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Relationships and Sexuality Education in Northern Ireland - A guide for parents

RE/RSE

This document has been produced by Parentkind and the Council for Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment (CCEA) to provide parents with an overview of Relationships and Sexuality Education (RSE) within the curriculum in Northern Ireland.

In 2015, CCEA published updated Relationships and Sexuality Guidance for primary and post-primary schools. This guidance can be found at the following links:

https://ccea.org.uk/learning-resources/relationships-and-sexuality-education-guidance-primary

https://ccea.org.uk/learning-resources/relationships-and-sexuality-education-guidance-post-primary

CCEA has developed an RSE Hub on the CCEA website providing guidance on RSE for teachers and links to curriculum and support materials. There are also links to guidance and support materials suitable for parents and carers. These are identified by a parents and carer icon. The RSE Hub ensures that schools have access to a range of up-to-date, relevant resources and sources of support for the following priority areas:

  • Consent
  • Developments in Contraception
  • Domestic and Sexual Violence and Abuse
  • Healthy, Positive Sexual Expression and Relationships
  • Internet Safety
  • LGBTQ+ Matters
  • Menstrual Wellbeing
  • Social Media and its Effects on Relationships and Self-Esteem
  • Special Educational Needs (SEN)
  • Teen Parenting

What is RSE?

Relationships and Sexuality Education is about more than simply educating children about biological sexual reproduction, particularly in primary schools. Although it is often referred to as ‘sex education’, this terminology is misleading. Relationships and Sexuality Education is a lifelong process, encompassing:

  • the acquisition of knowledge, understanding and skills
  • the development of attitudes, beliefs and values about sexual identity, relationships and intimacy

For children and young people, the learning process has begun informally, with their parents or carers, long before any education in a formal setting takes place at school. Sexuality includes all aspects of the human person that relate to being male or female: it may be subject to change, and it develops throughout life. Sexuality is an integral part of the human personality and has biological, cultural, psychological, social and spiritual dimensions.

Effective Relationships and Sexuality Education is essential if children and young people are to value themselves as individuals and are to make responsible and well-informed decisions about their lives. Relationships and Sexuality Education in primary schools should provide children with opportunities to:

  • value themselves as unique individuals
  • respect themselves and others
  • develop their own moral thinking and value systems
  • learn about friendships, healthy relationships and behaviours with others
  • recognise and communicate their feelings and emotions and those of others
  • learn about the changes that occur as they progress towards adolescence, particularly the emotional and physical changes at puberty
  • learn about keeping themselves safe and know what to do or who to go to if they feel unsafe
  • Relationships and Sexuality Education in post-primary schools should build on the learning experiences from the primary curriculum and also provide young people with up-to-date, accurate and accessible information about reproduction, sex and sexual health matters.

    Relationships and Sexuality Education is most effective when it is taught in a sensitive and inclusive manner, and in a way that is appropriate to the child’s emotional and physical age and stage of development. All children and young people have the right to quality teaching and learning across the curriculum; Relationships and Sexuality Education is no exception. An absence of such provision may leave children with a learning and skills deficit, making them more susceptible to inappropriate behaviours, sexual abuse, and exploitation.

    Is RSE part of the curriculum?

    Since the revised Northern Ireland Curriculum was introduced in 2007, Relationships and Sexuality Education (RSE) has been a statutory component of the following key areas of learning:

    • Personal Development and Mutual Understanding in the primary curriculum
    • Personal Development and Home Economics statements of requirement for Key Stage 3
    • Personal Development strand of Learning for Life and Work at Key Stage 4

    The content for each Key Stage is set out in The Education (Curriculum Minimum Content) Order (NI) 2007).

    You can find the RSE content for each Key Stage in the appendices to this document.

    Appendix 1: RSE in primary schools.

    Appendix 2: RSE in post-primary schools.

    CCEA is currently developing a curriculum framework for teachers which clearly sets out in more detail key issues to be covered at each Key Stage in relation to RSE.

    Is the teaching of RSE compulsory?

    RSE has been a compulsory (statutory) component of the revised Northern Ireland Curriculum 2007. The statutory curriculum includes prescribed minimum content in relation to RSE. This is a minimum entitlement that all children should receive. Schools have flexibility to decide on how best to deliver RSE to meet the needs of pupils.

