Sex and Relationship Education in Schools (England)

Published Friday, January 8, 2016

This House of Commons Library briefing provides an overview of the legislation and guidance currently in place regarding sex and relationship education (SRE) in schools, and also outlines related reviews and proposals in Parliament.

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What must be taught and the parental right to withdraw their children

Local authority maintained schools in England are obliged to teach sex and relationships education (SRE) from age 11 upwards, and must have regard to the Government’s SRE guidance.  Academies and free schools, the majority in secondary education in England, do not have to follow the National Curriculum and so are not under this obligation.  If they do decide to teach SRE, they also must have regard to the guidance.

Parents are free to withdraw their children from SRE if they wish to do so.  The only exceptions to this are the biological aspects of human growth and reproduction that are essential elements of National Curriculum Science.

Reviews and proposals for change

The position of SRE on the curriculum was considered within the then Government’s 2011 internal review of personal, social, health and economic education (PSHE).  It was decided that PSHE would remain a non-statutory subject, and the position of SRE remained unchanged.

During the 2010 Parliament concerns were frequently raised about the content, status and quality of SRE.  In 2013, an Ofsted report found that SRE “required improvement in over a third of schools,” with primary pupils ill-prepared for the physical and emotional changes of puberty, and secondary education placing too much emphasis on “the mechanics” of reproduction.

Private Member’s Bills have been tabled during both the 2010 and 2015 Parliaments to introduce compulsory SRE (sometimes within proposed statutory PSHE), and Labour and Green Party MPs tabled amendments with this aim during the passage of the Children and Families Act 2014.  The previous Labour Government had proposed legislation prior to the 2010 General Election to ensure that all children receive at least one year of sex and relationship education, but the relevant measures did not pass.  The shadow Education Secretary, Lucy Powell, has also written in support of statutory SRE.

There were also calls from across parties for the Government’s SRE guidance, which has been in place since 2000, to be updated to better equip teachers in the world transformed by the internet.  The then Government argued that supplementary advice for schools published by the PSHE Association, the Sex Education Forum and Brook, “Sex and relationships education (SRE) for the 21st century”, performed this function.

Education Committee report

In February 2015 the Commons Education Select Committee recommended that age-appropriate SRE should become a statutory subject in primary and secondary schools, albeit with parents retaining their right to withdraw children.  The Government response published in July 2015 did not take forward this recommendation, although it stated that it would be giving further consideration to the Committee’s arguments in 2015.

In January 2016, the Chairs of four Commons select committees – education, health, home affairs and business, innovation and skills – wrote to the Education Secretary in support of statutory PSHE and SRE. 

Teaching about same-sex marriage

During and following the passage of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013 there was considerable debate about the implications of the legislation for teachers whose religious beliefs led them to oppose the measure.  The then Equalities Minister stated that teachers would be able to describe their belief that marriage is between a man and a woman, while acknowledging that same-sex marriage will be available within the law.  Reforms for schools to ‘actively promote’ British values, which the Government stated meant that schools should encourage pupils to respect other people, even if they do not agree with them, prompted fresh concerns from religious organisations that teachers could be required to promote same-sex marriage to which they were opposed.

This briefing applies to England only.

Commons Briefing papers SN06103

Author: Robert Long

Topic: Schools

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