Life lessons: PSHE and SRE in schools - Education Contents

6  The status of PSHE and SRE

The current position

126. Primary schools are not required to provide SRE beyond that covered in the National Curriculum for science, and it is for governing bodies and headteachers to decide whether SRE should be included in the school's curriculum. Nevertheless, the DfE states that many primary schools choose to offer SRE in later years,[250]and recommends in the 2000 guidance that "all primary schools should have a sex and relationship education programme tailored to the age and the physical and emotional maturity of the children".[251] Maintained secondary schools are required to cover sexually transmitted diseases as part of the National Curriculum for science at key stage 4.[252] Academies are not required to provide SRE, but when any school does, it must have "regard" to the Secretary of State's 2000 guidance.[253]

127. It was apparent from the submissions we received from Ofsted and the Department for Education that the term 'sex and relationships education' is used in different ways, particularly in reference to the current status of the subject in the curriculum. The DfE told us that "sex and relationships education (SRE) is statutory in maintained secondary schools", on the basis that some parts are covered in the science curriculum,[254] but Ofsted told us:

    It is compulsory for pupils in secondary schools to have sex education (not SRE) that includes HIV/AIDS and [Sexually Transmitted Infections] and sex education (not SRE) is statutory in science at key stages 1­3.[255]

128. Lucy Emmerson, the Coordinator for the Sex Education Forum, said that schools were:

    […] confused about what they do and do not have to do, and take different approaches to how they communicate with parents about SRE and the right of withdrawal. This comes back to the very confusing collection of legislation we have relating to SRE at the moment, which seems almost contradictory, with guidance that says one thing, legislation relating to National Curriculum science not to other bits of PSHE, particular bits of legislation about HIV and STIs, and bits of legislation about parents. What we need is clean and clear legislation that says, "All schools do this. All schools need to converse with parents about this and support parents in their role at home". That would guarantee things for every child.[256]

129. In contrast, the Minister told us that "there should be no confusion about what constitutes SRE because it is broadly set out in the statutory guidance".[257] He said that he did not sense confusion when he visited schools.[258] Nevertheless, scope for confusion is evident in the Minister's own statement to us on this:

    All the issues about relationship education are in the [2000] statutory guidance. That is statutory; it is not optional. Those schools that want to, and that do, teach SRE have to have regard to the statutory guidance.[259]

There is an apparent contradiction here between schools 'wanting to' teach something that is 'not optional'. The implication is that those schools that do not want to teach SRE do not have to follow the statutory guidance. This leaves plenty of room for confusion.

The parental right to withdraw their children from elements of SRE

130. Section 405 of the Education Act 1996 gives parents a right to withdraw their child from SRE, other than the parts that are covered by the National Curriculum for science.[260] This aligns with Article 2 of Protocol 1 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which says that "in the exercise of any functions which it assumes in relation to education and to teaching, the State shall respect the right of parents to ensure such education and teaching is in conformity with their own religious and philosophical convictions".[261] No national data is collected on the number of children withdrawn, but the right appears to be relatively rarely exercised; the Minister told us that only "a tiny minority" of parents withdraw their children from SRE,[262] and we heard similar accounts during our Twitter chat and our visit to Bristol.

131. Yusuf Patel, the founder of SREIslamic, described the right of withdrawal as "an opportunity for parents to engage with the school, and for schools to listen to parents". He told us that "no parent exercises the right to withdraw as a first choice; it is a last resort. Often, when parents decide to withdraw, it is because they have engaged with the school but they do not believe that it has listened to them".[263] He was concerned that making SRE statutory would mean that the right of withdrawal would be removed,[264] noting SREIslamic's fears that under a compulsory SRE system "many Muslim parents will opt out of the state system, they will decide to home school or send their children to Muslim schools, it would be a shame if this change to the structure of SRE drove them out of the state system".[265]

132. The NASUWT's submission to our inquiry tied the question of whether PSHE and SRE should be statutory to whether the parental right to withdraw their child was retained, arguing that "continuation of this legal entitlement would […] render statutory provision of SRE within PSHE meaningless", and that the right should be withdrawn if SRE were to become statutory.[266]

133. The Minister told us that he did not see a contradiction between introducing statutory status for PSHE and maintaining the parental right to withdraw their children.[267] Indeed, this reflects the recommendation made by Sir Alisdair Macdonald in 2009.[268] Joe Hayman described the parental right to withdraw their children from SRE as "very challenging" for the sector, but conceded that retaining this right would be "a price worth paying" if statutory status could "enable the 40% of children who are currently not getting high-quality PSHE to get it".[269]

Support for statutory status

134. Support for PSHE, and SRE within it, becoming a statutory subject in schools is high, including amongst parents, teachers, some faith groups,[270] health professionals,[271] and local authorities, alongside the Office of the Children's Commissioner,[272] the National Governors' Association[273] and others. The PSHE Association said that "statutory status is not a panacea but it is hard to see how the system change we need will be achieved without it […] it will be very difficult to realise the full potential of PSHE education while we are hamstrung by non-statutory status".[274]

