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Government ignores concerns as sex-ed regulations pass Lords

25th Apr 2019 - Jonathan Williams

Yesterday regulations passed in the Lords that will require relationships education to be taught at primary school and relationships and sex education (RSE) to be taught at secondary school. This means the regulations will become law and the new subjects are required to be taught by September 2020, with some schools piloting the new curriculum from this September.

During the debate a number of peers raised serious concerns about the details of the regulations. Disappointingly the Government refused to amend the regulations or to provide any clarification.

Undermining parental authority

Lord Curry of Kirkhale raised the concern that these regulations will undermine parents:

“There is a long-established right, as has been said, for parents to withdraw their children from subjects where there is likely to be teaching that clashes with the views of the family… This is for very good reason: it is an acknowledgement that the responsibility for children’s moral and religious education lies first and foremost with parents. That is not a role that the state should be taking to itself.”



The Minister reiterated the Government line that “We are clear that parents remain the primary educators of children” however the detail of the regulations would not seem to bear this out.

Exceptional circumstances still not defined

The new guidance states that a right to request a pupil is withdrawn from sex education at secondary school should be granted by the headteacher ‘except in exceptional circumstances’. A number of Peers sought clarification on what these ‘exceptional circumstances’ are.

The Minister refused stating, “It would not be right for the department to list all the exceptional circumstances.” The only example provided was “where a head teacher turns down a parent’s request because the child has had a sexual incident in the school.” Without further explanation this example would appear to be a safeguarding issue, not one that relates to sex education.

This refusal to provide clarity leaves both parents and teachers in the dark. Without examples or specifics these ‘exceptional circumstances’ will be defined on an ad hoc basis and introduces vulnerability for parents and children where that does not need to be the case.

Sex education or relationships education?

The new guidance explicitly states that at secondary school “Schools should not separate teaching of the two subjects artificially but seek to deliver them in an integrated manner.” This makes sense as sex education must not be taught in a relational vacuum. It becomes problematic, however, when a right to withdraw is only allowed for one element of the curriculum.

A number of Peers sought clarity on this division and how it will work in practice. The Lord Bishop of Durham noted that, “The lines between relationships and sex education are far more blurred than is recognised, so I ask that great care is taken to monitor that this does not lead to inappropriate sex education being offered at an early age in the name of relationships education.”



The Minister responded stating that “we are asking schools to make those decisions themselves because these are nuanced subjects.”

The Government are putting teachers in the impossible situation of telling them on the one hand that relationships and sex education should be integrated but that somehow, they must simultaneously separate the two and remove some children from some parts of lessons but not from others. The right to withdraw from sex education may well become practically impossible to access.

Commenting, CARE’s Family Policy Officer Jonathan Williams said:

“These regulations fundamentally alter the relationship between parents and the state and say to parents that they are not trusted. In refusing to give guidance about what ‘exceptional circumstances’ are the Government is leaving both parents and teachers in the dark.

The Government has tried to give assurances that the guidance is statutory, however schools must only ‘give regard’ to the guidance, they are not required to follow it. The requirement to consult parents used to be guidance and was thus frequently ignored, therefore the Government chose to put this requirement in the regulations. They must do the same with the details around the right to withdraw and show parents that they really do trust them and think that they are the prime educators of their children.”

Find out more

Read the full debate here

Read CARE’s report of the Commons debate

Headteachers to have final say


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