    The Department of Education requires all grant-aided schools to develop their own policy on how they will address Relationships and Sexuality Education (RSE) within the curriculum. A school’s policy should reflect the school’s ethos and should be subject to consultation with parents and pupils and endorsed by the Board of Governors. It should also reflect the moral and religious principles held by parents and school management authorities. A school’s RSE Policy, curriculum design, content and implementation is evaluated by Education and Training Inspectorate (ETI). ETI reports its evaluation of safeguarding based on the evidence of the whole range of related policies, including RSE.

    Why Relationships and Sexuality Education is important

    Respects the rights of children

    The United Kingdom Government, including Northern Ireland, is a signatory to the 1989 United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) and has agreed to uphold the rights of children and young people as set out in the Convention. This means that all children and young people in Northern Ireland have a right to a good quality education in accordance with the Convention.

    Promotes a better understanding of diversity and inclusion

    Schools are increasingly diverse spaces, reflecting wider societal change. RSE should foster respect for difference, challenge prejudicial attitudes, and promote equality of opportunity for all pupils.

    Helps children to keep themselves safer in the digital world

    Technology plays an integral role in the lives of many children in Northern Ireland today: they use the internet to watch programmes, play games, listen, and download music, carry out research for school, chat with their friends, and make new friends. However, whilst technological advancements provide many opportunities, along with opportunity comes risk, particularly if the children’s activity is unsupervised. Cyberbullying, the use of chat rooms, online grooming and child exploitation, sexting, access to inappropriate content, the acting out of inappropriate sexualised behaviours, and the sending and receiving of explicit images are just some of the ways in which online and digital technology can negatively affect the lives of children.

    Through Relationships and Sexuality Education, children and young people should be taught ‘keeping safe’ messages about how to behave safely and responsibly in the digital world which plays such an integral role in their lives. They should be able to identify potential risks to their safety, make informed choices and decisions, and be aware of the strategies they can use to protect themselves.

    Provides reliable, accurate and timely age-appropriate information

    Although there is great emphasis in primary schools on friendships and healthy relationships in Relationships and Sexuality Education, schools should also give children opportunities to learn and understand how and why the body grows and develops, and know how babies are conceived, grow, and are born. This knowledge forms part of the Personal Development and Mutual Understanding theme of ‘Health, Growth and Change’ in the latter part of Key Stage 2.

    Every child is unique and develops physically and emotionally at his or her own pace. However, as the average age for puberty is 8–12 years old for girls and 9–14 years old for boys, schools must schedule learning about puberty before its onset, during Key Stage 2. If a school does not do this, it runs the risk of leaving some children unprepared to deal with the physical and emotional changes that take place during puberty, which some may already be experiencing. Before puberty is covered in class, the school should consult with parents or carers about how the subject will be delivered.

    In post-primary schools, RSE provides opportunities for young people to critically evaluate the information they are bombarded with today, particularly the often distorted and inaccurate information about sex and relationships they are exposed to from their peers and social media. Relationships and Sexuality Education can lead to young people making informed choices and decisions by providing opportunities for them to examine their own values and attitudes in the light of those held by others. A deeper understanding of their own personal values and beliefs can help young people to clarify why they think and behave as they do, separate fact from fiction, recognise prejudice, and respect the views, emotions and feelings of others.

    Promotes the use of appropriate language

    Learning and using the correct terminology in Relationships and Sexuality Education is vitally important for children, as it helps them to talk about feelings, sexuality, relationships, growth and development with confidence. In the interests of child safeguarding, it is very important that schools use the proper biological terms for parts of the body with the children from an early age, particularly private body parts and functions. To ensure consistency, all school staff should agree the key terms which they will use at the different key stages with pupils. They should also share this information with parents or carers, so that they can use the same terms at home.

    Helps children to recognise inappropriate behaviour and touch

    Despite the fact that Article 34 of the UNCRC enshrines all children’s rights to be protected from sexual abuse and exploitation, the reality is that the lives of many children in Northern Ireland are ruined by abuse and exploitation. Research has shown that it is usually children between the ages of 10–18 years old who are primarily affected and most at risk of child sexual exploitation (Beckett, 2011).

    Through Relationships and Sexuality Education in primary school, children should develop an understanding of their own uniqueness. It is also vitally important that they know and understand that, even though they are young, their body belongs to them and them alone. When children learn about ‘keeping safe’ through boundaries and positive consent, it helps them to recognise what constitutes:

    • appropriate and inappropriate behaviour
    • appropriate and inappropriate touch
    • unwanted attention, or attention that makes them feel uncomfortable in any way

    Children must also learn what to do or who to go to if they feel unsafe at any time.

