NSPCC regional head Caroline Watts looks at changes to relationships and sex education in primary and secondary schools

THIS time next year the new compulsory relationships and sex education curriculum will be introduced in schools across England – marking a hugely momentous change.

For the first time, issues affecting young people today, from abuse to online grooming, will be delivered to all children in a standardised and age-appropriate way to help them navigate the modern world.

From September 2020 it will be compulsory to teach Relationships Education (RE) at primary schools, Relationships and Sex Education at secondary schools, and Health Education at both.

In primary schools, the focus will be on teaching about positive relationships, how to treat others with respect, ensuring young people understand they have rights over their own bodies and recognising/reporting abuse.

In secondary schools, the curriculum will include sexual and gender identity, grooming, coercive behaviour, online safety, abusive relationships and the impact of pornography.

The introduction of the new curriculum was pushed back a year to give schools time to prepare, but so far the Government has only pledged a mere 70p per student for the first year despite their own analysis concluding it requires at least £33 million for the initial roll-out. This is especially worrying considering it is not clear how the money will actually be spent.

The issues young people are struggling with in this day and age mean that relationships and sex education lessons must progress way beyond the basic birds and the bees. The current lessons were last updated over a generation ago in 2000 before the technology revolution which presents risks to children that their parents did not have to deal with, including sexting and online grooming.

And at a time when it is estimated that up to two-thirds of all sexual offences against children are committed by their peers, the curriculum will include much-needed lessons on consent, developing positive relationships and understanding the importance of respecting personal boundaries.

For the first time, lessons will also be required to reflect society by teaching about diverse family forms, from adoptive parents to LGBT families.

Vitally the curriculum will also play a key role in helping children to recognise what abusive or controlling behaviour is and how to report any actions that make them feel uncomfortable or scared.

These crucial lessons should not be left to rumours in the playground or whatever young people can find on the web.

The Government’s plans to catch up with the times are welcome but all of this will be lost if the funding isn’t there to make it happen.

A recent survey by the NSPCC and the National Education Union of over 2,000 teachers, headteachers and senior leaders revealed half said they lacked confidence to teach the lessons due to a lack of high-quality training and funding.

It is incredibly important the Government invests in face-to-face training to ensure all teachers can confidently deliver sensitive subject matter in a trauma-informed way, mindful that any child in the class may have already experienced, or be at risk of experiencing, the form of abuse discussed. We also need to see a commitment to national training on how all teachers should respond if a child discloses abuse – if a child is brave enough to come forward, it’s vital that teachers feel confident in their ability to support them.

Millions of children across the country will lose out if the Government does not spend more than the price of a pencil sharpener per pupil on these much-needed lessons.

But even with the new curriculum, it doesn’t mean we can just leave these all-important conversations to our children’s teachers.

As parents, it is vital that we too have age-appropriate conversations with our children about healthy relationships. To my mind, it is a matter of taking a common sense approach given that you know your own child best. No one wants our children to be taught things that are irrelevant or going to confuse or frighten them. This is not just about sex – this is about relationships, staying safe, and learning when something isn’t right, and what to do. This is about giving children the right tools and knowledge to stay safe now, and in the future.

If you would like some advice about how to start these conversations as it's understandable that this can be very emotive, the NSPCC helpline is available to support you and answer your questions on 0808 800 5000.