Relationships education: changes and challenges


Kate Reynolds looks at what new mandatory relationships and sex education will mean for pupils with SEN

Sex and relationships education (SRE) is being replaced by compulsory relationships and sex education (RSE) across all schools in England from September 2020. The following will become mandatory as part of PSHE education:

  • relationships education in all primary schools
  • relationships and sex education in all secondary schools
  • health education, including mental health, in all state funded schools (PSHE is already compulsory in independent schools, so health education is not a new requirement here).

The subject of menstruation will be taught at all primary and secondary schools, reflecting that periods start sooner due to long-term improvements in nutritional levels. Menstruation is only considered “premature” if a girl is eight years of age or younger and most females with SEN and disabilities will develop physically on a par with their peers.

RSE teaching should:

  • be age-appropriate
  • be developmentally appropriate
  • be evidence-based
  • be mindful of the religious backgrounds of pupils
  • be inclusive, regardless of pupils’ developing sexuality or sexual identity
  • identify laws in England which relate to the subject content.

The latest Government guidance proposes ten hours of in-service RSE training, but does not specify which teaching staff should receive the training (DFE, 2019). Some argue that all teachers should be trained in RSE issues so they can manage situations that might arise in the classroom, particularly as new subject areas are broad, from violence in gangs and extremism to sexual abuse and grooming. Additionally, children with SEN and disabilities may need information repeated or adapted teaching methods to embed RSE messages.

Government guidance encourages the use of “experts” for specific purposes as support for existing teachers’ work, contingent on experts complying with school policies.

Why new subjects in RSE are necessary

Existing guidance on SRE was published in 2000. Since then, the world has seen many changes that are highly relevant to relationships education, including: the global explosion of social media; the growth of online pornography; sexting and grooming. Existing SRE is undermined by current law, such as The Equality Act 2010 which states that schools must not discriminate against pupils on the basis of: “protected characteristics” – notably gender, gender reassignment, sexual orientation and disability; European guidelines for sex education, which contend that it should start from birth (WHO, 2010); and the European Convention on Human Rights which gives individuals rights regarding sexuality and marriage, including same-sex and transgender unions (Articles 8 and 12).

RSE is as necessary, if not more so, for children and young people with SEN as it is for those without SEN for the following reasons:

  • many children with SEN find change difficult to manage, especially for events over which they have no control, such as physical body changes or fluctuating emotions
  • safeguarding issues are even more pertinent to those with SEN who, research shows, are more vulnerable to sexual abuse and exploitation, as well as all other forms of abuse inherent in unhealthy relationships (Stalker and McArthur, 2012)
  • there is some evidence that children with SEN and disabilities may be more likely to be lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT) because they may not understand social mores and prejudices, so are more likely to select a partner regardless of social expectations; however, research shows that children with SEN currently may not be taught about LGBT issues because of the beliefs of parents and support staff (Abbott, 2015)
  • studies show that many parents delay discussion of RSE topics or cover fewer subjects, in less depth, than parents of neurotypical children (Ballan, 2012; Rohleder, 2010)
  • without proactive RSE, some pupils with SEN will behave sexually in public places or misunderstand sexual and relationship boundaries.

Parental involvement

Government guidance emphasises the central role of parents in informal RSE and the necessity for them to be informed about schools’ RSE content. By engaging parents we can promote consistency of relationships and sexual health messages.

Schools can engage parents by:

  • involving them in the development and review of schools’ RSE policies, which must be written and free on request
  • holding meetings between tutors and parents before RSE teaching begins, to discuss concerns and possible follow-up at home and review teaching materials and resources
  • discussing RSE aspects of education, health and care plans
  • discussing RSE at reviews and meetings, especially about transition
  • holding termly or annual open meetings to outline RSE policy and look at teaching programmes and resources
  • having the designated RSE lead on hand at parent-teacher evenings and meetings
  • establishing parent forums to communicate with parents about RSE
  • informing parents via the school website what is being taught in RSE and what resources are being used, so parents can replicate this at home
  • ensuring any RSE issues with pupils are discussed with parents, who may be experiencing similar issues at home.

The right to excuse pupils from RSE

Parents have the right to excuse their children from aspects of the new curriculum as detailed below.

Primary school
Relationships education: no right to be excused.

Sex education (if schools choose to teach sex education): parents can withdraw their child, aside from the science component of the National Curriculum; headteachers cannot overrule a withdrawal.

Secondary school
Headteachers are expected to respect parents’ right to withdraw their child from sex education after documented discussion up to and until three terms before the child is 16 years old. Beyond that time, if pupils want sex education, the school is to arrange this. For pupils with SEN, the option to study sex education after a parental withdrawal might need explaining fully to them, if they are to take advantage of this learning opportunity.

Individual choice

Government guidance refers to RSE preparing the child for being a potential partner and parent. In practise though, many parents do not regard their child with SEN as a potential mum or dad, or as someone who is likely to have a partner; this can adversely affect the quality and quantity of RSE provided at home and the likelihood of engagement with RSE at school.