135. There is broad support from teachers for PSHE and SRE to become statutory. The National Union of Teachers told us that 81% of its members believe that PSHE should be a statutory part of the National Curriculum. Similar support for statutory PSHE was given by the National Association of Headteachers[275] and the Association of Teachers and Lecturers.[276] Together with Voice, these four teaching unions published a letter in The Times supporting the Sex Education Forum's "It's my right" campaign.[277] The Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) was the only teaching union explicitly not in favour of statutory status for SRE, on the basis that a statutory approach "tends to elicit compliance rather than creativity".[278] In oral evidence it became apparent that this position is more nuanced: ASCL's nominated witness clarified that PSHE and SRE "should not be made statutory until we know that we are going to invest in high quality training and co-ordination in schools […] It is not that [ASCL] does not want to do it [but] There is absolutely no point in introducing something statutory if we know that we are going to have poor quality delivery […] It is a co-ordination issue; it is a structural issue rather than a resistance to statutory regulation".[279]


136. Simon Blake told us that "making a statutory provision means that you provide three things: one is the initial teacher training, so schools can engage teachers. The second is that you have got experts at schools who can then negotiate curriculum time, curriculum features and what needs to happen within the framework, and [third] you also have the inspections".[280] Similarly, the Health Education Service (previously part of Birmingham Local Authority), told us that:

    Whilst statutory status is no guarantee that the PSHE delivered in schools will be high quality and effective, it is the message that the status sends to schools in terms of the parity of PSHE with all other curriculum areas in terms of curriculum time, staff training and CPD, resourcing, and assessment and reporting.[281]

137. Lucy Emmerson provided some evidence of the way in which schools might respond to the introduction of statutory status:

    One of the schools that I have spoken to recently said that back in 2008-09, when we all believed PSHE was going to become statutory, their school changed. They started investing more in teacher training themselves. They started to prepare for that eventuality of statutory SRE and PSHE. We can see that the promise of changing legislation will have a knock on effect.[282]

Balancing prescription with local flexibility

138. The DfE told us that:[283]

    We believe that all schools should teach PSHE […] We do not, however, want to prescribe exactly which issues schools should have to cover […] Prescribing a long list of specific issues to be covered could be unproductive, leading to a 'tick-box' approach that does not properly address the issues most relevant to pupils in a given school.

139. Those who supported making PSHE statutory argued that there was still a need for local determination of the detail of the curriculum. Joe Hayman told us that it was "really important that there is not a one-size-fits-all PSHE curriculum. It has to be negotiated with individual headteachers".[284] Dr Graham Ritchie argued that "by making PSHE statutory, you are not necessarily prescribing a range of topics that need to be taught within those lessons […] They should be decided based on a conversation with children and young people themselves and, indeed, their parents".[285] Similarly, Simon Blake said that "making a statutory provision does not mean that you tell schools how to do every single thing […] I would agree that we do not want a programme of study that says exactly how everything is done everywhere".[286] We heard similar sentiments from Janet Palmer.[287]

140. Dr Ann Hoskins argued that "PSHE should be informed by what the data tell us the problems are, both at a national level and within local areas as well and, indeed, within the school. […] you need to respond to what the issues are that young people are bringing up".[288] She argued that there were some national issues that all children should learn about, alongside locally-determined issues, and that good teacher training would help ensure that the topics taught were not simply those that were easiest to deliver.[289]

Arguments against the effectiveness of statutory status

141. Ealing Council's Sex and Relationship Task Group noted that Religious Education suffered from some of the same problems as SRE education in terms of the quality of teaching, and argued that statutory status alone may guarantee provision, but not quality.[290] Similarly, the Catholic Education Service said that "It is easy to find evidence to show how making something statutory has little impact on whether it is done or how well it is done. We look to the examples of Religious Education and collective worship which are both statutory, but which in many schools are either not done or not done well".[291] The Catholic Education Service summarised arguments made by several others when it told us that statutory status may: decrease parental involvement; limit the extent to which schools ensure that content is appropriate to their community and the individual children; lead to a tick-box approach to the subject "which focuses on whether it is done or not done rather than on the quality of that provision"; and risk becoming more prescriptive over time as subsequent governments add to the list of topics.[292]

Comparisons with the introduction of citizenship

142. It is salutary to consider the experience with other subjects which have recently been made statutory. Citizenship became a compulsory foundation subject in the National Curriculum in key stages 3 and 4 in 2002, with the change having been announced as part of the review of the curriculum in 1999.[293] This provided a significant lead-in time for schools to prepare for the change in status. Ofsted reported in July 2002 that there was "considerable variation in schools' responses to the new requirements", but that over half of schools surveyed had made "good use" of the lead-in time.[294] Most of the teachers with responsibility for citizenship had received some training, provided either by the LEA or a commercial trainer, and all had audited their existing provision.[295] The way in which citizenship was introduced suggests that while time is needed for schools to prepare, it is not in itself a guarantee of adequate preparation.


