The History of Relationships, Sex and Health Education

A Brief Timeline

1870s: Social purity
The social purity movement led the belief that it was necessary for parents, rather than schools, to give children healthy and moral information about sex.

1890: The birds and bees
Geddes and Thomson’s The Evolution of Sex provided ways of talking about “the birds and the bees”. It approached the topic of sexual reproduction via plants, insects and animals before finally moving on to human beings.

1910s: Enter the speakers
From 1913 to 1916 a Royal Commission heard evidence that the solution to the UK’s huge VD problem was sex education. The National Council for Combating Venereal Diseases organised courses for teachers, parents and youth workers and visiting speakers for schools.

1940s: Laissez-faire lessons
The 1944 Education Act stated the need for sex education in schools. However, it was an extremely laissez-faire situation, with individual schools being allowed to choose how they wanted to approach the subject, and there was little government support.

1970s: Post-sexual revolution
School sex education was beginning to change. Biology textbooks started to include human reproductive systems and methods of contraception began to be taught. Birth control was incorporated into NHS provisions.

1986 – ‘The Moral Panic’
In 1986 the tabloid press created a frenzy around AIDS, young people’s sexuality and sexual orientation. The public were exposed to hard-hitting campaigns such as ‘Don’t die of ignorance’ with some outrage around the sex education materials being used in schools.

1988 – Section 28
In 1988 the Local Government Act introduced a new clause, which commonly became known as Section 28. This stated that a local authority should not promote homosexuality or promote the teaching of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship.

1992 – Understanding local provision of sex education
In 1992 the government launched its Health of the Nation strategy, with the reduction of teenage pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases (STIs) being two of its targets.

1993 – Building a values framework for SRE
The 1993 Education Act included some new challenges for sex education. It stated that only the biological aspects of HIV, AIDS, STIs and human sexual behaviour could be included in the National Curriculum. Parents were also given the right to withdraw their children from sex education and were not required to give a reason.

2000 – First SRE Guidance
As a result of the growing need for clarity and support, the 2000 SRE Guidance was published for non-statutory Sex and Relationships Education (SRE)

2003 – Repeal of Section 28
In 2003, the law of Section 28, legislation that forbade the ‘promoting of homosexuality’ was revoked.

2010: Compulsory plans fail
Plans for compulsory sex ed classes (which included contraception, abortion and homosexuality) in schools were dropped by Labour before the election after being blocked by the Tories. The move was welcomed by faith groups, who wanted the choice to opt out.

2017 – Finally…. statutory Relationships and Sex Education
Prime Minister (Teresa May) and Secretary of State for Education (Justine Greening) acted on the pressure from many MPs and public figures to change SRE legislation. The Children and Social Work Act received Royal Assent in March 2017, making the now Relationships and Sex Education statutory in all secondary schools and relationships education statutory in all primary schools.

2019 – Guidance on Relationships Education, RSE and Health Education updated
The new Government guidance was debated in Parliament, and was followed by a watershed vote in the Commons on 27 March 2019, resulting in 482 ‘AYES’ and 14 ‘NOES’ (MPs representing constituencies in England). At the same time, a minority of parents protested against the changes, with particular focus on the LGBT+ inclusive aspects of Relationships Education – and the absence of parental opt-out from Relationships Education. Protests were held outside a small number of schools. A High Court judge permanently banned protesters from outside the gates of Anderton Primary School.

2020 – RSHE officially becomes statutory from 1 September

Schools in England must follow Government guidance from 1 September. All children and young people in England can now expect RSE to be provided as part of their primary and secondary education.