New regulations making relationships and sex education (RSE) compulsory in schools in England come into force today. Humanists UK, which has campaigned for statutory RSE for well over 50 years, said the landmark law is ‘a cause for celebration’, but voiced concerns about faith-based exemptions that mean there is some way to go before every child receives the full and comprehensive RSE to which they are entitled.
From today, relationships and sex education is compulsory in all state-funded secondary schools, with relationships education compulsory in primary schools. Sex education is not compulsory in primary schools, although individual schools are permitted to offer it if they wish. Health education has also been made compulsory in all state schools.
Humanists UK Education Campaigns Manager Dr Ruth Wareham commented:
‘We are delighted that RSE is finally a compulsory subject in state-funded schools in England. For more than 50 years, we have campaigned for objective, factually accurate lessons in relationships and sex to be included on the curriculum because this is what all the best evidence shows will ensure our children and young people grow up healthy, happy, and safe.
‘However, while the new law is a real cause for celebration, the Government guidance associated with it is far from perfect. Schools are permitted to delay or omit content, including about LGBT people, on faith grounds, and parents are still allowed to prevent their children from receiving any sex education until the later stages of secondary school.
‘Given the vital importance of these lessons, we urge the Government to abolish the right to withdraw from all aspects of the RSE curriculum and make age-appropriate sex education compulsory in primary schools. Irrespective of background, all children should be entitled to inclusive information on relationships and sex. The Government must now do everything it can to ensure they receive it.’
About the new law
Under the new law, parents will retain the right to withdraw their children from sex education but will have no such right with respect to relationships education. The new RSE guidance also says there may be ‘exceptional circumstances’ under which head teachers may override the wishes of parents who wish to remove their children from sex education, and secondary pupils who wish to receive it and are three terms (or less) from the age of 16 may attend these lessons without parental consent. The decision to retain the right to withdraw stands in contrast with proposed curriculum reforms in Wales, where a Bill that proposes to remove the parental right to withdraw from RSE has recently been laid before the Senedd.
The new law should mean that more pupils than ever receive objective, factually accurate RSE which is inclusive of LGBT people. However, the new guidance relating to the topic is not perfect. It says that LGBT content is expected to be delivered ‘at a timely point’ but leaves schools free to determine when this is. It also stipulates that teaching must take the religious background of pupils into account and suggests that some communities may require a ‘differentiated curriculum’. This means some pupils may be denied access to the full range of curriculum content on the basis of their parents’ faith.
What’s more, although the Government has chosen not to delay the date at which the law comes into force, as a result of the coronavirus pandemic it has granted schools a degree of flexibility with respect to how RSE is implemented during the first two terms of the academic year. For this reason, there are concerns that some religious schools will use this grace period as an excuse to deny their pupils access to the new subject for as long as possible. Last year, Humanists UK uncovered evidence that state-funded Jewish schools were pressuring parents to use the right to withdraw so the school could avoid their duty to teach RSE altogether.
For further comment or information, please contact Humanists UK Education Campaigns Manager Dr Ruth Wareham at firstname.lastname@example.org or phone 020 7324 3000 or 07725 110 860.
Read our most recent article on a proposed legal threat against compulsory RSE.
Read our article about the High Court ban on anti-RSE protesters at Anderton Park Primary School.
Read more about our work on relationships and sex education.
Humanists UK is the national charity working on behalf of non-religious people. Powered by over 85,000 members and supporters, we advance free thinking and promote humanism to create a tolerant society where rational thinking and kindness prevail. We provide ceremonies, pastoral care, education, and support services benefitting over a million people every year and our campaigns advance humanist thinking on ethical issues, human rights, and equal treatment for all.