    In post-primary schools, RSE provides a safe environment for pupils to explore sexual and relationship violence and help them to recognise and challenge inappropriate and unwanted attention from others. It is also important that the pupils are encouraged to challenge the ‘blame’ that can be attached to victims of sexual abuse and domestic and/or sexual violence in a relationship, particularly female victims because of factors such as how they choose to dress, or their alcohol intake. Through Relationships and Sexuality Education, pupils will develop a deeper knowledge and understanding of personal safety, and the importance of having equal, mutually respectful, consensual, non-exploitative and non-violent relationships. Pupils will also develop the resilience to work their way through difficult situations, and find out where to access help and support.

    Increases young people’s awareness of sexual health

    In post-primary schools, Relationships and Sexuality Education is an important vehicle for:

    • increasing awareness of issues such as contraception and fertility
    • improving the sexual health and wellbeing of young people
    • reducing unplanned teenage pregnancy and rates of sexually transmitted infections

    Research repeatedly shows that quality Relationships and Sexuality Education can delay sexual activity amongst young people.

    Latest RSE Guidance

    RSE is a dynamic area of the curriculum with new issues emerging over time. CCEA has responded to emerging issues in RSE through the development of the RSE Hub. The Hub is continually updated to keep it current, providing links to background information, guidance, curriculum resources, and support organisations.

    Parents and RSE

    Relationships and Sexuality Education is a lifelong process that begins in the home. The home exerts a major influence on all aspects of a young person’s life, particularly in the sphere of RSE. It is understandable that many parents and carers are anxious about when, what and how their children will be taught in RSE. Concerns range from parents or carers thinking that their child is too young to participate in these classes, to worrying that exposure to sex-related issues will lead to their child becoming more sexualised. Schools should consult closely with parents or carers to allay these fears and support them to keep their children safe outside of school hours.

    Schools may employ strategies such as:

    • providing up-to-date parent or carer friendly information leaflets, which would encourage parents or carers to discuss any issues which may arise in the classroom with their children
    • holding awareness-raising workshops
    • sharing resources to educate parents or carers on, for example, how to ensure that their children are using social media safely and responsibly

       

    Parents or carers should be aware that a school’s teaching of RSE will be complementary and supportive of their role as lead educators in this sensitive area and will be delivered in the context of the school’s distinctive ethos.

    Schools should consult with parents, as well as the Board of Governors and, if age-appropriate, pupils, in the development and review of the school’s RSE policy. In most cases the RSE Policy can be found on the school’s website.

    Withdrawal from Relationships and Sexuality Education

    In Northern Ireland, parents or carers have the right to have their children educated in accordance with their wishes. Therefore, whilst ‘there is no legislative provision permitting parental withdrawal from sex education’, schools can grant these requests on an individual basis. Schools should consider how they can support parents or carers who choose to withdraw their child from all or part of Relationships and Sexuality Education.

    If a parent or carer chooses to withdraw a child from all or part of Relationships and Sexuality Education, they must discuss the potentially detrimental effect that this can have on the child with the school. They should consider the social and emotional effects of being excluded, as well as the likelihood that the child will hear their peers’ version of what happened or what was said in the classes, rather than the safe and reliable source of the teacher’s. Ultimately, however, the school must respect the wishes of the parent or carer.

    What do I do if I want to withdraw my child from RSE or raise issues?

    Parents may prefer to oversee the teaching of sex education themselves, seeing it as part and parcel of their parental duty. Others may choose to withdraw their child for cultural or religious reasons, but again, the expectation would be that alternative sex education is provided to the child within the faith tradition of the parent(s). If you choose to withdraw your child from the sex education aspects of Relationships and Sex Education (RSE) in primary or secondary school, then you are legally entitled to expect the school to meet your request. The best approach is to ask for a meeting or telephone call with the Headteacher, who may ask your reasons for wishing to withdraw your child to ensure that you have all the information available about course content to ensure that you are making an informed decision. Although this can be daunting, such a conversation should be constructive, and aimed at seeking genuine understanding. See our guidance on how to raise concerns with your school, or our Blueprint for Parent-Friendly Schools for more help on how homes and schools can collaborate effectively.

    Engaging with pupils

    Pupils should become involved in the development and review of a school’s Relationships and Sexuality Education policy. They should be involved in the school’s ongoing evaluation and review of the Relationships and Sexuality Education provision to ensure that it meets the needs of all pupils. A programme which goes unaltered year on year is unlikely to reflect the changing needs of pupils. Moreover, as is the case with all learning, young people are more likely to engage with, enjoy and value a programme which has been tailored to meet their needs and one which they feel a sense of ownership of.

