The new primary relationships curriculum: a quick guide

Headteacher and Tes person of the year Sarah Hewitt-Clarkson gives her view on what you need to know about the new statutory guidelines for relationships education in primary

Sarah Hewitt-Clarkson

primary relationships education

The statutory guidance for relationships education in primary comes into being from September 2020.

Here's what I think you need to know. 

What is missing from the new guidance for primary? 

Most of the protected characteristics from the Equality Act are not referenced specifically in the guidance, so make sure you give enough attention in your own policy to things that are very important to children.

For example, you can be friends with or have relationships with people from different races, religions, ages, abilities and backgrounds.

The 14 February issue of Tes is a huge special edition giving you everything you need to know about the changes to relationships and sex education for primary and secondary schools. Subscribe at

For many of our children, no matter what their background, some parents will pressure them to have friends or a partner from the same background as themselves: same skin colour, same religion, same nationality.  

It is vital that schools ensure children know they have choices.

Also, the name of the guidance, "relationships education", does not specifically reference mental wellbeing, which in fact constitutes a huge part of the guidance.

Is the guidance specifying anything we don’t do already?

Much of the prescribed content will already be in your PSHE curriculum, in your assembly themes or in your behaviour policy.

Some of the specifications may be in action but not written down: for example, pupils knowing "the conventions of courtesy and manners" (p21). You may want to outline what that means in your school: does it mean saying please and thank you, holdings doors open for others – and if so, to whom? Adults and  children? To the adults who serve you lunch, to the cleaners who clean your toilets?

The big difference with the new guidance is that this is set out in statutory guidance, so we must make sure that these important elements are planned and taught consistently, not ad hoc or expected by a few.

The guidance is also clear that parents must be consulted. In the special issue of Tes on 14 February, Grainne Hallahan sets out what consultation should look like and how best to manage it.

Now, there are some new things, including: how to make a 999 call; understanding head injuries; the importance of sleep; menstruation; sun damage to skin; and the science of allergies and immunisation. 

What actually is in the guidance, then?

For primary schools, there are 13 categories, five under the heading "relationships education", and eight under the heading "physical health and mental wellbeing".

The 14 February special issue has detailed guidance on the mental health aspects of the new curriculum.

Interestingly, it is physical and mental health that is more heavily weighted than relationships education.

What can I copy and paste from the DfE guidance to include in our school policy? 

There are some excellent bits we can use: 

  • “Schools should be alive to issues such as everyday sexism, misogyny, homophobia and gender stereotypes and take positive action to build a culture where these are not tolerated, and any occurrences are identified and tackled. Staff have an important role to play in modelling good behaviours. School pastoral and behaviour policies should support all pupils” (paragraph 31).
  • “Provisions within the Equality Act allow schools to take positive action, where it can be shown that it is proportionate, to deal with particular disadvantages affecting one group because of a protected characteristic. This should be taken into consideration in designing and teaching these subjects. A school could, for example, consider taking positive action to support girls if there was evidence that they were being disproportionally subjected to sexual violence or sexual harassment” (paragraph 29).
  • “Schools should be aware of the importance of making clear that sexual violence and sexual harassment are not acceptable, will never be tolerated and are not an inevitable part of growing up. Any report of sexual violence or sexual harassment should be taken seriously; staff should be aware that statistically it is more likely that females will be the victims of sexual violence and sexual harassment than males, and that it is more likely that it will be perpetrated by males. However, males can also be the victims of sexual violence and it can also happen in same-sex relationships. It is, however, essential that assumptions are not made about the behaviour of boys and young men and that they are not made to feel that this behaviour is an inevitable part of being male; most young men are respectful of young women and each other” (paragraph 32).
  • “A growing ability to form strong and positive relationships with others depends on the deliberate cultivation of character traits and positive personal attributes (sometimes referred to as ‘virtues’) in the individual. In a school wide context which encourages the development and practice of resilience and other attributes, this includes character traits such as helping pupils to believe they can achieve, persevere with tasks, work towards long-term rewards and continue despite setbacks. Alongside understanding the importance of self-respect and self-worth, pupils should develop personal attributes including honesty, integrity, courage, humility, kindness, generosity, trustworthiness and a sense of justice” (paragraph 60).

Why are there specific paragraphs about LGBT (36-37) and not any other of the protected characteristics? 

I’m not sure, but the Equality Act 2010 and the public sector Equality Duty are referenced many times (paragraphs 27-32) and therefore school staff must have due regard to promoting all aspects of equality, seeking to eliminate discrimination, tackling prejudice and seeking to foster good relationships between those who have a protected characteristic and those who don’t.

The LGBT abbreviation contains two protected characteristics: sexual orientation and gender reassignment.

Take some time to understand the difference between the two and that they are both protected equally in law, just as with disability, race and religion.

The 14 February special issue has detailed guidance on adapting the new curriculum for those with special educational needs or disabilities.

The guidance is very clear that schools "should pay particular attention to the public sector equality duty (s.149 of the Equality Act)", and it is worth getting that in your policy word for word (see paragraph 27 in the guidance).

Schools cannot play any part in discrimination against anyone or group of people with a protected characteristic. In my view, to be silent on a particular issue or avoid talking about it all is to discriminate against it and therefore to discriminate against a group of people.

