Are you ready for the new relationships and sex education?

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New Relationships, Sex and Health Education guidance comes into effect this term.

For the first time ever, governors will be expected to monitor the progress of pupils in this area as well as making sure the statutory guidance is adhered to.

Josie Rayner-Wells is a national RSHE (Relationships, Sex and Health Education) Adviser who’s been training governors in Norfolk on the new guidance, amongst them – Jo Phillips from GovernorHub.

Following her training session with Josie, Jo caught up with Josie to ask her about the new guidance and what governors need to know.

Josie, firstly I wanted to talk about how old the existing guidance is. It’s pretty out-of-date, isn’t it?

Yes, that’s right. The old guidance was written in 2000 and therefore it is two decades out-of-date. The Equalities Act was written in 2010 so the old guidance was also written a whole decade before the Equalities Act came into play.

That disparity between The Equalities Act and the guidance we’ve been using has been challenging for schools and governors because there is a lot of contradictory guidance depending on what you read, which causes a lot of confusion when people are trying to make local decisions.

As a result – and what I’ve found working with governors and schools more widely – is that this confusion leads to a real paralysis of action. When people are anxious that they’re going to do the wrong thing, they do nothing.

Clearly this new guidance has been written after the Equalities Act. It’s asking for a lot to be done differently but not in relation to equalities work and existing equalities legislation…the guidance is just shining a light on it again. However, because of this period of inaction, it now feels like this new RSHE guidance is the reason we’re talking about different, diverse families and LGBT issues – when actually it was the Equalities Act which made the case for that 10 years ago.

Lots of schools and governing boards have some catching up to do, so this guidance has been helpful in re-addressing that agenda.

I came away from the training session with you – very clear that this new guidance is about keeping children safe in the modern world.

Absolutely – Damian Hinds (former Education Secretary) has a really powerful foreword in the guidance. He outlines that times have changed and children need to be able to take up all of the positive opportunities offered to them by the modern world whilst also having the tools to manage and navigate the risks of the modern world.

It’s not just about not just having the information – it’s also about having the views, values and attitudes, the ‘tools in their toolkit’, to stay, and he uses the words, “happy, healthy and safe”.

That’s the rationale behind the guidance. There have been lots of misconceptions that it’s about the sexualisation of children or the promotion of one lifestyle over another. That’s not the case at all. It is very focused on safeguarding children and ensuring they’re healthy and happy. 

That’s a really good focus for governing boards and schools to have when they’re making decisions about what needs to be in the curriculum, based on pupil voice. If lots of children are talking about a particular issue and you don’t talk about it, how are they going to be able to navigate the relevant issues, risks and challenges that sit around that topic?

You also said in the training that there were lots of important organisations who’ve contributed to this guidance – is that right?

There is a tool called The Principles of Good RSE which was compiled by The Sex Education Forum for its 30th anniversary. 64 different organisations worked together on it, including teaching unions, the NSPCC, Barnardo’s and Stonewall. Despite their different values and attitudes, they agreed on set of 12 research-based principles for good quality RSE education.

The Principles of Good RSE, by The Sex Education Forum

These include being informed by pupil voice, having a well-planned programme, ensuring teachers are trained, making sure approaches are inclusive and thinking about pupils with special needs. The tool has been used in a wide-ranging way – the UK Youth Parliament presented it to parliament, and it was signed by MPs and members of The House of Lords.

You’ll see lots of these principles, such as following an evidence-based approach and ensuring good quality practice, embedded in the new guidance. Interestingly the Church of England has also produced an RSHE Charter  which echoes the majority of these principles as well. 

As governors this subject hasn’t always been on our radar, but we now have some clear guidelines about our obligations.

Yes, there are six key points in the new statutory guidance and additionally if you’re a foundation governor or a trustee of a faith academy, then you also have an additional responsibility to maintain and develop the religious ethos of the school.

Page 16 of the new statutory guidance – the role of governors.

The six requirements are very broad principles that governors need to look at. You’ve got things like making progress, but you’ve also got points such as making sure the subject is well-led and effectively managed and thinking about the provision of information to parents.

But I think the final one – is the most valuable; making sure the subject is resourced, staffed and time-tabled in a way that ensures the school can fulfil its legal obligations. What they’re really saying is – as a governor – have you enabled your school to be compliant with the guidance?

The guidance is 50 pages long. There’s a lot to absorb and if you’re not from an education background there’s some interpretation involved. There are black and white areas – some absolute must-dos – but then there are some areas where the guidance allows for flexibility, and rightly so, to enable schools to embed the guidance in a way which works for them and their ethos. So, there are local decisions to be made by schools and governors too.

These are not things you can come to a quick conclusion on. That’s one of the key differences with this piece of guidance. People bring very strong personal opinions to the table on this topic and it’s very hard to differentiate between what might be your personal opinion and what is the right evidence-based approach for our children. That’s where the focus on safeguarding, health and happiness is a really valuable line in the sand for governors.

So, I guess your message to governing boards is – if this isn’t already on your radar, it should be?

Absolutely – there are no quick fixes for embedding this guidance. You need to undertake the consultation before you can design your curriculum. If you haven’t designed your curriculum, you can’t ratify your policy as a governing board.

But, it’s a really exciting opportunity. Lots of schools have not been satisfied with their provision in recent years and have wanted to do a better job for their pupils. Lots of schools have been frustrated that – because of competing priorities – this topic has been treated as an add-on.

Schools need to really focus on this new curriculum and do a good, robust job. Governing boards need to make sure they have a good policy in place which serves the school and its teaching staff well. We know many staff are anxious about teaching this subject, so they need a policy that empowers them to teach the curriculum that their pupils have said needs to be taught. That policy, I think, is an important document. More so than ever.

As I explained in the training, as a society we seem very comfortable exposing our children to a wide range of sexualised images but there’s a real anxiety to talk about it in the classroom. This guidance, and the school policy, will give teachers permission to do this. Without it, we know from research that teachers will be too anxious and hold back. If you don’t address the children’s concerns, they will put these terms and topics in a search engine and if you put some of these topics and terms in a search engine you can end up in very unhealthy, unsafe places. So, it’s really important that we create the right framework in our schools to enable these conversations to take place in a safe space in the classroom.

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The Government has produced this Frequently Asked Questions information for parents about the new guidance.

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