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Relationships and Sex Education in Schools (England)

Published Thursday, February 28, 2019

This House of Commons Library briefing provides an overview of the legislation and guidance currently in place regarding sex and relationship education (SRE) in schools, and also outlines related reviews and proposals in Parliament.

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What must be taught and the parental right to withdraw their children

Local authority maintained schools in England are obliged to teach sex and relationships education (SRE) from age 11 upwards, and must have regard to the Government’s SRE guidance.  Academies and free schools, the majority in secondary education in England, do not have to follow the National Curriculum and so are not under this obligation.  If they do decide to teach SRE, they also must have regard to the guidance.

Parents are free to withdraw their children from SRE if they wish to do so.  The only exceptions to this are the biological aspects of human growth and reproduction that are essential elements of National Curriculum Science.

From September 2020: statutory RSE

On 1 March 2017, the then Education Secretary, Justine Greening, announced her intention to put ‘Relationships and Sex Education’ – rather than SRE – on a statutory footing.  She also announced her intention to create a power to make personal, social, health and economic education (PSHE) statutory in future. Section 34 of the Children and Social Work Act 2017 provides for relationships and sex education to be taught in all schools in England. 

Following consultation, the RSE proposals are intended to be in place for teaching to start in September 2020, with schools able to begin with the relevant teaching a year earlier if they wished.

The proposals involve:

  • All primary schools in England teaching ‘Relationships Education’
  • All secondary schools teaching ‘Relationships and Sex Education’
  • Reformed statutory guidance, following consultation
  • Retaining the parental right of withdrawal from sex education, with new rights for children to ‘opt-in’ as they approach age 16
  • Flexibility for schools in their approach, including for faith schools to teach within the tenets of their faith

A consultation was opened on draft regulations and draft statutory guidance to implement the changes in July 2018. The Government response to a previous call for evidence on RSE was published alongside the consultation.

The announcement included the introduction of statutory health education alongside statutory RSE.

The consultation was open until 7 November 2018.

The Government published its response to the consultation, alongside updated draft regulations and draft guidance, on 25 February 2019. If the regulations pass through both Houses of Parliament, the regulations will be made and the final guidance and regulations will be published.

Earlier reviews and proposals for change

The future of SRE has been a topic of keen parliamentary interest and wider debate in recent years, and has been the subject of numerous parliamentary debates, legislative proposals and outside campaigns.  Section 3 of this briefing provides an overview of developments since the Labour Government’s review of SRE in 2008.

Teaching about same-sex marriage

During and following the passage of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013 there was considerable debate about the implications of the legislation for teachers whose religious beliefs led them to oppose the measure.  The then Equalities Minister stated that teachers would be able to describe their belief that marriage is between a man and a woman, while acknowledging that same-sex marriage will be available within the law.  Reforms for schools to ‘actively promote’ British values, which the Government stated meant that schools should encourage pupils to respect other people, even if they do not agree with them, prompted fresh concerns from religious organisations that teachers could be required to promote same-sex marriage to which they were opposed.


This briefing applies to England only.

Commons Briefing papers SN06103

Author: Robert Long

Topic: Schools

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