Sex and relationships education factsheet

Last updated January 2011

Sex and relationships education (SRE) is learning about the emotional, social and physical aspects of growing up, relationships, sex, human sexuality and sexual health.

It should equip children and young people with the information, skills and values to have safe, fulfilling and enjoyable relationships and to take responsibility for their sexual health and well-being.(1)

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Definition of Key stages:

  • Key stage 1: 5–7 years old
  • Key stage 2: 7–11 years old
  • Key stage 3: 11–14 years old
  • Key stage 4: 14–16 years old

Legislation and government policy


Legal framework for SRE

The Education Act 1996 consolidated all previous legislation, and key points related to SRE are:

  • The sex education elements of the National Curriculum Science Order are mandatory for all pupils of primary and secondary school age. These cover anatomy, puberty, biological aspects of sexual reproduction and use of hormones to control and promote fertility.
  • Secondary schools are required to provide an SRE programme which includes (as a minimum) information about sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and HIV/AIDS.
  • Other elements of personal, social and health education (PSHE), including SRE, are non-statutory.
  • All schools must provide, and make available for inspection, an up-to-date policy describing the content and organisation of SRE outside of national curriculum science. This is the school governors’ responsibility.
  • Primary schools should have a policy statement that describes the SRE provided or gives a statement of the decision not to provide SRE.

The Learning and Skills Act 2000 requires that:

  • young people learn about the nature of marriage and its importance for family life and bringing up children.
  • young people are protected from teaching and materials which are inappropriate, having regard to the age and the religious and cultural background of the pupils concerned.
  • school governing bodies have regard for the guidance.
  • parents have the right to withdraw their child from all or part of SRE provided outside national curriculum science.

Government guidance on personal, social and health education (PSHE)

The aspects of SRE that are not included in the science curriculum are delivered through personal, social, health and economic (PSHE) education. PSHE was extended to include economic education in 2008 when a new secondary school curriculum was introduced.(2) PSHE and citizenship are supported by the National Healthy Schools Programme (NHSP).(3) Both PSHE and citizenship are non-statutory at Key stages 1 and 2. At Key stages 3 and 4 citizenship becomes statutory, although PSHE remains non-statutory.

The Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency (QCDA) publishes guidance on the whole curriculum, including PSHE programmes of study and end of key stage statements to help teachers assess progress.(4)

Government guidance on SRE(5)

In 2000, the Department for Education and Employment (now the Department for Education) published guidance on the delivery of SRE through the PSHE framework. The guidance aims to help schools to plan SRE policy and practice and includes teaching strategies, working with parents, and confidentiality.

  • There should be an emphasis on developing knowledge, skills and attitudes and appropriate teaching methods.
  • Primary schools should ensure that both boys and girls know about puberty before it begins.
  • Teachers should develop activities that will involve boys and young men as well as girls and young women.
  • Policies should be developed in consultation with parents, young people, teachers and governors.
  • All schools have a duty to ensure that the needs of children with special needs and learning disabilities are properly met.
  • Puberty, menstruation, contraception, abortion, safer sex, HIV/AIDS and STIs should be covered.
  • The needs of all pupils should be met, regardless of sexual orientation or ethnicity.
  • SRE should be planned and delivered as part of PSHE and citizenship.

Elements of the guidance are supported by the Learning and Skills Act 2000.


Legal framework for SRE

Under the Education Act 2002, SRE became a compulsory part of the basic curriculum in all secondary schools. Primary schools are also required to have a policy on SRE, outlining details of their SRE programme or explaining their decision not to provide SRE. The Welsh Assembly Government recommends that primary schools have a graduated programme of SRE tailored to the age and emotional maturity of the children.

Personal and social education (PSE) became a compulsory part of the basic curriculum in both primary and secondary schools in September 2003.(6) Schools are expected to base their provision of SRE and PSE on guidance produced by the Welsh Assembly Government.

Government guidance on PHSE

From autumn 2008 all schools, colleges and other learning providers in Wales have been basing their PSE provision for 7–19 year olds on a new framework published by the Welsh Assembly Government.(7) The five themes of the framework are:

  • active citizenship
  • health and emotional wellbeing (which includes SRE)
  • moral and spiritual development
  • preparing for lifelong learning
  • sustainable development and global citizenship.

Learning outcomes are set out for each theme at each key stage.

Government guidance on SRE

The Welsh Assembly Government published new guidance in 2010(8). This includes the legal context, development of school policy, learning and teaching strategies, topics to be covered,dealing with sensitive issues that may arise, and the importance of working in partnership with parents, carers and the wider community.


There is no statutory requirement in Scotland for schools to teach sex education.

A new curriculum for 3–18 years, introduced in August 2010, aims to enable each child or young person to be a successful learner, a confident individual, a responsible citizen and an effective contributor. Health and wellbeing is one of eight curriculum areas of Curriculum for Excellence(9), and includes relationships, sexual health and parenthood.

