Sex education age limits to ensure children ‘not exposed to too much too soon’

Clear age limits on the teaching of sex education aim to ensure children are not “exposed to too much too soon”, the Government said as it published new proposals on the topic.

Draft statutory guidance for England states that sex education should be taught no earlier than year five, when pupils are aged nine, and that what is described as the “contested topic of gender identity” should not be taught at all.

The guidance, which is subject to a nine-week consultation ending on July 11, was leaked earlier this week but published in full on Thursday.

The revised guidance on relationships, sex and health education (RSHE) has been compiled following concerns that children were being exposed to “inappropriate” content.

But education leaders and charities have raised concerns about the introduction of age limits in the curriculum because they say more children could turn to online sources rather than trusted teachers.

The NSPCC said children and young people must be empowered to “recognise when something isn’t right and seek help when it’s needed”, as the organisation called for now to be the time to “embed” lessons on life-enhancing skills rather than “back-track on RSE in schools”.

A spokesperson for the charity said: “Education is one of our strongest levers for preventing child abuse.”

Other organisations working against exploitation, said they were “gravely concerned” at what they described as “proposals to delay sex education”.

The Department for Education (DfE) is recommending that sex education is taught no earlier than year five and, at that point, remains in line with what pupils learn about conception and birth as part of the national curriculum for science.

In her foreword to the draft guidance document, Education Secretary Gillian Keegan stated that children must get “the right information at the right time, so that they know about the risks and how to avoid them, but also making sure that they are not exposed to too much too soon, taking away the innocence of childhood”.

In seeking to strike a “very difficult balance”, she said the updated guidance includes “clear age limits for the teaching of the most sensitive content and specifies that the contested topic of gender identity should not be taught”.

Education Secretary Gillian Keegan l
Education Secretary Gillian Keegan said the updated guidance ‘puts protecting children at its heart’ (PA)

Subjects around what constitutes harmful sexual behaviour in relationships, the concepts and laws relating to sexual harassment, revenge porn, sexual exploitation and abuse, grooming, stalking and forced marriage should not be taught before year seven (age 11), the guidance states.

While the risks of inappropriate online content such as pornography can be discussed “in an age-appropriate way” from year seven, the details of sexual acts should not be discussed before year nine (age 13) it adds.

When it comes to laws relating to sexual violence, including rape and sexual assault, the guidance sets out that it is important for pupils to understand the key principles around such offences including what consent means, but says “schools should not teach about this in any sexually explicit way before year nine”.

The guidance indicates there can be some flexibility on age limits on the teaching of certain topics if necessary “to respond promptly to issues which pose an imminent safeguarding risk to their pupils”, but that parents must be informed in advance if something is to be taught earlier than expected.

School staff “have an important role to play in modelling positive behaviours and avoiding language that might perpetuate harmful stereotypes”, the guidance also states, referencing pupils’ exposure to “sexist and misogynistic influencers, which may normalise sexual harassment and abuse”.

It states that teachers should be aware of risk factors such as bullying, peer pressure, or low self-esteem, which can make some boys more vulnerable to harmful online content, and warns it is “essential” generalisations are not made but that pupils can identify positive male role models “and understand that most boys and young men are respectful to girls and young women and each other”.

Speaking in the House of Commons shortly after the guidance was published, Ms Keegan said: “Materials now will have to be shown to parents, no ifs, no buts, we’ve made that crystal clear.”

The guidance states that schools should “at minimum”, show parents a representative sample of teaching resources they plan to use and that schools “should respond positively to requests from parents to see material that has not already been shared”.

The new proposals come after the Prime Minister brought forward a review of statutory RSHE guidance for schools in March last year after hearing concerns that children were being exposed to “inappropriate” content.

An independent panel was appointed in 2023 to advise on the updated guidance as part of the review led by the DfE.

When it comes to wellbeing, younger children should be taught how to recognise and talk about their feelings and the benefits of seeking help if they are feeling isolated or lonely, as well as about the impacts of bullying on mental wellbeing.

But the guidance states that direct references to suicide should not be made before year 8 (age 12).

Ms Keegan said: “The topic of suicide itself needs to be handled sensitively and skilfully, and not before pupils are ready to understand it.”

Labour’s shadow education minister Catherine McKinnell said there was “deep concern about the lack of consultation with school leaders in developing the guidance so far” and noted the age limits were being proposed at “a time of rising levels of sexual offences against children”.

Echoing NSPCC comments, Ms McKinnell described it as “crucial” for children to feel “empowered to recognise when something isn’t right”.

In a joint statement, the organisations After Exploitation, Anti-Slavery International, and Stop and Prevent Adolescent Criminal Exploitation (SPACE), warned that child abusers “thrive on poor awareness”.

They said they were “gravely concerned by government plans to delay some forms of sex and relationships education”,  until the age of 13, despite the fact that childhood survivors of sexual abuse routinely attribute their lack of disclosure to their inability to ‘understand’ the abuse whilst it was taking place”.

The general secretary of the Association of Educational Psychologists, Dr Cath Lowther, has written to Ms Keegan to warn against the risk of young children getting their information from social media platforms.

She said: “We believe that the Government should ensure that education staff are confident and competent in delivering developmentally appropriate content and facilitating safe conversations.

“The dangerous alternative, is to leave that education to platforms like TikTok.”