Is the new draft RSHE Guidance fit for purpose?

Sara Spinks 4 June 2024 13 min read
Is the new draft RSHE Guidance fit for purpose?  feature image

There have been mixed reactions to the Department for Education's latest draft guidance Relationships Education, Relationships and Sex Education and Health Education guidance, on Relationships, Sex, and Health Education (RSHE). While it introduces some positive updates, it also contradicts existing research and the expressed needs of young people for earlier and more detailed discussions on crucial topics.

The Need for Change

The foreword by Secretary of State for Education Gillian Keegan highlights the increasing complexity of children's lives, both online and offline, and the critical role that high-quality RSHE in schools plays in supporting families. This guidance aims to equip children with the skills needed for success and safety, addressing modern challenges in a balanced, age-appropriate manner.

She makes the following key points for the need for new guidance:

  1. Supporting Families and Schools:

    ‘We have therefore acted to put in place safeguards to keep children safe in an increasingly complex world, especially after reports of pupils being taught inappropriate content in schools.’

    • Peace of Mind: The updated RSHE aims to reassure families by equipping children with essential skills.
    • Clarity for Schools: The guidance offers clear instructions on the appropriate age to teach specific topics.

  2. Addressing Complexity and Safety:

    ‘As children start to approach adulthood, we need to give them the tools to keep themselves safe and to flourish.’

    • Modern Challenges: The world has become more complex since RSHE became statutory, necessitating clearer safeguards to protect children.
    • Content Concerns: There have been reports of inappropriate content being taught, prompting the need for refined guidelines.

  3. Balanced and Age-Appropriate Teaching:

    ‘That is why this updated guidance includes clear age limits for the teaching of the most sensitive content and specifies that the contested topic of gender identity should not be taught.’

    • Age Limits: Clear age limits for teaching sensitive content help maintain the innocence of childhood while preparing children for adulthood.
    • Gender Identity: The guidance specifies that gender identity should not be taught, reflecting ongoing debates.
    • Parental Involvement: Parents have the right to be informed about and discuss their children's education.

  4. Thorough Review and Expert Input:

    ‘Their recommendations prompted a sequencing of the content in the guidance so that children are not taught content they are too young to understand.’

    • Consultative Process: The review involved extensive consultations with various stakeholders, including parents, young people, teachers, and an independent expert panel.
    • Sequenced Content: Recommendations led to a sequenced approach to ensure age-appropriate teaching.

  5. Focus on Child Wellbeing:

    ‘This guidance has the best interests of children at its core and puts common sense at the heart of what should be taught.’

    • Emotional and Physical Health: The RSHE aims to promote children's wellbeing and help them build supportive relationships.
    • Common Sense: The guidance prioritises children's best interests and common sense in teaching content.

So, what are the key changes contained within this draft?

  1. Emphasis on Mental Health and Wellbeing
  2. The new draft places greater emphasis on mental health and wellbeing:

    • Self-Regulation and Resilience: Schools are encouraged to help pupils develop strategies for self-regulation, perseverance, and determination.
    • Reducing Stigma: Active efforts to reduce stigma around mental health issues and promote an open environment are highlighted.

  3. Expanded Content on Online Safety
  4. The new draft significantly expands content on online safety and digital wellbeing:

    • Deepfakes: Addressing the prevalence and potential harms of deepfakes.
    • Online Gambling: Increased focus on the risks associated with online gambling.
    • Illegal Online Activities: New sections cover the risks of illegal behaviours online, such as drug and knife supply.

  5. Detailed Approach to Sensitive Topics
  6. The new draft provides a more comprehensive approach to handling sensitive topics, particularly around mental health, suicide prevention, and self-harm:

    • Suicide Prevention: Specific guidance on discussing suicide prevention, recognising warning signs, and seeking help.
    • Eating Disorders and Self-Harm: Schools are advised to cover these topics comprehensively, ensuring teachers are well-prepared to handle disclosures.