In 2001, the Scottish Executive published a circular on sex education in Scottish schools which encouraged all schools to provide sex education within a comprehensive programme of personal, social and health education and religious and moral education.(10)

Relevant national advice and guidelines on sex education for all stages of schooling was summarised by the Scottish Executive in 2001.(11)This requires that sex education should present facts in an objective, balanced and sensitive manner within a framework of social values, but programmes will vary between local authorities and schools.

Schools are expected to:

  • make sure that sex education takes account of each child’s age, understanding and stage of development/li>
  • work in partnership with parents
  • have simple, direct procedures in place for parents to raise concerns
  • have a method of consulting with pupils
  • respect the different cultural, ethnic and religious environments of the home
  • respect the different home circumstances and needs of all young people.

Parents can withdraw their children from all or part of a planned sex education programme. They are expected to discuss with the head teacher how they intend to provide this education themselves. Guidance is available for schools on how to consult effectively with parents and carers.(12)

Northern Ireland

Legal framework for relationships and sexuality education (RSE)

RSE is included on a statutory basis in the school curriculum through the science programme of study and a learning area covering personal development.

From September 2007 a revised school curriculum introduced personal development and mutual understanding (PDMU) in primary schools, which develops into learning for life and work (LLW) in post-primary schools.(13)

At Key stage 3, pupils should have opportunities to:

  • explore the qualities of relationships including friendship
  • explore the qualities of a loving, respectful friendship
  • develop coping strategies to deal with challenging relationship scenarios
  • develop strategies to avoid and resolve conflict
  • explore the implications of sexual maturation
  • explore the emotional, social and moral implications of early sexual activity.(14)

At Key stage 4, three of the skills that pupils should develop are:

  • recognising, assessing and managing risk in a range of real-life contexts
  • developing their understanding of relationships and sexuality and the responsibilities of healthy relationships
  • an understanding of the roles and responsibilities of parenting.(14)

Government guidance on RSE

All schools should have a written policy on RSE and there is guidance to assist schools to develop an appropriate policy and a programme of study.(15,16,17,18,19)

See FPA Northern Ireland factsheet Relationships and sexuality education in schools for further information.


The SRE guidance in each country aims to help schools in drawing up their own policy on confidentiality, which should be clear, meet the best interests of young people and be workable by staff.(5,8,11,15) Policies and guidance may vary in different parts of the UK.

Teachers will not always be able to maintain confidentiality where a young person discloses information either in the classroom or in a one-to-one situation. Where they believe that a young person is at risk of physical or sexual abuse, the school child protection procedures should be followed, and there is specific guidance for education authorities on this.(20,21,22,23)

Teachers are not legally obliged to inform anyone if they learn of or suspect sexual activity in pupils under the age of consent (16 in each UK country) if there is no evidence of abuse or exploitation. However, all school staff should be familiar with and follow their school's confidentiality and safeguarding (child protection) policies regarding disclosure. If a teacher learns that a pupil under the age of consent is sexually active they should encourage the young person to talk with a parent or carer, ensure that any child protection issue is addressed, and provide adequate information about confidential sexual health advice and treatment services. This information should be freely available to all pupils.

Local policies may vary, particularly around child protection issues for young people under the age of 13.

School nurses and other outside visitors involved in the delivery of SRE should follow the school's confidentiality and SRE policy. In one-to-one clinical situations, health professionals and other outside visitors are bound by their professional codes of practice.

Is SRE beneficial?

Reviews of international research show that school-based SRE, particularly when linked to contraceptive services, does not increase sexual activity, but can have a positive impact on young people's knowledge and attitudes, delay sexual activity and/or reduce pregnancy rates by the use of contraception and safer sex.(24,25)

In England, a review of the Teenage pregnancy strategy identified strong delivery of SRE and PSHE by schools as a key feature of high performing local authorities where teenage pregnancy rates had gone down.(26) There is no evidence that abstinence-only education programmes delay the initiation of sex, increase a return to abstinence or decrease the numbers of sexual partners.(25,27)

Parents' and young people's views of SRE

Many organisations support the call for PSHE to become a statutory subject.(28,29)

Surveys show that the majority of the general public,(30,31) parents,(32, 33) young people,(34,35,36) and education professionals(37) agree with this, and think that SRE should cover emotional and relationship issues as well as biological aspects.

In one UK survey(34) of over 20,000 young people aged under 18:

  • 40 per cent thought the SRE they had received was either poor or very poor
  • 61 per cent of boys and 70 per cent of girls reported not having any information aboutpersonal relationships at school
  • 73 per cent felt that SRE should be taught before the age of 13.


1 Sex Education Forum, Understanding Sex and Relationships Education (London: National Children’s Bureau, 2010).

2 Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency, The Secondary Curriculum, accessed 18 November 2010.

3 Department of Health, National Healthy Schools Status: A Guide for Schools (London: Department of Health, 2005).

4 Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency, End of Key Stage Statements for PSHE, accessed 19 November 2010.

5 Department for Education and Employment, Sex and Relationship Education Guidance, Circular 0116/2000 (London: Department for Education and Employment, 2000).

