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How to foster a culture of openness and honesty during RSE lessons while still protecting pupils’ innocence.

Childhood seems to be getting shorter! From inappropriate language and innuendo on TV to overly-sexualised song lyrics, the early ‘adultification’ of children is a trend that none of us wants to see, and certainly no teacher wants to accelerate...

Which is why some of the subject matter of the new RSE curriculum – statutory in all schools from September – might cause concern for some. We want childhoods to be innocent, unsullied and free of worry for as long as possible. As a parent of four and a former teacher of 20 years, I recognise this dilemma and I too hope that ‘grown up’ issues will be introduced to them at an age and stage when they won’t be unsettled by them.

But if we push past some of the alarming headlines, we see that the truth about this new RSE curriculum is quite different. The shorthand way in which we refer to this new subject as RSE (relationships and sex education) implies that all children, whatever their age, will be taught the latter, but the reality is that there are two programmes in the new government’s statutory regulations and the ‘SE’ component is only compulsory for secondary pupils.

Keeping calm

Of course, as part of the established KS2 science curriculum, most primaries already teach the life cycle of reproduction in animals, including humans. How our bodies grow and change, and the different challenges this brings, is an important part of a KS2 curriculum. Similarly, children in Early Years and KS1 are taught the correct names for their body parts, and this is done without stigma or embarrassment.

One thing we can be sure of is that the new RSE curriculum will be taught sensitively by teachers who know their children. As the DfE’s guidance says, ‘Children of the same age may be developmentally at different stages, leading to differing types of questions or behaviours. Teaching methods should take account of these differences.’ Teachers know this.

What we parents and carers cannot be so sure of is what the classmate sitting next to our child may say during those lessons. How does a teacher foster a culture of openness and honesty, wherein children can ask the questions that are on their minds, at the same time as protecting the innocence of all pupils?

Deftly, is the answer. Over 20 years of teaching and leading in schools, I observed hundreds of lessons. One thing I always noticed was how skilfully teachers dealt with questions that were often asked in all innocence but which could have led to wholly inappropriate discussions. This is the bread and butter of classroom life. Well before this new curriculum was conceived, children were saying things in class that revealed a naivety and vulnerability. Good teaching is about how we deal with those comments – saying, “That’s an interesting question, James, let’s have a quick chat about that afterwards." Provided there is another person in the room – a TA for example – then it’s wholly appropriate to allow James to share what’s on his mind after the lesson. In fact, we have a moral duty and safeguarding obligation to do so. But nipping questions in the bud within a whole class environment is often wise.

Playground gossip

Inappropriate ideas are shared in the playground all the time, whether we like it or not. You can set the curriculum, but you can’t prescribe the playground discourse. Creating a forum in which children’s concerns can be aired in class is vitally important.

The new RSE curriculum creates opportunities for teachers to promote values of kindness, tolerance and respect within a framework of knowledge and understanding about positive relationships and living healthily. One might say that, at last, there is a script with which we can deal with the content that was already being peddled around playgrounds. Provided those values of mutual respect and personal privacy are established first, then an RSE lesson will be beneficial to all. Guidance around how this subject is taught will be key. Like in so many other aspects of life, open, honest and non-judgemental communication is the answer.

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Confidently deliver the new curriculum requirements 

Discovery Education Health and Relationships covers the statutory requirements for teaching primary Health Education and Relationships Education from September 2020. It contains lessons for teaching all aspects of the guidelines, including the non-statutory aspects. View the programme progression.