Each nation of the UK has curriculum guidance which sets out how schools should educate children and young people about healthy relationships.
In England, the Department for Education (DfE) has published statutory guidance about how relationships education, relationships and sex education (RSE) and health education should be implemented (DfE, 2021a).
The DfE has also published guidance on planning your relationships, sex and health curriculum (DfE, 2020) and training materials on teaching about relationships, sex and health (DfE, 2021b). The training materials include modules for primary and secondary school teachers on topics such as caring friendships, online relationships, sexual relationships and consent. They also include a module on teaching relationships, sex and health education (RSHE) to pupils with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND).
The DfE has also published guides that primary and secondary schools can use to explain RSE to parents (DfE, 2019).
The House of Commons Library provides answers to frequently asked questions about RSE in schools in England (House of Commons Library, 2019).
In Northern Ireland, relationships and sexuality education is taught as part of personal development and mutual understanding (PDMU) in primary schools, part of the personal development and home economics statements of requirement for key stage 3 and as a statutory component of the personal development strand of learning for life and work (LLW) at key stage 4. The Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment (CCEA) provides guidance on what should be included at each level (CCEA, 2021b).
The CCEA also provides guidance and resources on relationships and sexuality education for primary and post-primary children (CCEA, 2021a).
In Scotland, relationships, sexual health, and parenthood (RSHP) education is part of health and wellbeing; one of eight curriculum areas of Curriculum for Excellence, introduced in August 2010 for 3- to 18-year-olds. RSHP Scotland has developed an RSHP online resource. It provides learning activities, lesson plans and resources for all year groups in mainstream, specialist and non-denominational and denominational schools (RSHP Scotland, 2021).
The Scottish Government has provided guidance on the Conduct of relationships, sexual health and parenthood education in schools (Scottish Government, 2014).
In 2019, the Scottish Government published its Review of Personal and Social Education, which outlined steps to improve Personal and Social Education (PSE) delivery in schools and school counselling services (Scottish Government, 2019). The Review included recommendations for the forthcoming statutory guidance for relationships, sexual health and parenthood (RSHP), which is currently under consultation and will replace the existing Conduct of relationships, sexual health and parenthood education in schools (Scottish Government, 2014).
In Wales, the Welsh Government has published guidance on the new curriculum for primary and secondary schools (Welsh Government, 2022a). The curriculum includes an area of learning and experience on health and wellbeing, which covers topics including recognising relationships and developing and maintaining healthy ones (Welsh Government, 2022b). The curriculum was implemented in primary schools from September 2022 and continues to be phased in for school years 7 to 11, with all schools working to the new curriculum by 2026.
As part of the new curriculum, Relationships and Sexuality Education is mandatory for all 3- to 16- year olds in schools and other funded, non-maintained settings. The Relationships and Sexuality Education (RSE) code (Welsh Government, 2022c) sets out the themes that must be covered in RSE. This includes relationships and identity, and the healthy and unhealthy aspects of a range of romantic, sexual and familial relationships.
Guidance across the UK highlights the importance of providing inclusive and accessible sex and relationships education (Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment, 2019a; 2019b; Department for Education, 2021a; Scottish Government, 2014; Welsh Government, 2022c).
When teaching children and young people about sex and relationships, it’s important to make sure you’re representing everyone in the class. Use resources that reflect a broad range of people, for example different sexualities, gender identities, races, cultures and disabilities. You should also make sure teaching reflects different kinds of families, for example single parents, same sex parents, adoptive parents, foster care and residential care (Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment, 2019a; 2019b; Department for Education, 2021a; Scottish Government, 2014; Welsh Government, 2022c).
In Scotland, LGBT inclusive education is being phased in across all schools. The Scottish Government has created an online toolkit to help teachers embed LGBT learning themes throughout the Scottish curriculum (Scottish Government and Time for Inclusive Education (TIE), 2021).
In Wales, it is mandatory for curriculum content to be inclusive of LGBTQ+ lives and reflect diversity. This is reinforced in the LGBTQ+ Action Plan for Wales (Welsh Government, 2023), which sets out a vision to ensure education across Wales is inclusive of LGBTQ+ lives.
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The right to withdraw children from sex and healthy relationships education
There is guidance in each nation of the UK about whether parents and carers can withdraw their children from sex and healthy relationships education, and how this should happen. It’s best practice for schools to help parents and carers understand why sex and healthy relationships education is important. Head teachers should have a discussion with parents and carers about how being withdrawn from lessons will impact on their children.
In England, statutory guidance states that parents and carers cannot withdraw their children from statutory topics such as relationships education, health education or the parts of the science curriculum that cover human reproduction (DfE, 2021a).
In primary schools, parents and carers can withdraw their children from sex education, if it is on the curriculum (DfE, 2021a).
In secondary schools, parents and carers can request that their child is withdrawn from some or all sex education lessons. The head teacher should grant this in all but exceptional circumstances, up until three school terms before the child turns 16. At this point, the child can opt to take part in sex education if they would like to. The school should arrange for the child to receive sex education in one of those three terms, unless there are exceptional circumstances (DfE, 2021a).
In Northern Ireland, relationships and sexuality education is a statutory component of the curriculum. However parents or carers in Northern Ireland have a right to have their children educated in accordance with their wishes (CCEA, 2019a; 2019b).
Schools should consider how they can support parents or carers who choose to withdraw their child from all or part of the relationships and sexuality education curriculum (CCEA, 2019a; 2019b).
In Scotland, guidance for the conduct of RSHP education highlights that schools and authorities must be sensitive to situations where a parent or carer wishes to withdraw their child (or a child wishes to withdraw themselves) from all or part of sexual health education (Scottish Government, 2014). Schools should discuss the issue with the parents, carers and/or child, reminding them of the child’s right to an education, explaining why the curriculum is important and encouraging them to see participation as a positive and constructive part of the child’s development.
Decisions should be made on a case-by-case basis, bearing in mind the child’s age, maturity and capacity. If it is agreed that the child will be withdrawn from RSHP, arrangements should be made for them to have alternative positive educational provision that meets the Health and Wellbeing requirements of the Scottish curriculum (Scottish Government, 2014).
In Wales, relationships and sexuality education (RSE) is a mandatory part of the new Curriculum for Wales framework (Welsh Government, 2022a).
Parents and carers of children in all years up to and including year 6 do not have the right to withdraw their children from lessons on this topic. As the phased introduction of the Curriculum for Wales continues, the right to withdraw will gradually be removed from parents and carers of pupils of all ages (Welsh Government, 2022d).