6 National Assembly for Wales, Personal and Social Education (PSE) and Work-Related Education (WRE) in the Basic Curriculum, Circular 13/03 (Cardiff: National Assembly for Wales, 2003).

7 Welsh Assembly Government, Department for Children, Education, Lifelong Learning and
Skills, Personal and Social Education Framework for 7 to 19 Year Olds in Wales (Cardiff: Welsh Assembly, 2008).

8 Welsh Assembly Government, Sex and Relationships Education in Schools, Circular 019/2010 (Welsh Assembly Government, 2010).

9 Learning and Teaching Scotland, Curriculum for Excellence. Experiences and Outcomes: Health and Wellbeing (Glasgow: Learning and Teaching Scotland, 2010).

10 Scottish Executive, Standards in Scotland’s Schools etc Act 2000: Conduct of Sex Education in Scottish Schools, Circular 2/2001 (Edinburgh: Scottish Executive, 2001).

11 Scottish Executive, Sex Education in Scottish Schools: Summary of National Guidance (Edinburgh: Scottish Executive, 2001).

12 Scottish Executive, Sex Education in Scottish Schools: Effective Consultation with Parents and Carers (Guidance) (Edinburgh: Scottish Executive, 2001).

13 Education (Northern Ireland) Order 2006.

14 Education (Curriculum Minimum Content) Order (Northern Ireland) 2007.

15 Department of Education Northern Ireland, Relationships and Sexuality Education, Circular 2001/15 (Belfast: Department for Education Northern Ireland, 2001).

16 Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment, Relationships and Sexuality Education: Guidance for Primary Schools, (Belfast: Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment, 2001).

17 Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment, Relationships and Sexuality Education: Guidance for Post-primary Schools (Belfast: Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment, 2001).

18 Northern Ireland Curriculum, Personal Development and Mutual Understanding (accessed 14 November 2007).

19 Department for Education Northern Ireland, Guidance on Relationships and Sexuality Education (RSE), Circular 2010/01 (Belfast: Department for Education Northern Ireland, 2010).

20 Department for Education and Skills, Safeguarding Children in Education, Circular 0027/2004 (London: DfES, 2004).

21 Welsh Assembly Government, Safeguarding Children in Education- the Role of Local Authorities and Governing Bodies under the Education Act 2002, Circular 005/2008 (Welsh Assembly Government, 2008).

22 Scottish Office, Protection of Children from Abuse – the Role of Education Authorities, Schools and Teachers, Circular 10/1990 (Edinburgh: Scottish Office, 1990).

23 Department of Education Northern Ireland, Pastoral Care in Schools: Child Protection, Circular 10/1999 (Belfast: Department of Education Northern Ireland, 1999).

24 Oringanje C et al, Interventions for preventing unintended pregnancies among adolescents. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2009, Issue 4.

25 Kirby D, Emerging Answers 2007: Research Findings on Programs to Reduce Teen Pregnancy and Sexually Transmitted Diseases (Washington DC: National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned Pregnancy, 2007).

26 Department for Education and Skills, Teenage Pregnancy Next Steps: Guidance for Local Authorities and Primary Care Trusts on Effective Delivery of Local Strategies (London: Department for Education and Skills, 2006).

27 Trenholm C et al, Impacts of Four Title V, Section 510 Abstinence Education Programs. Executive Summary (Princeton: Mathematica Policy Research, 2007).

28 Independent Advisory Groups on Teenage Pregnancy, and Sexual Health and HIV, //documents/digitalasset/dh_4127821.pdf">Personal, Social and Health Education (PSHE) in Schools: Time for Action (London: Independent Advisory Groups on Teenage Pregnancy, and Sexual Health and HIV, 2006).

29 Sex Education Forum, Beyond Biology (London: Sex Education Forum, 2006).

30 No Sex Please Until We’re at Least 17 years Old, We’re British [Observer Mori Poll 2006].

31 Brook GFK NOP Survey 2006.

32 Durex, National Association of Head Teachers, National Confederation of Parent Teacher Associations, and the National Governors Association, Sex and Relationship Education: Views from Teachers, Parents and Governors (London: Durex, 2010).

33 Health Promotion Agency for Northern Ireland, Sex Education in Northern Ireland: Views From Parents and Schools (Belfast: Health Promotion Agency for Northern Ireland, 1996).

34 UK Youth Parliament, Sex and Relationships Education: Are You Getting It? (London: UK Youth Parliament, 2007).

35 Rolston B et al, ‘Sex education in Northern Ireland schools: a critical evaluation’, Sex Education, vol 5, no 3 (2005), 217–234.

36 Martinez A and Emmerson L, Key Findings: Young People’s Survey on Sex and Relationships Education, Sex Education Forum Briefing (National Children’s Bureau, 2008).

37 Martinez A and Emmerson L, Key Findings: Teachers’ Survey on Sex and Relationships Education, Sex Education Forum Briefing (National Children’s Bureau, 2008).