Free article: Ofsted inspection of SRE provision: Getting it right

Published: Thursday, 05 October 2017

This article considers ways to ensure high-quality sex and relationships education (SRE), outlines what Ofsted will be looking for, and looks ahead to the next 12–24 months.


  • In March 2017, the government announced plans for a new subject, ‘relationships education’ in primary schools and ‘relationships and sex education’ in secondary schools, to be statutory from September 2019.
  • SRE is not specifically inspected by Ofsted, but before making a final judgement inspectors must evaluate the impact of the provision for pupils’ spiritual, moral, social and cultural (SMSC) development.
  • Schools’ overall effectiveness is likely to be affected if pupils are unaware of how to protect themselves or where to go to for help.

Pupils are entitled to know how to keep themselves safe and well, and to high-quality sex and relationships education (SRE), regardless of Ofsted inspections. Also, those with better wellbeing are likely to achieve more academically (NAHT/PHE 2014).

What is sex and relationship education?

The DfE’s Sex and relationship education guidance suggests that SRE ‘should be firmly rooted in the framework for personal, social, health and economic (PSHE) education.’

Sex and relationships education (SRE) for the 21st century explains that ‘high-quality SRE helps create safe school communities in which pupils can grow, learn and develop positive, healthy behaviour for life.’ There is strong evidence that improved social and emotional competencies can lead to improved health and wellbeing, and better achievement.

So, SRE involves learning about the social, emotional and physical aspects of growing up. Some aspects may be taught in science, others as part of PSHE. A comprehensive, age-appropriate programme of SRE provides pupils with accurate information and opportunities to develop skills and values about respectful relationships, and it enables pupils to stay safe online and offline.

Why is SRE important?

Children and young people need to be prepared for the physical and emotional changes they are likely to experience, and to be able to manage the social changes as they emerge into adulthood.

SRE also makes an essential contribution to schools’ statutory responsibilities around safeguarding, promoting wellbeing (Children Act 2004) and preparing children and young people for the challenges, opportunities and responsibilities of adult life (Education Act 1996). 

The best and worst of society is mirrored in schools, where nearly a third of young women aged 16–18 have experienced unwanted sexual touching at school, and almost half of lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans young people are bullied for being LGBT.

Although significant improvements are being made to combat HIV, gonorrhoea is now presenting strains which are resistant to antibiotics.

International research shows that young people who have high-quality SRE are more likely to choose to have first sex later and, although ‘abstinence only’ approaches are not effective, the message that young people should wait until they are ready to have sex, forms the basis of all good quality SRE. 

Attention has focused on how SRE can improve sexual health, and one of the success stories has been the impact of the UK’s Teenage Pregnancy Strategy, which has reduced under-18 conception rates by 51%. However, the importance of pupils’ ability to form and maintain good relationships should not be ignored as a contribution to learning: ‘if you want to increase student academic achievement, give each student a friend’ (Hattie 2011). Good relationships are one of the strongest predictors of happiness, wellbeing and physical health.

What’s the current situation for schools?

Despite the statutory guidance, the waters remain rather muddy. State secondary schools (other than academies and free schools) have to provide SRE but only around HIV/AIDS and other STIs. Similarly, in primary schools, SRE policy is the responsibility of governors, who can abdicate responsibility simply by saying ‘we don’t do SRE’. 

The truth is that England has never had a consistent SRE policy and, although the situation will change over the next 12–24 months, currently, according to Ofsted, over a third of primary schools and almost half of secondary schools require improvement in SRE. 

SRE plays an important part in fulfilling the statutory duties of all state-funded schools, which, according to the DfE, ‘should make provision for personal, social, health and economic education (PSHE), drawing on good practice’ and that: 

Every state-funded school must offer a curriculum which is balanced and broadly based and which: 

  • promotes the spiritual, moral, cultural, mental and physical development of pupils at the school and of society 
  • prepares pupils at the school for the opportunities, responsibilities and experiences of later life.’ 

These duties are set out in the 2002 Education Act and the 2010 Academies Act, and whole-school (Section 5) Ofsted inspections consider the extent to which a school provides such a curriculum. Although parents have the right to withdraw their children from SRE (apart from that taught in national curriculum science) very few exercise that right.

Schools have a clear duty to ensure that teaching is accessible to all, including those who are LGBT+ (Equality Act 2010). Inclusive SRE will foster good relations between pupils, tackle prejudice and enable all members of the school community to flourish. This cannot be easy when 70% of teachers have said that they need more training to deliver SRE properly (Sex Education Forum, 2014).

What does Ofsted expect?

Ofsted can be a powerful force to support those with responsibility for SRE, if only to remind school leaders of the contribution that SRE can make to improving learning and life chances. 

Ofsted inspectors and HMI are guided by three key documents: Common inspection framework: Education, skills and early years, School inspection handbook and Inspecting safeguarding in early years, education and skills settings.

SRE is not specifically inspected, but, before making a final judgement, inspectors must evaluate the impact of the provision on pupils’ spiritual, moral, social and cultural (SMSC) development.

High-quality SRE can help schools fulfil their duties to protect, safeguard and promote wellbeing and, although the ‘outstanding’ grade descriptors for personal development, behaviour and welfare are not a checklist, they include the following:

  • ‘Pupils work hard with the school to prevent all forms of bullying, including online bullying and prejudice-based bullying.’
  • ‘Staff and pupils deal effectively with the very rare instances of bullying behaviour and/or use of derogatory or aggressive language.’
  • ‘Pupils can explain accurately and confidently how to keep themselves healthy… They have an age-appropriate understanding of healthy relationships and are confident in staying safe from abuse and exploitation.’

It is also difficult to see how safeguarding can be good if SRE is poor; and the judgements about schools’ overall effectiveness are bound to be affected if pupils are unaware of how to protect themselves or know where to go to for help.

For top tips on teaching high-quality SRE, see the checklist in the Toolkit.

What’s the future for SRE?

On 1 March 2017, The Secretary of State for Education announced plans for a new subject, ‘relationships education’ in primary schools and ‘relationships and sex education’ in secondary schools, to be statutory. The government will also seek to make PSHE statutory in all state-funded schools in England from September 2019.

This means that DfE guidance should be published before September 2018, so the next year is crucial for PSHE and SRE. The government has committed to public and professional consultations to which all those who work with and for children and young people can contribute.

It will be the responsibility of educators, parents, pupils and other stakeholders to contribute to the consultations and ensure that the government understands that knowledge and vocabulary need to be supported by skills and attitudes, with appropriate initial teacher training and adequate CPD. Evidence-based, theory-driven programmes must be encouraged to meet pupils’ current and future needs. Only then can we ensure that the entitlement of children and young people to high-quality SRE, that promotes well-being and attainment and enables them to flourish, can be met.

Further information


Use the following item in the Toolkit to put the ideas in the article into practice: 

About the author

John Rees is an independent educational consultant and experienced teacher and trainer with 25 years’ educational leadership. PSHE Solutions provides training and consultancy in PSHE, Citizenship and SMSC, but also in all aspects of school improvement, supporting individuals, organisations and local authorities, including public health teams.

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