Children should be well prepared for life in modern Britain and the world and if some schools leave out or only discuss LGBT families if a set of parents are same-sex then the children in that school will not be prepared for life in modern Britain.

The Equality Act was not meant to be a "if you happened to come across someone who is different to you, then maybe have a chat about it" – it is meant to ensure, lawfully, that public sector workers play a part in eliminating discrimination and prejudice.

We know we all have a huge part to play in this, whether we teach three-year-olds or 17-year-olds. 

Why have books become such a focus of negativity? 

Because LGBT is singled out for special consideration, it feels as though any book or poster that portrays same-sex families or a boy wearing a dress is up for some kind of ethical debate.

This is not the case for books that have characters with different skin colours, different religious dress, beliefs or disabilities, so it is odd that debate has emerged when characters are LGBT.

It has always been important that schools show children through words, texts, pictures and so on that Britain and the world may not look like everyone inside the four walls of your school. Even if your school is monoculture or highly predominantly one culture or religion, the walls, words and wisdom must ensure the children know their town, city, county, country and the world are not necessarily the same.

If the children in your school have never seen parents represented by two people of the same sex, this is problematic in the same way that it would be problematic if all your texts, posters and talk portrayed only white people. 

I think it’s really important to find books in which some of the characters happen to be gay or black or white or disabled, for example, rather than finding a book about disabled people.

This isn’t always easy to do, but we should seek to visualise the language of equality rather than point out difference. 

What are we aiming for in putting this guidance into action?

Utopia would be when all schools – nursery, primary, secondary, special – and further education were places where, without exception, inequality was tackled with the same rigour and passionate determination and that this would be the case for all aspects of inequality.

It should ooze out of the walls; it should be part of the school's DNA.

Children and adults should behave with actions and words, in a way that any visitor or newcomer to the school would have no space in which to spout messages of inequality. Toxic phrases such as "you run like a girl", "boys don’t skip" and "that pencil case is so gay" would be treated with the same amount of disgust and as seriously as racist comments. 

We should all look at some things that maybe we have taken for granted for a long time – for example, names of houses or annual awards or prizes. If they are all named after dead, white, straight men then we may need to rethink how our commitment to equality is evident. 

“Everyone is entitled to their opinion.” Is this true?

This can be a tricky one. We have freedom of speech laws, but there are also limitations to that in so far as if you say something that incites hatred or violence or that is against British law, then this could be problematic.

As teachers and school staff, we will all have heard some very strange and unequal views expressed by parents, families and some children. We cannot simply say, "well, everyone is entitled to their own opinion", or "everyone has different ideas".

What if a white supremacist parent asked you to get rid of all the books in school with "brown faces", or said they didn’t want their child taught by a black person, or that they did not want the teachers to tell them about black people?

I think we would all know how to deal with that request but, strangely, the request to not tell children that there are gay people has been somehow problematic.

I think it’s useful for schools to develop a small set of mantras that can be easily displayed around schools and classrooms to help everyone – children and staff and visitors – understand these important points. 

Are there some grey areas in this guidance? 

Yes, there are. It is a real shame, as the intent of this guidance was to unite education in all our schools so that all children would have an almost identical understanding of relationships education and that the policy would be so clear and transparent that equity in relationships education would be clear across all schools.

The policy is very clear in paragraph 59 that:

  • “Families of many forms provide a nurturing environment for children. (Families can include, for example, single-parent families, LGBT parents, families headed by grandparents, adoptive parents, foster parents/carers amongst other structures.) Care needs to be taken to ensure that there is no stigmatisation of children based on their home circumstances and needs, to reflect sensitively that some children may have a different structure of support around them, eg, looked-after children or young carers.”

And on p21:

  • “…marriage represents a formal and legally recognised commitment of two people to each other which is intended to be lifelong. (Marriage in England and Wales is available to both opposite-sex and same-sex couples. The Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013 extended marriage to same-sex couples in England and Wales. The ceremony through which a couple get married may be civil or religious.)”

That is pretty clear. It is also clear that all schools must comply with the Equality Act 2010.

But then it also says in paragraph 20: 

  • “…the religious background of all pupils must be taken into account when planning teaching, so that the topics that are included in the core content in this guidance are appropriately handled.”

The Department for Education was very clear that parents do not have the right to veto what is taught in school; the school decides on the contents of its curriculum. It would have been very, very helpful if the DfE had decided on the contents of its curriculum as a set of non-negotiables that could be added to but not taken away from. 

However, it is very clear that schools must comply with the Equality Act and they cannot discriminate against any protected characteristic and, therefore, they must treat LBGT differently from other protective characteristics.

What quotes can I have around school to help? 

We will all have our favourites. These are some of ours: 

  • “We have more in common than that which divides us.” – spoken by Jo Cox, the former Labour MP for Batley and Spen, before she was killed in 2016
  • “I would like to be known as a person who is concerned about freedom and equality and justice and prosperity for all people.” – Rosa Parks 
  • “The difference between a broken community and a thriving one is the presence of women who are valued.” – Michelle Obama 

Shylock’s speech in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice sums up equality perfectly: 

“I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die?”

Replace the word “Jew” with any other of the protected characteristics: I am a woman, I am gay, I am Muslim, I am white, I am black, I am old, I am autistic…  

If you prick us, do we not bleed? 

Sarah Hewitt-Clarkson is headteacher at Anderton Park Primary School and the Tes person of the year

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