Ensuring Relationships and Sex Education is inclusive of Pupils with SEND

The hard-fought battle for compulsory Relationships Education in primary schools and Relationships and Sex Education (RSE) in secondary schools has been won. Now for the implementation…

The duty to provide these aspects of PSHE education was due to come into force in September 2020. However, while schools are still encouraged to begin teaching from September, the duty does not now come into force until the Summer term 2021 to allow time for schools who have been particularly negatively affected by coronavirus and closures.

The Department for Education has released guidance on what RSE should look like, in which it mentions that RSE must in inclusive of all pupils, including those with special educational needs and disabilities. Teaching should be accessible, age appropriate and differentiated where necessary, as well as taking into account the ‘Preparing for adulthood’ outcomes set out in the SEND Code of Practice: preparing young people for: higher education and/or employment, independent living, participating in society and being as healthy as possible in adult life (DfE, 2014)

This is of course welcome guidance; it’s hugely important that children with SEND and young people are getting good RSE.

Evidence suggests that people with a learning disability often hold incomplete or inaccurate knowledge of relationships, sexual health and the legal and emotional aspects of sex (Jahoda & Pownall, 2014; Sinclair et al, 2015; Whittle & Butler, 2018). In addition, children and adults with a learning disability are at a higher risk of sexual abuse than their non-disabled peers (Byrne, 2018), as well as being at an increased risk of other negative sexual experiences, contracting sexually transmitted infections and having unwanted pregnancies (Baines et al., 2018). Young people with learning disabilities must be equipped with the right language to be able to describe abuse, with the knowledge and skills to identify and distinguish between healthy and unhealthy relationships and understand consent, and to have a space to outline questions and concerns about forming relationships and having sex. RSE done well has been found to produce positive outcomes such as increased self-esteem and positive feelings about sex (McCann et al., 2019).

Research suggests that visual materials work better than verbal explanations for teaching people with a learning disability about sexuality (Rowe & Wright, 2017). Coded language and complex, convoluted explanations should be avoided, as well as assuming that pupils will make connections between concepts and practice, for example, that someone will be able to transfer an understanding of consent to saying no to a family member touching their genitalia. Instead, learning should be scenario-based, with clear explanations as to what is happening in the scenario and a range of appropriate responses explored. The organisations listed below have resources to help teachers ensure resources and teaching methods are suitable for pupils with SEND.

However, this doesn’t mean inclusive RSE is fully achieved. What about the inclusion of people with SEND in all RSE? All young people will have questions about disability and relationships and sex. Many myths exist, and I, along with other workshop facilitators, have been asked questions about relationships and sex by both non-disabled and disabled people or have been presented with stereotypes about disabled people in other equality-related workshops. Some of these are below:

People with learning disabilities can’t form proper relationships.

Disabled people can’t have sex

Disabled people don’t want to have sex

Will I catch what they have if I have sex with someone who is disabled?

Will someone with a learning disability be able to say yes or no to something?

If I have children with someone disabled, will they be disabled too?

These are questions that need answering and myths that need debunking with all pupils if the stigmatisation of disability within discourse about relationships and sex is to be ended. Often, when talking about disabled people, non-disabled young people talk of ‘disabled people’ and ‘normal people,’ othering language which impacts on their disabled peers’ self-esteem and their view of disability as a whole.

Pupils need to be provided with a safe space to discuss these issues and explore the facts about disability and RSE. Disabled people need to be reflected in the images and text of RSE teaching resources and display materials, in order to usualise disabled people in the discussion. If disabled pupils do not see themselves reflected in the resources used, they are erased from the conversation. So, when next planning Relationships and Sex Education for pupils, ask yourself these reflective questions about your inclusion of disability:

  • Do you have images of people with SEND in your teaching materials?
  • Do you have a variety of people with SEND represented?
  • Are people with SEND included in case studies and scenarios?
  • Have you created a safe space for questions and discussion about SEND in RSE?
  • Are you able to effectively challenge any prejudice young people may have?
  • What further learning do I need to do?

Making RSE inclusive of SEND people will contribute to creating a school environment where pupils with SEND see themselves reflected and represented at every opportunity, where all pupils will have myths dispelled and their understanding, health and wellbeing and self-esteem can flourish. 


Organisations which can help ensure RSE resources and teaching methods are appropriate for pupils with SEND:

Sex Education Forum: https://www.sexeducationforum.org.uk/

The Council for Disabled Children: https://councilfordisabledchildren.org.uk/

Big Talk Education: https://www.bigtalkeducation.co.uk/

NSPCC: https://www.nspcc.org.uk/

PSHE Association: https://www.pshe-association.org.uk/