What we know about ban on sex education for under 9s

The government has introduced new statutory guidance for schools that overhauls the teaching of sex education for the first time in half a decade

New guidance has been set out for schools on how to teach sex education. (Getty)
New guidance has been set out for schools on how to teach sex education. (Getty)

The education secretary Gillian Keegan has cited instances of pupils being taught that there could be “72 genders” as evidence of the need for controversial new guidance around sex education in schools.

Keegan claimed children are taught that gender could “change daily” as facts – prompting the government to introduce new statutory guidance for schools to overhaul the teaching of 'relationships, sex education and health' for the first time in five years.

The draft revised guidance on relationships, sex and health education (RSHE) has been compiled following concerns that children were being exposed to “inappropriate” content. The guidance is subject to a nine-week consultation ending on 11 July. Schools will start following the guidelines once the final guidance is published after the consultation.

Teaching unions have already hit out at the guidelines, after they were leaked on Wednesday. They argued that if information is not available at school then children will turn to less trusted sources online.

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

The new RSHE guidance will go through the process of consultation before final guidance is published. (DfE)
The new RSHE guidance will go through the process of consultation before final guidance is published. (DfE)

What are the key details?

Schools in England will be told they should not teach sex education to children under the age of nine, under the proposals published by the government on Thursday. Any explicit discussion of sexual activity should not take before children are in year nine in secondary school.

The concept of gender identity is “highly contested”, the guidance states, and “should not be taught”. The government says teaching gender identity “could prompt some children to start to question their gender when they may not have done so otherwise”. The facts about biological sex and gender reassignment will still be taught.

Speaking in the Commons on Thursday, Keegan told MPs that gender identity “should not be taught in schools at any age”.

The draft guidance also includes a section on sexual harassment and sexual violence, which covers stalking and misogynistic online influencers, following a reported rise of behaviour prejudiced against females in schools. It makes clear that parents have the right to see resources that are being used to teach RSHE in all circumstances and copyright law should not be a barrier to sharing materials with families.

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What is it replacing?

Currently, relationship education is compulsory in all primary schools in England and relationships and sex education is compulsory in all secondary schools, under the 2020 relationships, sex and health education (RSHE) curriculum.

However, according to government guidelines: "Parents have a right to request that their child is withdrawn from sex education, but not from relationships education. Parents can ask their school for their child to be withdrawn from some or all of sex education lessons."

The curriculum for relationship education for primary school children currently includes: "healthy relationships, including how to communicate their own boundaries and recognise the boundaries of others, staying safe online, and the differences between appropriate and inappropriate or unsafe contact." The guidelines add: "We strongly encourage schools to include the teaching of different family models and same-sex relationships."

Smiling teacher standing by screen explaining sex education subject to students in classroom at high school
Parents have a right to withdraw their children from sex education classes under the new guidance. (Getty)

Meanwhile, secondary school PHSE includes: "Consent, sexual exploitation, online abuse, grooming, coercion, harassment, rape, domestic abuse, forced marriage, honour-based violence and FGM, and how these can affect current and future relationships."

The guidance adds that: "Pupils should be taught the facts and the law about sex, sexuality, sexual health and gender identity in an age-appropriate and inclusive way. There should be an equal opportunity to explore the features of stable and healthy same-sex relationships."

What has the government said?

The education secretary told Sky News on Thursday that there had been “some evidence from some people” that pupils were being taught that there could be “72 genders” that could “change daily” as facts. But while she insisted schools should not teach the concept of gender identity, she rejected the suggestion that the guidance will create a “big silence” around the conversation on gender.

Keegan said the government’s approach will still allow children to “explore ideologies”, but that “gender ideology” should not be being “taught as fact”. She told Sky News “different sorts of contested debates” can be had, but that it should not be taught that “this is something people believe and people believe as a fact when it’s not”.

During an appearance on BBC Radio Four’s Today programme, Keegan was questioned how widespread she believed the teaching of “inappropriate” material about gender identity is in schools. The education secretary stumbled in her answer, telling host Emma Barnett: “I don’t think it’s widespread, I mean, I don’t know because you know, it’s not something that we’ve gone and done a particular survey of.”

In a tetchy exchange, Barnett put it to her that it was “staggering” that the Keegan did not know how widespread the issue is, telling her “it matters because teachers, some of them say, this isn’t an issue at all”. Keegan said she has spoken to “lots of different people” including trans groups, medical professionals and teachers”, adding that her belief is that there is a difference between people who self-identify as a different gender and those who medically transition.

The World Health Organization recognises that “gender identity exists on a spectrum”, stating: “This means that an individual’s gender identity is not necessarily confined to an identity that is completely male or completely female.” Keegan insisted gender reassignment is a protected characteristic and is not something they are trying to stop being taught about, adding: “Gender identity and ideology is something different.”

What has the reaction been?

Concerns have been raised that the guidance prohibiting schools from teaching some topics will result in children turning to less-trusted sources online. Lucy Emmerson, chief executive of the Sex Education Forum charity, said: “If topics were to be restricted it will leave children even more dependent on getting answers about topics from pornography, coercive control and STIs from online sources.”

She added: “Banning topics and restricting age bands is not the solution; supporting schools, training teachers and taking an evidence-based approach is what’s needed to empower and protect children and young people.”

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) called on the government to provide evidence which shows that age limits will improve the support, protection and safeguarding of pupils.

He said:“We cannot ignore the fact that some children and young people are already accessing information from different sources outside of school. This may lead to questions that need careful handling from trained professionals.

“It is hard to see how rigid limits on what can be discussed and when would be in the best interests of young people – and this may even risk them seeking information from less reliable sources.”

Elizabeth West, chief executive of Initio Learning Trust, an academy trust of 17 schools, told the PA news agency: “Any move to give greater clarification to schools concerning sex education is to be welcomed. However, we have not seen clear evidence to suggest that schools are currently exposing pupils to inappropriate content.”

However, Sunak's new guidelines are not without support – more than 50 Conservative MPs wrote in a letter to the prime minister last year that children were accessing "inappropriate content" and "radical and unevidenced ideologies about sex and gender" at school.

Dame Rachel de Souza, the children’s commissioner for England, also welcomed the guidelines, saying lessons should be taught “in a safe, high quality and age appropriate way, with accessible materials”,.

Tory MP Miriam Cates said “we don’t protect children from premature sexualisation by sexualising them in the classroom”, while Tory deputy chairman Jonathan Gullis described the guidelines as “common sense”.

At what age should children be taught about gender identity?