Age limits on sex education could see children turn to ‘less reliable sources’

Age limits on when sex education can be taught could risk children seeking information from “less reliable sources”, a school leaders’ union has warned.

Schools in England are set to be told not to teach children sex education until pupils are aged nine and over, with explicit conversations delayed until they are aged 13, reports suggest.

The revised guidance on relationships, sex and health education (RSHE), from Education Secretary Gillian Keegan, is also expected to tell schools to avoid proactively teaching children about gender identity and instead explain the “biological” facts about sex, according to the Times newspaper.

The National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) has called on the Government to provide evidence which shows that “rigid” age limits will improve the support, protection and safeguarding of pupils.

Meanwhile, the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) has accused the Government of not handling the teaching of sex education “with the care it deserves” amid the leaked media reports.

Education Secretary Gillian Keegan
The revised guidance is from Education Secretary Gillian Keegan (Lucy North/PA)

“It is hard to see how rigid limits on what can be discussed and when would be in the best interests of young people – and this may even risk them seeking information from less reliable sources.”

Mr Whiteman – who called the leaked reports “utterly disgraceful” – added: “If what has been leaked is accurate, the Government must provide the evidence which unequivocally shows that such age limits will improve the support, protection and safeguarding of children and young people.”

The Department for Education (DfE) has not yet published a consultation on revised RSHE guidance.

Pepe Di’Iasio, general secretary of the ASCL, said: “We do not think the Government has handled the important matter of the teaching of sex education with the care it deserves.

“It has not consulted with school leaders and we have not seen the guidance that is planned other than through leaked reports to the media.”

On the reports that age limits will be set on what children can be taught, Mr Di’Iasio said: “There does need to be some flexibility for school leaders to respond to the circumstances in their context.

“For example, there is often damaging misinformation circulating on social media which they may need to address in order to safeguard the wellbeing of their pupils.”

It comes after the Prime Minister announced a review of its statutory RSHE guidance for schools in March last year after hearing concerns that children were being exposed to “inappropriate” content.

Policing minister Chris Philp said on Wednesday that the Education Secretary’s new guidance on sex education is due to come out shortly and he expects changes to come into force quickly.

He told GB News: “As a parent as well, I don’t want my children, to be honest, to be exposed to inappropriate content at a pretty young age and nor do I want politically contested ideas like the trans issues being taught as if they’re facts.

“I think childhood is a really special time and I don’t think we need to introduce some of these ideas too early.

“So I think the changes that are likely to come are going to be very welcome and as I say, I know the Education Secretary will get on and do them as quickly as possible. As a parent I strongly welcome that.”

An independent panel was appointed to advise on age ratings in May last year as part of the review into sex education in schools led by the DfE.

Daniel Kebede, general secretary of the National Education Union (NEU), said it would be “irresponsible” to shut down conversations on issues which affect children from a young age until the teenage years.

“Primary-aged children pick up information online and need the opportunity to discuss puberty and relationships and their bodies with trusted adults.”

Jason Elsom, chief executive of charity Parentkind, said: “Transparency is the word that needs to be written all over new guidance, to make sure that parents are given the information they need.”

He added: “Parents not only want to protect the innocence of their children but also wish to see them develop a healthy understanding of relationships and sex when they themselves feel it is appropriate to do so.

“To help them be part of that journey, parents are asking schools to be completely open and transparent with the foundations they are putting in place for perhaps the most important construct a child will have.

“When schools fail to be transparent with parents, it’s natural to wonder what they’re hiding but when parents who have full transparency on what their children are being taught in RSHE are four times more likely to say they were happy with these lessons.”

Since September 2020, relationships and sex education has been compulsory in secondary schools in England, while relationships education has been compulsory in primary schools.

The DfE has been approached for comment.

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