Many parents of children with SEN, especially those with greater additional needs, worry that RSE will encourage sexual behaviours. However, evidence shows that effective RSE delays first sexual experiences and does not induce sexual behaviours where they would not occur anyway (Pound et al., 2017).

Some parents rely on the concept of “mental age” – a perception that the individual may be functioning cognitively at a level typical of someone significantly younger than them – to prevent RSE being initiated or to limit its extent. The concept of a pupil being developmentally ready for RSE education similarly is problematic because it relies on subjective judgment. This may mean that sexual behaviours in inappropriate places, or a lack of sexual and relationship boundaries, may become established before education takes place.

RSE in practice

Schools have to make reasonable adjustments for children with SEN, while adhering to the SEN Code of Practice, particularly in terms of its “preparing for adulthood” outcomes. Best practice suggests that schools identify a lead teacher to coordinate the new RSE in school and that there is a whole-school approach to the promotion of health and wellbeing of pupils.

“Early adopter” schools will implement the new RSE requirements from September 2019; their feedback will be used as examples of good practice for training teachers and developing the curriculum for these new subjects. Final government guidance for the new RSE curriculum will be published prior to the implementation date of September 2020.

Tips to engage pupils with SEN in RSE

A spiral curriculum, in which topics are revisited with greater complexity to reinforce learning, is essential for RSE. For example, while sexual consent is a secondary level sex education topic, relationships education in primary schools will cover healthy/unhealthy relationships and being assertive, which are important aspects of future sexual consent.

Embed learning: one-off RSE lessons may not get the message across to pupils with SEN, so include follow-up group work or one-to-one support.

Break topics down into manageable units to make them more accessible.

“Drop down days” should not replace regular timetabled lessons but they can be useful for teaching life skills related to RSE and for practising generalising these skills to situations outside school.

Avoid euphemistic language (such as “sleeping together”) as it can be taken literally. The use of unequivocal language and medically correct terms will help pupils to report accurately if sexual assault or abuse takes place.

Ground rules for every session help create a safe environment but may need clear explanation for some pupils with SEN. Ground rules can emphasise that RSE subjects are often private, not public, and you can even place a sign on the classroom door stating this.

Use personalisation where appropriate. Distancing techniques (where topics are discussed in the third person) can help to create a “safe” environment, but they should be used advisedly for children with SEN, some of whom need learning to be personalised. For example, teaching a private place for masturbation should include a picture of the young person’s own bedroom, not any bedroom.

Allow pupils to ask questions anonymously, for example by posting them somewhere discreet in the setting, so their questions can be answered in class without embarrassment or pressure. This also allows them to ask what might seem to be naive questions.

Use experiential learning in secondary level RSE, for example a school trip to the nearest clinic for sexually transmissible infections. Opportunistic teaching could also be applied on any school outing, for example to identify public and private places.

Use visual teaching and strong visual content, which is often most effective for many pupils with SEN. Models, such as genitalia, are very useful teaching tools for RSE.

Role play in pairs or small groups to support learning. For example, pupils can practise how to say “no” to unwanted sexual advances in a convincing manner, or how to respond if their own advances are rejected.

Avoid using tests to check knowledge. In mainstream schools, quizzes and unexpected questions are common means of checking what pupils know and have taken in about a subject. However, they can be particularly challenging and undermining for children with autism and other conditions, who thrive on routine.

About the author

Kate Reynolds is mother to two young people on the autism spectrum. She has written nine books, runs workshops for parent carers and is a national speaker and researcher on relationships and sex education for people with SEN and disabilities.




  • Abbott, D. (2015) Love in a Cold Climate: changes in the fortunes of LGBT men and women with learning disabilities? British Journal of Learning Disabilities 43 p100-105.
  • Ballan, M.S. (2012), Parental perspectives of communication about sexuality in families of children with autism spectrum disorders, Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders 42 p676-684.
  • DFE (2019) Relationships Education, Relationships and Sex Education, and Health education in England: Government consultation response February 2019, Crown Copyright.
  • Pound, P., Denford, S., Shucksmith, J., Tanton, C., Johnson, A.M., Owen, J., Hutten, R., Mohan, L., Bonell, C., Abraham, C. and Campbell, R. (2017) What is best practice in sex and relationship education? A synthesis of evidence, including stakeholders’ views, BMJ Open.
  • Rohleder, P. (2010) Educators’ ambivalence and managing anxiety in providing sex education for people with learning disabilities, Psychodynamic Practice: Individuals, Groups and Organisations, 16:2 p165-182.
  • Stalker, K. and McArthur, K. (2012) Child abuse, child protection and disabled children: A review of recent research, Child Abuse Review vol 21 p 24-40.
  • WHO Regional Office and BZgA (2010) Standards for Sexuality Education in Europe: A Framework for policy makers, educational and health authorities and specialists, WHO.
Kate Reynolds
Author: Kate Reynolds


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