24 (where you are asked to provide any additional thoughts on the guidance).

Areas for improvement put forward by Humanists UK include:

  • Religious perspectives – in its current form, the guidance on schools with a religious character is too permissive. Religious schools are permitted to teach RSE from a ‘distinctive faith perspective’, which risks allowing teaching that discriminates against pupils (particularly LGBT pupils). The guidance should make clear that religious perspectives must only be introduced in a non-judgemental way that fully respects the rights and autonomy of all individuals.
  • A stronger emphasis on timeliness and preparedness – Children and young people must be given the opportunity to learn about concepts, issues or changes before they encounter them in their lives. If too much weight is placed on age appropriateness and not enough on timeliness and preparedness, schools might feel encouraged to err on the side of withholding important information putting children at risk.
  • Greater clarity on teaching about body parts – the guidance should clearly stipulate that Relationships Education is the proper place to learn about and name body parts (including genitalia) whether or not this is duplicated in science lessons. This is important for safeguarding reasons. The current wording suggests that independent schools (including academies) could avoid this duty on the grounds they are not legally required to follow the National Curriculum in Science.
  • Same-sex relationships – teaching about same-sex relationships can and should be integrated throughout primary and secondary education – not simply at secondary level and not exclusively about sex. Issues of sexual orientation and gender identity should be embedded throughout the curriculum and across the different phases of education.
  • Right of withdrawal – schools should have a duty to promote the benefits of RSE and under no circumstances encourage parents to withdraw. Headteachers should be given the additional freedom to decide if older pupils are Gillick competent and, therefore, sufficiently mature to opt themselves in to RSE even when this goes against their parents’ wishes.
  • Sex-positive RSE – the secondary guidance should be amended to be more ‘sex-positive’ so that pupils are prepared, once they are sufficiently mature to have sexual relationships, not only to avoid risk in them, but to enjoy and find pleasure in them too.
  • Mental health education – there is notable content missing from the guidance on mental health education (particularly with regard to stress), and we would welcome more thorough guidance on safe and responsible teaching about mental health.
  • Funding and timetabling – with squeezed curriculum time, an emphasis on ‘core’ subjects, and tight budgets, statutory relationships, sex, and health education must be accompanied by Government funding and resources.


For further comment or information, please contact Humanists UK Education Campaigns Manager Ruth Wareham or 020 7324 3060.

Read the Government’s draft guidance and consultation document:

Read Humanists UK’s response:

Read more about our work on relationships and sex education:

At Humanists UK, we advance free thinking and promote humanism to create a tolerant society where rational thinking and kindness prevail. Our work brings non-religious people together to develop their own views, helping people be happier and more fulfilled in the one life we have. Through our ceremonies, education services, and community and campaigning work, we strive to create a fair and equal society for all.