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Tricky RSHE topics – finding a developmental approach is key

Consent, LGBT+, pornography and FGM – these are aspects of Relationships and Sex Education that we are frequently asked about in Sex Education Forum (SEF) training sessions, and the question is generally the same. How can we teach it appropriately?

These topics are all aspects of the mandatory RSHE curriculum that should now be taught. They are also areas that young people tell us are neglected; 29% of young people surveyed (SEF, 2019) said they had learnt nothing in school RSE about FGM, 24% had learnt nothing about pornography and 18% had learnt nothing about LGBT+.

Government RSHE guidance sets out what pupils should know by the end of primary and secondary education but does not provide a year-by-year breakdown to indicate how learning builds and grows developmentally. When we explore with teachers what exactly worries them about a topic such as LGBT+ or FGM it tends to be a concern about what is age-appropriate, when and how the topic should be introduced. This was reflected in some of the questions we received from schools in our recent RSHE Q&A session with NCFE.

Tackling the tricky topics

The importance of taking a developmental approach, with logical sequencing, is emphasised in the statutory RSHE guidance. So how does this look in practice?


The assumption is often made that consent means sexual consent, and yes, the curriculum needs to build to the point of addressing sexual consent, but it doesn’t start there. There are many everyday situations which can illustrate consent or its absence, for example, borrowing a mobile phone, agreeing to be photographed, holding hands, and so on. The importance of permission-seeking is included in primary relationships education. There will be a point when sexual consent needs to be covered directly too. If this feels difficult, there’s some key things to consider:

  • Think about what the key messages will be – at the heart of this is learning that ‘my body is my own’. Learners need an understanding of the law on sexual consent but also have an awareness of the social and emotional factors such as gender, power and peer pressure.
  • Use fictional scenarios – this is a good way of making lessons relevant and creating opportunities to consider different viewpoints and experiences.


The Government advise taking an integrated approach to teaching about LGBT+ and LGBT+ relationships and that the topic should be addressed in a timely manner. Learning about families, how families are similar and different to our own is a great way to set an inclusive approach in motion. Every child must feel that their family is included, represented and respected. Learners will need some specific information, for example knowledge of the meaning of terms including lesbian, gay, bisexual, straight, cis and trans. Woven throughout the fabric of RSHE must be the modelling of inclusive language and the absence of assumptions about sexual orientation or gender identity of pupils. It is helpful to remember that LGBT+ inclusive RSE is useful and important for everyone. Think about:

  • Asking pupils to evaluate their RSE regularly and seek feedback around LGBT+ inclusion specifically.
  • Make the connection with school life beyond the classroom. If RSHE lessons foster LGBT+ and gender equality but pupils are subject to homophobic, biphobic, transphobic or sexist comments in the corridors or playground, then there is more to do to build a whole-school approach.

FGM and pornography

Both are topics that teachers are often very concerned about in terms of age-appropriateness, and yet studies (BBFC, 2019) show that children as young as seven and eight may have stumbled across pornography – usually accidentally. FGM is most commonly carried out before puberty starts (NHS, 2019), which needs to inform consideration of how primary schools address FGM in their curriculum, safeguarding practice and with the whole-school community.

When teaching about FGM at secondary level, be mindful to:

  • Ensure a baseline understanding of anatomy, including how genitals look and function.
  • Cover the key topics – the law, health implications, reasons why FGM happens, opportunities to practice skills for supporting someone to get help if there is a concern that FGM might take place or has already taken place.
  • Avoid stigmatising individuals or communities and acknowledge the importance of family.
  • Remember that learning about FGM is relevant to all pupils – we all have a role to play now and in the future as friends, citizens, partners and advocates.


No matter what the topic, there is a developmental approach that can be taken, and once the topic is really pared back it helps expose the core values that are important throughout RSE. Topics that might seem too tricky at face value start to find their place and the detail expands from there.

Teachers do need to be given time to develop specialist subject knowledge, and this is something that Ofsted puts store by. Combined with practical techniques for safe and inclusive teaching of RSHE, lessons will address children and young people’s needs on previous neglected areas of the subject.

Further support

The Sex Education Forum offers a range of online training as short webinars or longer courses.

RSHE qualifications from NCFE

NCFE offer a full suite of RSHE qualifications that are mapped to government guidance, endorsed by leading experts at SEF, and come with classroom-ready resources from iAchieve and Jigsaw.

They are available in three sizes or as individual units to give flexibility and support achievement.

If you’re looking for high-quality RSHE qualifications, or support to build an RSHE curriculum with confidence, visit the NCFE RSHE webpage

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