    Further reading

    Consent: This area of CCEA’s RSE Hub signposts to resources and guidance information that can help teachers, parents/carers, and children and young people explore issues around consent and how to stay safe.

    Domestic and sexual violence and abuse: This area of the RSE Hub signposts to resources and guidance information for teachers, parents/carers, and children and young people on domestic and sexual violence and abuse. It also signposts to local organisations that can offer confidential advice and support to children and young people, and families.

    Healthy sexual expression and relationships: This area of the RSE Hub signposts to resources and guidance information that can help teachers, parents/carers, and children and young people explore how to build positive relationships, and recognise and respond to age-appropriate behaviours.

    Internet safety: This area of the RSE Hub signposts to resources and guidance information for teachers, parents/carers, and children and young people on internet safety issues.

    LGBTQ+ matters: This area of the RSE Hub signposts to resources and guidance information for teachers, parents/carers, and children and young people on LGBTQ+ matters. It also signposts to local organisations that can offer confidential advice and support to children and young people, and families.

    Menstrual wellbeing: This area of the RSE Hub looks at what should be taught about menstrual wellbeing in primary and post-primary schools and signposts to resources and guidance information for teachers, parents/carers, and children and young people on menstrual wellbeing and period poverty.

    Social media and its effects on relationships and self-esteem: This area of the RSE Hub signposts to resources and guidance information for teachers, parents/carers, and children and young people on social media issues. It also signposts to organisations that can offer advice and support if something does go wrong with social media and young people find themselves as victims of cyberbullying or other forms of online harassment.

    SEN: RSE is a priority for all pupils, and this includes learners with SEN who have social, emotional and mental health needs and learning disabilities. It’s important that learners with SEN have the opportunity to understand what is right and wrong from an early age, through RSE that is appropriate for their age and ability. This area of the RSE Hub signposts to resources and guidance information on RSE and SEN for teachers, parents/carers, and children and young people with Special Educational Needs.

    Teen parenting: RSE provides an opportunity to help young people consider their roles and responsibilities as potential future parents, ensuring they are prepared for the challenges that parenthood brings. This area of the RSE Hub signposts to resources and guidance and support information on parenting generally as well as teen parenting.

    Relationships and Sexuality (RSE) Guidance for Catholic schools - 2021:These documents have been prepared for Boards of Governors, Principals and Teachers in Catholic Primary and Post Primary schools in their work in the area of Relationships and Sexuality Education (RSE).

    Appendix 1 - What is taught at each stage in RSE? RSE in Primary Schools

    Foundation Stage

    RSE is a statutory part of Personal Development and Mutual Understanding in the Foundation Stage. Below are the statutory requirements relevant to RSE at this key stage.

    Teachers should enable children to develop knowledge, understanding and skills in:

    Personal Understanding and Health

    Pupils should be enabled to explore:

    • themselves and their personal attributes
    • their own and others’ feelings and emotions
    • the importance of keeping healthy and how to keep safe in familiar and unfamiliar environments

    Mutual Understanding in the Local and Wider Community

    Pupils should be enabled to explore:

    • their relationships with family and friends
    • their responsibilities for self and others
    • how to respond appropriately in conflict situations
    • similarities and differences between groups of people

    Progression

    As pupils progress through the Foundation Stage, they should be enabled to:

    • express a sense of self-awareness
    • show some self-control and express their own feelings and emotions appropriately
    • adopt healthy and hygienic routines and understand how to keep safe
    • form good relationships with adults and other pupils
    • show independence and know when to seek help
    • show respect when working and playing together and recognise the need for rules
    • recognise similarities and differences in families and the wider community

    Key Stage 1

    RSE is a statutory part of Personal Development and Mutual Understanding at Key Stage 1. Below are the statutory requirements relevant to RSE at this key stage.

    Teachers should enable children to develop knowledge, understanding and skills in:

    Personal Understanding and Health

    • their self-esteem and self-confidence
    • their own and others’ feelings and emotions and how their actions affect others
    • strategies and skills for keeping themselves healthy and safe

    Mutual Understanding in the Local and Wider Community

    • initiating and developing mutually satisfying relationships
    • responsibility and respect, honesty and fairness
    • constructive approaches to conflict
    • similarities and differences between people
    • developing themselves as members of a community

    Key Stage 2

    RSE is a statutory part of Personal Development and Mutual Understanding at Key Stage 2. Below are the statutory requirements relevant to RSE at this Key Stage.