  7. Updated Guidance on Physical Health and Fitness
  8. Physical health education sees several updates:

    • Active Lifestyles: Emphasis on the mental and physical benefits of regular exercise and outdoor activities.
    • Blood, Organ, and Stem Cell Donation: New content on the importance of these donations.

  9. Inclusion and Sensitivity
  10. The draft enhances the focus on inclusion and sensitivity:

    • Menstrual Health: Comprehensive information on menstrual health, including conditions like endometriosis and polycystic ovary syndrome.
    • Family Structures: Increased emphasis on recognising and respecting diverse family structures.

  11. Curriculum Flexibility and Inspection
  12. The new draft offers more detailed instructions on curriculum flexibility:

    • Broad and Balanced Curriculum: Guidance on integrating RSHE into a comprehensive curriculum tailored to community needs.
    • Ofsted Inspection: Highlights that key aspects of RSHE are within the scope of Ofsted inspections.

  13. Legal and Statutory Clarifications
  14. The new draft clarifies the legal obligations of schools:

    • Parental Rights: Reiterates parents' rights to withdraw their children from some or all sex education.
    • Applicability: Specifies the guidance's applicability to different types of schools.

So, what have been the key criticisms of the New Draft RSHE Guidance?

The recently released draft guidance has generated significant debate. While it aims to address contemporary challenges and provide clarity, several criticisms have emerged from various stakeholders:

  • Teachers and School Leaders: Argue that rigid age restrictions and exclusion of gender identity undermine comprehensive and inclusive education.
  • Educational Unions: Concerned about the lack of flexibility and potential undermining of teacher autonomy.
  • Mental Health Charities: Emphasise the need for more practical support and resources to address mental health issues and reduce stigma.
  • Suicide Prevention Advocates: Criticise the guidance's insufficient approach to suicide prevention, especially for younger students.
  • LGBTQ+ Advocacy Groups: Condemn the exclusion of gender identity education, arguing it marginalises transgender and non-binary students.
  • Parent Groups and PTAs: Concerned that the guidance does not provide comprehensive and early education on important topics.
  • Legal and Human Rights Experts: Point out potential inconsistencies with the Equality Act 2010.
  • Children’s Rights Advocates: Argue the guidance may not align with children's rights to comprehensive education.
  • Public Health England and Safeguarding Experts: Criticise the guidance for inadequate coverage of emerging health risks and a legalistic approach that might discourage students from seeking help.
  • Educational Researchers: Advocate for a more evidence-based approach, including early and detailed education on sensitive topics.

The draft RSHE guidance has been criticised for its lack of flexibility, exclusion of gender identity education, insufficient mental health support, and potential inconsistencies with legal and human rights standards. Critics call for a more inclusive, flexible, and research-based approach to better support the wellbeing and development of students.

I agree with the above issues but also have a burning question... Why the change now?

The first sentence in the foreword by Gillian Keegan might offer a clue:

‘We know that parents are their children's primary educators, but high-quality Relationships, Sex and Health Education (RHSE) can play a vital role in making sure that families feel supported and have peace of mind that their children are safe and equipped with the skills they need to succeed. We also know schools want more clarity on the right age to teach certain topics.’

It’s an election year, and putting ‘parents’ front and centre, referring to ‘peace of mind’ and the need for them to feel and know their children are ‘safe’, may, in fact, be a last-ditch attempt to gain votes…?

However, that would be very cynical of me.

As a headteacher of a large inner city primary school, where the vast majority of my pupils came from Pakistani heritage Muslim homes, gaining the trust of the parents as the new RSE curriculum came into force in 2019/2020 was very hard won. We widely consulted and had to voraciously address falsely held fears and rabble-rousing opinions that we would be teaching five-year-olds to become 'gay', would be showing inappropriate material, teaching about sex and contravening religious beliefs. We shared all our teaching resources both in workshops and by publishing them on our school website. Our first consultation evening saw a school hall filled by over 200 parents, who were frankly scared.

