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Putting safeguarding at the heart of relationships and sex education

Last updated: 02 Apr 2019 Topics: Blog

By Kay Joel and Craig Keady, NSPCC's Senior Consultants for Education 

Teaching children and young people about healthy relationships in an all-inclusive way is such an important part of keeping children safe. But it can also be a sensitive topic - indeed the content of lessons about sex and relationships has recently come under the media spotlight with stories in the press about clashes between faith-based organisations and schools. Balancing safeguarding responsibilities, the needs of children and the views of parents can sometimes feel challenging.

Relationships and sex education (RSE) is already recognised as being a key part of the school curriculum across the UK. Many of the schools we work with are teaching children about relationships and sexuality as part of the curriculum for each year group. Others currently cover relationships in tutor time or assemblies as part of a whole school approach.

From September 2020 it will be compulsory to teach relationships education in primary schools in England, and relationships and sex education in secondary schools. So it's essential that all teachers - regardless of their previous experience - are comfortable and confident in delivering these lessons. And crucially, that they're prepared to handle any safeguarding issues that may arise.

The Department for Education (DfE) published its guidance last week on how it expects schools in England to teach relationships, sex and health education. Read our CASPAR briefing summarising the key points.

The changing nature of RSE

Topics such as healthy and unhealthy relationships, sexting and online safety can be challenging for both teachers and pupils alike - and indeed, for many teachers it will be the first time they have had to teach in this area.

In 2017/18 Childline held nearly 16,000 counselling sessions about sex, relationships, puberty and sexual health. Children and young people talked about things like arguing with their partners, asking for advice about whether they should end a relationship - or how to come to terms with it, when a relationship had ended.

Young people have much more access to graphic materials such as pornography than ever before. And the peer pressure to do what they think everyone else is doing - or are saying they're doing - can be immense. Young people are often worried about being excluded by their peers, or seen as different. They worry about their reputation and how their actions can follow them through their life.

And the online world adds another layer of complexity. For young people, it's just a normal part of life and relationships, they don't see it as anything different. But for teaching staff who grew up without these technologies it can sometimes be difficult to keep track of the ever-changing ways that children are interacting online. 

Dealing with challenging topics and sensitive issues

We know that, sadly, some young people will have experienced or witnessed relationship or other forms of abuse, or know someone who has. So it's essential that teachers and support staff delivering relationships and sex education are aware of any potential issues and know how to deal with any concerns that do arise. Teaching staff should speak to the nominated child protection lead or subject lead ahead of the lessons, and schools should ensure that all staff are aware of their safeguarding policies and procedures.

Giving teachers the resources they need

The NSPCC has a range of lesson plans and teaching resources that schools can use to support their own curriculum. From Talk PANTS (the Underwear Rule), to lesson plans on healthy and unhealthy relationships for 10-16 year olds, and It's Not OK - our new resources on positive relationships for children aged 11+. Through a range of film clips and other activities, these resources help give teachers the confidence they need when teaching children about sex and relationships and can help form an important part of the curriculum.

> Download our teaching resources

Author biographies

Kay Joel and Craig Keady are Senior Consultants for Education at NSPCC. Both have worked extensively in the education sector and have experience in varied roles including safeguarding, leadership and management, special educational needs and inclusion in schools, multi-academy trusts and local authorities. They regularly carry out safeguarding audits in schools. Craig and Kay have worked with colleagues across NSPCC to develop resources for schools and regularly advise on NSPCC’s school facing activities.