143. Statutory status for PSHE would not in itself guarantee an improvement in the quality of teaching, but we accept that a 'system change' is needed to raise the status of the subject—particularly in terms of dedicated curriculum time and the supply of suitably trained teachers.

144. Inevitably the amount of time that schools have is finite, and we appreciate that additional time burdens on schools will be unwelcome. We are also conscious of the difficulty of recommending that PSHE becomes a statutory requirement without a clear proposal for the extent of the prescription, or an idea of how this would affect school timetables. We agree with the Government that schools must retain local flexibility over their PSHE curriculum, and concur with several witnesses that the level of central prescription must be minimal. We also recognise fears of increasing levels of prescription in the PSHE curriculum over time as policy makers and Ministers add to the list of topics to be covered. It is important that this is resisted.

145. The DfE must clarify the current status of SRE, including in different kinds of schools, and communicate this message clearly to schools.

146. We note that parents would be concerned if their existing right to withdraw their children from SRE was removed, and that this may serve to discourage schools from engaging with parents on this subject. The matter can be separated from the question of whether PSHE and SRE should be statutory in schools. We conclude that the parental right to withdraw their children from elements of SRE should be retained.

147. We accept the argument that statutory status is needed for PSHE, with relationships and sex education as a core part of it. In particular this will contribute to ensuring that appropriate curriculum time is devoted to the subject, to stimulating the demand for trained teachers, and to meeting safeguarding requirements.

148. We recommend that the DfE develop a workplan for introducing age-appropriate PSHE and RSE as statutory subjects in primary and secondary schools, setting out its strategy for improving the supply of teachers able to deliver this subject and a timetable for achieving this. The statutory requirement should have a minimal prescription in content, and should be constructed with the aim of ensuring that curriculum time is devoted to the subject. Alongside this, statutory guidance should be developed to enhance schools' duty to work with parents in this area and secure and effective home-school partnership.

250   Department for Education (SRE 364) para 1 Back

251   Department for Education and Employment, Sex and Relationship Education Guidance (July 2000), DfEE 0116/2000, para 1.12 Back

252   Department for Education, Science programmes of study: key stage 4 (December 2014) Back

253   HL Deb 8 July 2013 c6 Back

254   Department for Education (SRE 364) para 12 Back

255   Ofsted (SRE 443) para 3 Back

256   Q91 Back

257   Q430 Back

258   Q433 Back

259   Q434 Back

260   Education Act 1996, section 405 Back

261   Council of Europe, European Convention on Human Rights (as amended by Protocols Nos. 11 and 14, supplemented by Protocols Nos. 1, 4, 6, 7, 12 and 13) (June 2010) p 32 Back

262   Q418 Back

263   Q268 Back

264   Q267 Back

265   SREIslamic (SRE 425) para 11 Back

266   NASUWT (SRE 406) para 10 Back

267   Q444 Back

268   Department for Children, Schools and Families, Independent Review of the proposal to make Personal, Social, Health and Economic education statutory (April 2009) Back

269   Q155 Back

270   National Society of the Church of England (SRE 419) Back

271   Royal College of Nursing (SRE 183) Back

272   Office of the Children's Commissioner (SRE 442) Back

273   National Governors' Association (SRE 325) Back

274   PSHE Association (SRE 466) para 19 Back

275   National Association of Headteachers (SRE 444) Back

276   Association of Teachers and Lecturers (SRE 250) Back

277   The Times, "Letters to the Editor: Teaching Sex" (29 October 2014), accessed 26 January 2015 Back

278   Association of School and College Leaders (SRE 188) para 2 Back

279   Q94 Back

280   Q11 Back

281   Health Education Service (SRE 29) para 2.1 Back

282   Q94 Back

283   Department for Education (SRE 364) para 4 Back

284   Q169 Back

285   Q185 [Dr Ritchie] Back

286   Q11 Back

287   Q104 Back

288   Q199 Back

289   Q203-204 Back

290   Ealing Council Sex and Relationship Task Group (SRE 292) Back

291   Catholic Education Service (SRE 478) Back

292   Catholic Education Service (SRE 478) Back

293   Citizenship Education in Schools, Standard Note SN/SP/2053, House of Commons Library Back

294   Ofsted, Citizenship: survey report: preparation for the introduction of citizenship in secondary schools 2001-02 (July 2002) Back

295   Ofsted, Citizenship: survey report: preparation for the introduction of citizenship in secondary schools 2001-02 (July 2002) Back

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Prepared 17 February 2015