    Teachers should enable children to develop knowledge, understanding and skills in:

    Personal Understanding and Health

    • their self-esteem, self-confidence and how they develop as individuals
    • their management of a range of feelings and emotions and the feelings and emotions of others:
    • how to sustain their health, growth and wellbeing and coping safely and efficiently with their environment

    Mutual Understanding in the Local and Wider Community

    • initiating, developing and sustaining mutually satisfying relationships
    • human rights and social responsibility
    • causes of conflict and appropriate responses
    • valuing and celebrating cultural difference and diversity
    • playing an active and meaningful part in the life of the community

    Appendix 2 - What is taught at each stage in RSE? RSE in post-primary schools

    At Key Stage 3, RSE is a statutory part of Learning for Life and Work in the Personal Development and Home Economics strands.

    Below are the statutory requirements, set out under the Key Concepts relevant to RSE at this Key Stage.

    Teachers should enable pupils to develop knowledge, understanding and skills in the following Key Concepts:

    Learning for Life and Work – Personal Development Strand

    Key Concept – Self-Awareness

    Exploring Self-Awareness provides opportunities to consider the importance of self-confidence and self-esteem to physical and emotional/mental health throughout life.

    Pupils should have opportunities to:

    • Explore and express a sense of self, for example temperament, feelings and emotions, personal responsibility, personal needs, aspirations, etc
    • Explore personal morals, values and beliefs, for example the origin of personal values, developing a moral framework, personal integrity, etc Investigate the influences on a young person, for example peer pressure, media, social and cultural trends, fears, anxieties and motivations, etc. Explore the different ways to develop self-esteem, for example enhanced self-awareness, sense of security and self-worth, setting achievable targets, developing resilience, new interests and skills, learning to recognise achievement, etc.

    Key Concept – Personal Health

    Exploring Personal Health provides opportunities to understand the importance of recognising and managing factors that may influence physical and emotional/mental health throughout life.

    Pupils should have opportunities to:

    • Explore the concept of Health as the development of a whole person, for example defining what makes up a whole person, the need to develop physical, mental, social, moral, cognitive, etc
    • Investigate the influences on physical and emotional/mental personal health of, for example immunisation, personal hygiene, etc
    • Develop understanding about, and strategies to manage, the effects of change on body, mind and behaviour, for example puberty, body image, mood swings, etc
    • Develop strategies to promote personal safety, for example responding appropriately to different forms of bullying, abuse, physical violence; developing safe practice in relation to the internet, getting home; understanding and managing risk, the place of rules and boundaries, etc

    Key Concept – Relationships

    Exploring Relationships provides opportunities to understand the importance of forming and maintaining relationships to physical and emotional/mental health throughout life.

    Pupils should have opportunities to:

    • Explore the qualities of relationships including friendship, for example conditions for healthy relationships, types of relationships, healthy boundaries, gender issues in relationships, etc
    • Explore the qualities of a loving, respectful relationship, for example how choices within a relationship affect both physical and emotional development, friendships, etc
    • Develop coping strategies to deal with challenging relationship scenarios, for example sibling rivalry, caring for relatives, domestic violence, teenage rebellion, child abuse, sexism, change in family circumstances, coping with rejection, loneliness and loss, etc
    • Develop strategies to avoid and resolve conflict, for example active listening, assertiveness, negotiation, mediation, etc
    • Explore the implications of sexual maturation, for example sexual health, fertility, contraception, conception, teenage pregnancy, childbirth, etc
    • Explore the emotional, social and moral implications of early sexual activity, for example personal values, attitudes and perceptions, the Law, STIs, the impact of underage parenting, etc

    Key Stage 4

    RSE sits within the Personal Development strand of Learning for Life and Work at Key Stage 4.

    Learning for Life and Work is a compulsory Area of Learning at this key stage. It helps young people develop the fundamental skills, knowledge, qualities and dispositions that are prerequisites for life and work.

    Below is the statutory minimum content relevant to RSE at this Key Stage.

    Pupils should be enabled to:

    • develop an understanding of how to maximise and sustain their own health and wellbeing
    • reflect on, and respond to, their developing concept of self, including managing emotions and reactions to ongoing life experiences
    • recognise, assess and manage risk in a range of real-life contexts
    • develop their understanding of relationships and sexuality and the responsibilities of healthy relationships
    • develop an understanding of the roles and responsibilities of parenting

    CCEA provides a range of GCSE and vocational qualifications that support this Area of Learning, including GCSE Learning for Life and Work. An Entry Level qualification in Learning for Life and Work also supports progression from Key Stage 3.

    Reviewed: February 2022

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