New guidance for schools on relationships and sex education could include age ratings to prevent children being taught things they are considered too young to understand.
Rishi Sunak announced a review into Relationships, Sex, Health and Education (RSHE) earlier this month after concerns that children are being exposed to “inappropriate” content.
The Department for Education (DfE) said on Friday that it would be leading the review but that it will be informed by an independent panel which will provide “external expertise”.
The guidance is expected to be released in the coming months, possibly before the beginning of the next academic year, and will then be subject to public consultation.
The consultation is expected to conclude by the end of the year, with the guidance coming into statutory force as soon as possible after that, the department said.
The RSHE guidance is separate to guidance for schools in relation to transgender issues, which the Prime Minister confirmed on Thursday will be published “for the summer term”.
Announcing more details on the RSHE review, the Government said it is determined to make sure such teaching “leaves children equipped to make informed decisions about their health, wellbeing and relationships, in a sensitive way that reflects their stage of development”.
Education Secretary Gillian Keegan said she is “deeply concerned about reports of inappropriate lessons being taught in schools”.
She said: “This urgent review will get to the heart of how RSHE is currently taught and should be taught in the future.
“This will leave no room for any disturbing content, restore parents’ confidence, and make sure children are even better protected.”
Her comments were criticised by a school leader’s union.
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said it was “very disappointing to see Education Secretary Gillian Keegan’s implicit criticism of schools when she says the review will restore the confidence of parents”.
The review is expected to consider how to make sure all RSHE teaching is factual and does not present contested views on sensitive topics as fact.
It will engage with those working with children across the education and health sectors and draw on close work with the schools watchdog Ofsted to understand what material is currently used in the classroom and consider what improvements might need to be made, the DfE said.
The independent panel is expected to advise on “clear safeguards to stop pupils from being taught contested and potentially damaging concepts”, including bringing in age ratings setting out what is appropriate to be taught at what age.
The DfE said independent provider Oak National Academy will develop curriculum materials “to make sure every school can access high-quality, compliant resources which will build on what is already available for schools”.
Ms Keegan has written to schools to remind them they are required by law to publish a relationships or a relationships and sex education policy and consult parents on it, the DfE added.
The letter makes clear that parents should be able to view all curriculum materials and that they can ask to see material if it has not already been shared, especially in relation to sensitive topics, the department said.
Conservative MP Miriam Cates has claimed some pupils have been subjected to relationships and sex education classes that are “age-inappropriate, extreme, sexualising and inaccurate”.
Ms Cates previously told the House of Commons: “Graphic lessons on oral sex, how to choke your partner safely and 72 genders. This is what passes for relationships and sex education in British schools.
“Across the country, children are being subjected to lessons that are age-inappropriate, extreme, sexualising and inaccurate, often using resources from unregulated organisations that are actively campaigning to undermine parents.
“This is not a victory for equality, it is a catastrophe for childhood.”
Mr Barton said the “vast majority” of schools teach RSHE “cautiously, sensitively and in an age-appropriate manner” and insisted that claims made about inappropriate teaching are “overblown, sweeping and supported by evidence which is flimsy at best”.
He added: “The Government has provided very little training support for the teaching of this subject and we sincerely hope the review that is due to take place will make recommendations around providing more and better-resourced training.
“This is such a sensitive and difficult subject to navigate that it really requires the provision of specialist teachers, but the Government expects it to be taught by existing classroom teachers who are also teaching other subjects. As ever, it expects to deliver major policies on the cheap, and then is quick to criticise schools.”
The NAHT union said it is “essential” that the DfE “engages properly with a range of experts and stakeholders, including parents, pupils, teachers and leaders”, adding that there is already “strong practice in schools across the country that can and should be shared and built on”.
The End Violence Against Women Coalition said it is “deeply concerned” about a potential gap in expertise regarding gender-based violence and called on the Government to ensure the sector is “valued and included in this review, as well as the development and delivery of RSHE moving forward”.
Sir Keir Starmer urged Mr Sunak to “get on with it” and publish the guidance for schools on relationships and sex education.
During a visit to a food manufacturing factory in Plymouth, the Labour leader told broadcasters: “We said to the Government you need to put guidance in place, help schools through this. The Government actually promised that a year ago but hasn’t done it.
“The Prime Minister now says ‘well, I’ll do it some time later this year’. My message to him would be ‘get on with it’.”