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Sex education guidance changes: What schools need to know

The government has published its long-awaited draft guidance update on relationships, sex and health education, setting age limits on “sensitive” topics and ordering schools not to teach about gender identity.

The consultation, details of which were leaked to national newspapers several days ago, has already proved hugely controversial, with ministers accused of stirring up “culture war” issues in the run-up to the election.

Schools have until July 11 to respond to the consultation. If approved, the statutory guidance would replace the current guidance first issued in 2019.

The government said it aimed to publish a response in Autumn, but there no details about when the changes would be implemented.

Here is your trusty Schools Week round-up of what the DfE is proposing…

1. Age limits on ‘sensitive’ topics

The DfE said it was introducing age limits on certain topics “to ensure that, as content is presented to prepare young people to stay safe and keep others safe, children are not introduced too early to concepts that they may not have the maturity to grasp, or which may be distressing”.

Here’s the full list…

Not before year 3

  • The risks relating to online gaming, video game monetisation, scams, fraud and other financial harms, and that gaming can become addictive
  • Why social media, some apps, computer games and online gaming, including gambling sites, are age restricted

Not before year 4

  • Growth, change and the changing adolescent body. This topic should include the human lifecycle
  • Puberty should be mentioned as a stage in this process, including the key facts about the menstrual cycle, including physical and emotional changes

Not before year 5

  • Sex education topics taught in primary, which should be in line with what pupils learn about conception and birth as part of the national curriculum for science

Not before year 7

  • What constitutes harmful sexual behaviour, including sexual harassment and the concepts and laws relating to it, including revenge porn, upskirting and taking intimate sexual photos without consent, public sexual harassment, and unsolicited sexual language / attention / touching
  • The concepts and laws relating to sexual exploitation and abuse, grooming, stalking, and forced marriage
  • Circulating images and information and how to safely report to trusted adults the non-consensual creation or distribution of an intimate image
  • The risks of inappropriate online content, including pornographic content, without discussing the details of sexual acts

Not before year 9

  • Discussing the details of sexually explicit materials, in the context of learning about the risks of inappropriate online content, including pornographic content
  • Discussing the explicit details of violent abuse, including the detail of topics such as rape, sexual assault, female genital mutilation (FGM), virginity testing and hymenoplasty
  • Discussing the explicit details of violent abuse when discussing the concepts and laws relating to domestic abuse including coercive control, emotional, sexual, economic or physical abuse, and violent or threatening behaviour
  • Explicit discussion of the details of sexual acts, in the context of teaching about intimate and sexual relationships, including in relation to contraception and STIs

2. Primary sex ed should draw on science

The consultation states that where primary schools teach sex education, its “purpose is not to prepare pupils for sexual activity in later life, but to focus on giving pupils the information they need to understand human reproduction and for their own safety”.

The guidance “continues to recommend that primary schools have a sex education programme, but restricts this to no earlier than years 5 or 6”.

It is also “clear that if a primary school teaches sex education, it should draw on the knowledge pupils are developing about the human life cycle, as set out in the national curriculum for science”.

3. Schools have some ‘flexibility’

Despite the large number of age restrictions, the DfE said it had still allowed schools a “degree of flexibility”.

This will allow schools to “respond promptly to issues which pose an imminent safeguarding risk to their pupils”.

“This means that in certain circumstances, schools may decide to teach age-limited topics earlier, provided it is necessary to do so in order to safeguard pupils and provided that teaching is limited to the essential facts, without going into unnecessary details.”

For example, if a primary school finds out pupils are sharing porn, it would be allowed to “address this appropriately with younger pupils without going into details of the sexual acts viewed”.

4. ‘Do not teach about gender identity’

The guidance states that pupils should be “taught the law” about gender re-assignment, and “be clear” that individuals must be 18 “before they can legally reassign their gender”.

Schools “should not teach about the broader concept of gender identity”, which the DfE said was “a highly contested and complex subject”.

The guidance described gender identity as “a sense a person may have of their own gender, whether male, female or a number of other categories”.

“This may or may not be the same as their biological sex. Many people do not consider that they or others have a separate gender identity.”

5. ‘Teach the facts about biological sex’

If asked about the topic of gender identity, schools should “teach the facts about biological sex and not use any materials that present contested views as fact, including the view that gender is a spectrum”.

Material suggesting that someone’s gender is determined by their interests or clothing choices “should not be used as it risks leading pupils who do not comply with sex stereotypes to question their gender when they might not have done so otherwise”.

Where schools decide to use external resources, “they should avoid materials that use cartoons or diagrams that oversimplify this complex concept or that could be interpreted as being aimed at younger children”.

Schools should also “consult parents on the content of external resources on this topic in advance and make all materials available to them on request”.

6. Share materials with parents

The consultation states that the draft guidance is “clear” there is a “strong public interest in parents being able to see all materials used to teach RSHE, if they would like to”.

Schools “should not agree to contractual restrictions which prevent this”, and existing clauses are “void”, given the “public interest” in parents being able to see material.

But schools must comply with copyright law when sharing materials. It is “best practice to share materials via a ‘parent portal’ or, if this is not possible, through a presentation”.

7. New content on sexual harassment…

The government has added a new section to the guidance on “addressing prejudice, harassment and sexual violence and harmful sexual behaviours”.

This is in light of evidence of the “prevalence of sexual harassment in some schools”.

New content addresses “harmful behaviours that pupils may be exposed to, including online, which may normalise harmful or violent sexual behaviours – for example, by giving pupils the opportunity to identify positive male role models”.

There is also new content about sexual harassment and sexual violence, including about fixated and obsessive behaviours, such as stalking.

8. …and on suicide prevention

The government has also added a section on suicide prevention, which explains that “in teaching about mental health and wellbeing within the RSHE curriculum, schools may wish to talk to young people about the prevention of suicide, including how to identify warning signs and where and how to seek help”.

“The guidance says that if addressing suicide directly, teaching should focus on equipping pupils to recognise when they, or someone they know, needs support and where they can seek help if they have concerns.”

Given the sensitivity and complexity of content on suicide prevention, “direct references to suicide should not be made before year 8”.

9. A ‘number of additional’ topics

The DfE has also added a number of “additional” topics that schools will have to teach about in the RSHE curriculum. These include..,

  • Loneliness
  • New content on gambling
  • Prevalence of ‘deepfakes’
  • Antimicrobial resistance
  • Healthy behaviours during pregnancy
  • Illegal online behaviours including drug and knife supply
  • Personal safety, including road, railway and water safety
  • Vaping,
  • Menstrual and gynaecological health including endometriosis, polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), heavy menstrual bleeding
  • Parenting and early years brain development
  • Virginity testing and hymenoplasty
  • Bereavement

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