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James Lewis

Deputy Director of School Improvement

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Walking the PSHE Tightrope

How to meet the new requirements for Health and Relationships Education without alienating parents.

From September 2020 schools will teach two new compulsory subjects: Relationships Education and Health Education. They’re not ‘new’ as such: they are part of the non-statutory PSHE which is taught in many state schools already, and all private schools; but it’s newly-compulsory status has got many school leaders worrying. What do we need to teach? What if parents opt out? And what about all that controversy we’ve heard?


What's not changing?

PSHE in its entirety remains optional, with no official curriculum - in some ways that’s part of the anxiety because teachers aren’t completely sure what’s involved. (I’ve lost count of how many think the ‘E’ stands for ‘education’.) However, Ofsted’s new framework gives PSHE a significance it hasn’t had before.

First, by splitting the Personal development, behaviour and welfare judgment into two, they are recognising the importance of learning skills and behaviours, attitudes and emotional literacy. They are a fundamental of education, not just a trendy fad.

Second, their focus on bespoke curriculum structure means that the links between subjects, and the pupil development on which good learning depends, become a starting point for curriculum implementation. One popular approach to curriculum design involves the teaching of ‘intention pillars’ (like oral skills and resilience), and all learning is measured against the development of those pillars, which is why PSHE is so important.


What's new?

Relationships and Health education - neither has an official national curriculum, but there is an outline in the statutory guidance. Relationships Education starts by defining the terms - ‘relationship’, ‘friendship’ and ‘family’. After that, we should teach children about kindness, honesty, personal privacy and space, online safety, identifying and reporting abuse, and the cultivation of those aforementioned character traits.

For Health Education we must cover: exercise, nutrition and sleep; emotional literacy; physical and mental health; basic first aid; the importance of the outdoors, hobbies and interests; and the need to ration time on electronic devices.


Potential Problems...

That list should calm most primary leaders - you’re probably teaching most of this already, and it will benefit both inside and outside the classroom. The new statutory guidance really shouldn’t be cause for concern... except for the media controversies.


  • There is no right of withdrawal for parents and carers for this programme. It is only the sex education at secondary which carries that right – and even that does not include any of the anatomy or general reproduction elements of the Science curriculum. So why all the fuss? I think it is mostly about careless labelling.
  • For many years the ‘puberty talk’ has been called ‘sex education’, and this causes confusion and distrust. Such lessons have absolutely no sexual content, but terminology can lead to a misunderstanding.
  • Such subjects are so riven with taboo that parents instantly fear the worst. Particularly in the case of the controversy of “teaching about LGBT relationships”. We are told to define and teach about ‘marriage’ – and since 2014 that’s been open to same-sex couples in Britain. You are not ‘teaching sex’ when you mention gay marriage any more than you ‘teach sex’ when you talk about traditional marriage.


So, what can we learn from this?

  1. Parents can’t opt-out anyway.
  2. You need to plan carefully what you will say to these worried parents.


How can I find out more?

For guidance on thinking through these issues, including what to put in your all-important Relationships Education policy, and how to explain the changes to your parents, book a place on our Raising Attainment in PSHE course which tells you everything you need to know about the statutory changes, as well as the non-statutory elements, and offers a range of practical and engaging strategies and resources for this powerful subject.