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May 21 BigDug
May 21 BigDug

Sex education in primary schools – Safeguarding considerations from the new RSE guidelines

June 14, 2021, 11:20 GMT+1
Read in 8 minutes
  • The new guidance on teaching relationships and sex education will have a knock-on impact on safeguarding, says Ceri Stokes...
Sex education in primary schools – Safeguarding considerations from the new RSE guidelines

September 2020 saw the introduction to the new statutory guidance for relationship and sex education (RSE).

This new document outlines what schools need to include in their curriculum when it comes to teaching these subjects, and by the very nature of the content will have implications when it comes to safeguarding.

The guidance has been welcomed by many as schools look to support students who are growing up in an increasingly developing world, on and offline.

While this world offers many exciting opportunities, we have seen the risk and, sometimes, the pitfalls that many are unaware of.

Pupils need to know how to be safe and healthy. Of course, a topic like RSE has its controversies and therefore must be taught sensitively and inclusively, with respect to the backgrounds and beliefs of pupils and parents while always with the aim of providing pupils with the knowledge they need. In primary schools, it’s focused on healthy, respectful relationships.

Covering topics like these are bound to highlight some safeguarding concerns or disclosures. This is why it is vital for schools to spend time considering how to implement the changes.

The legal implications

Before writing the new scheme of work, schools need to think carefully about what they are going to teach and when.

Parents have the right to withdraw students from the ‘sex’ element of the new curriculum, but this is so interwoven into the topics that it could be just ten minutes here and there that a student does not attend.

Understanding the law and what we must cover is therefore key and if schools or pupils depart from those parts of the guidance they will need to have good reasons for doing so. This discussion as a whole school or with a parent should involve the designated safeguarding lead (DSL), someone who is aware of wider contexts.

Many schools are choosing to deliver RSE as part of their PSHE lessons, other schools are looking at drop down days or asking outsiders to help deliver. Whichever way schools choose to meet the legal requirements, it is key that the lead teacher works closely with the DSL, the pastoral team and colleagues in related curriculum areas to ensure RSE complement, and do not duplicate, content covered in national curriculum subjects such as science and PE.

The guidance for those teaching the subject refers to a multitude of other documents, many which are safeguarding. There is the obvious, Keeping Children Safe in Education (KCSiE), Equality Act 2010, Mental Health and Behaviour in Schools and Sexual violence and sexual harassment between children in schools but there are another 15 documents, all suggested as extra reading.

A lead teacher may feel overwhelmed with the material that a DSL will already be up to date with, so communication is key.

Adopting a wholeschool approach

Part of the SRE guidance looks at equal opportunities, and a whole school approach will be needed. There is no point educating pupils if you as a school are not following the Equality Act 2010.

Therefore, schools must not unlawfully discriminate against pupils for any reason. Building a culture that does not accept everyday sexism, misogyny, homophobia and gender stereotypes, that educates throughout the day not just by words but by the actions of others.

Staff should be aware of the difference between bullying and peer-on-peer abuse and help the school create the culture that neither will be tolerated and are not an inevitable part of growing up. All of this is part of the DSL role and stated in the KCSiE.


All of this will take training, and the great thing about making a subject like RSE compulsory is that every teacher needs to be aware of the topics that are covered. Schools will need to think about who does this training.

Could the DSL and the lead teacher work together and share the responsibility? The DSL may also have some links with external agencies who could help. Another positive that I am hoping will come out of this, is the links to great resources, which hopefully will have been thoroughly vetted. Previously there have been some questionable videos and tasks which have meant that some students were given incorrect and harmful information and have made some parents question the subject.

Schools know their pupils, especially teaching these subjects to those with SEND. You know your student body, including the gender and age range of pupils, and may consider whether it is appropriate or necessary to put in place additional support for pupils with vulnerable characteristics, something we have done in the past. For example, when dealing with loss and grief, a school with good pastoral or safeguarding support will be aware of those students who may find this topic challenging.

This does not mean they are excluded, but careful consideration and communication is needed.

An increase in referrals

Covering the topics in these subjects may be upsetting for students, and it may also trigger a disclosure. Staff and pupils will need to know how to get help, who they should speak to and, if this does not work, who they should go to next. It is vital that students feel safe and are able to report a concern.

This could be immediately or after some thought or much later. Students may become a victim a year or so after the lesson and having a place they can go to reread the advice or find the link to the specific support is key. Posters, notice boards or online teaching resources are examples I have seen at some proactive schools.

Most PSHE lessons have some time when the pupils are allowed to openly discuss their opinions and thoughts and this could potentially lead to students discussing sensitive issues. PSHE rules of sharing and supporting are useful for students of every age. It states very clearly in KCSiE that all staff should know what to do if a pupil discloses a safeguarding concern, however, training may be needed on how to deal with filtering out the conversation to be able to spot the signs of a disclosure especially within a topical lesson.

I feel like I have only touched the tip of the iceberg with the safeguarding implications of compulsory RSE. Many schools have already been doing great work and there will be very little change, but the fact that schools are now judged and inspected on this topic, makes the roles of the lead teacher and the DSL vital for success.

Preparation, practice and training

With the new legislation coming in soon, it is very much a case of being prepared.

  • To really crack the whole school delivery, staff need to feel fully engaged in the new approach and to feel prepared.
  • Make sure all your staff have received the training they need, and more importantly had time to digest, discuss and practice the new approaches with peers to build their confidence.
  • It is a good time for senior leaders or DSL’s to review existing school policies on the website around these topics to make sure they align.
  • It is also worth taking the opportunity to vet the resources used to deliver these lessons, checking they are up to date and aligned with the new legislation.
  • All the above will help unify the messaging and delivery throughout the whole school.

Ceri Stokes is assistant head and designated safeguarding lead at Kimbolton School and contributes to Tes. For more tips and info on PHSE please visit