But they saw everything, they listened, and they trusted….and, of course, there was nothing to worry about.

I'm convinced that the majority of schools are currently not sharing inappropriate materials, and parents do have 'peace of mind' that their children are 'safe'. And don't we have an inspectorate that checks this? There have been no concerns raised by HMI and surely government office should be guided by the inspectorate’s findings.

In my view there are key issues which make this document problematic:

  1. Contradiction with Existing Research and Youth Needs
    • Lack of Early and Detailed Education: Critics argue that the guidance contradicts existing research that supports early and detailed education on sensitive topics. Young people have long expressed the need for more comprehensive information at earlier stages, which the draft fails to accommodate.
    • Simplistic Approach: The age restrictions and content limitations are seen as overly simplistic and not reflective of the nuanced needs of different school communities.

  2. Gender Identity Exclusion
    • Controversial Ban: The draft guidance explicitly prohibits teaching about gender identity, which has sparked significant controversy. Opponents argue that this exclusion ignores the experiences and needs of transgender and non-binary students.
    • Inconsistency with Equality Act: The guidance allows teaching about the Equality Act 2010’s protected characteristics, but not gender identity, leading to accusations of inconsistency and exclusion.

  3. Overemphasis on Legal Frameworks
    • Potential to Discourage Disclosure: The guidance’s strong focus on the legal aspects of topics such as online sexual abuse may discourage students from disclosing issues for fear of criminal repercussions. Critics argue that a more supportive and less punitive approach is needed.
    • Rigid Age Restrictions: The strict age categories for teaching certain topics are seen as too rigid, potentially preventing schools from addressing issues when they are most relevant to students.

  4. Lack of Flexibility
    • Reactionary Rather Than Proactive: The draft allows for flexibility in teaching some topics but often in a reactionary manner. Critics suggest that schools should be encouraged to proactively provide information and skills to students rather than waiting for issues to arise.
    • Ignoring Teacher Expertise: The guidance is perceived to undermine the expertise of RSHE teachers who are capable of tailoring content to their specific school community through a spiral curriculum.

  5. Parental Involvement and Safeguarding Concerns
    • Overemphasis on Parental Role: While parental involvement is crucial, the guidance’s strong emphasis may overlook the fact that not all children receive adequate support from their parents. This could leave some children without essential education on critical topics.
    • Potential Safeguarding Issues: The focus on parents as primary educators might not consider the complexities of students' home environments, where discussing certain RSHE topics may not be safe or feasible.

  6. Mental Health and Wellbeing
    • Stigma Reduction: Although the guidance emphasizes reducing stigma around mental health, critics argue that more practical support and resources are needed for effective implementation.
    • Suicide Prevention Content: The guidance’s recommendation to avoid direct references to suicide before Year 8 is viewed by some as insufficient, given the increasing mental health challenges faced by younger students.

  7. Online Safety
    • Insufficient Depth on New Threats: While the guidance expands on online safety, some critics feel it does not go far enough in addressing new and evolving online threats comprehensively.
    • Gambling and Deepfakes: There is concern that the sections on online gambling and deepfakes, while necessary, may not be adequately detailed to equip students with the full understanding and skills needed to navigate these issues safely.


Whilst the proposed guidance aims to address the complexities of modern life and provide a structured approach to sensitive topics, it falls short in several areas. The exclusion of gender identity, the overemphasis on legal frameworks, rigid age restrictions, and concerns about parental involvement are significant points of contention. To better support students, wouldn’t it be better to have a more flexible, inclusive, and comprehensive approach that respects educators' expertise and students' diverse needs?

Your participation in the consultation process is crucial to shape a curriculum that best supports the development and wellbeing of children.

The consultation Review of the RSHE statutory guidance - GOV.UK ( closes 11th July 2024.

Sara Spinks

SSS Author & Former Headteacher