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Non-statutory PSHE vs. statutory RHE: what’s the difference?

Got questions about RHE and PSHE? Lucy Marcovitch, PSHE consultant and expert, explains the key differences and what this means for schools.

Posted on Wednesday 26th January 2022

Relationships and health education (for primary, with RHSE at secondary including sex education) became statutory in September 2020, with a grace period offered to schools because of the additional challenges faced after two terms of lockdown disruption. A year on, all schools should be implementing the DfE’s statutory guidance, which includes providing curriculum and policy information on their websites.

There was, and continues to be questions over how (or even if) RHE differs from PSHE, and whether schools already teaching PSHE would have to change their curriculum. There has also been uncertainty about what schools actually have to teach, especially if primary schools opt (as many do) to deliver, or continue to deliver, sex education.

This blog sets out the key differences and similarities between the two subjects, and will hopefully offer some reassurance to those schools who have a well-established PSHE curriculum that they are unlikely to need to make any changes.

Overview of subjects

RHE (primary)/RHSE (secondary)

Everything set out by the DfE within this guidance is now statutory in all schools. Sex education is not statutory at primary level, but primaries can choose, or continue to teach it if they wish (see further detail below).

The guidance contains:

  • An overview of the importance of RH(S)E
  • What schools must do in relation to planning and policy, communication with parents, provision for children with SEND and requirements under the Equalities act (including LGBT content)
  • Guidance on resources and teaching materials, delivery in faith schools and working with external agencies
  • Overview of the Governing body’s responsibilities in relation to the subject
  • Top level, end of phase requirements – what a child should know before they leave their primary and secondary education.

There are no age or key stage-related targets within the curriculum content requirements, or differentiation of learning by year group.The guidance refers to this being a ‘high level framework of core content’, and schools can deliver this content in whatever ways works for them and their pupils, including through a PSHE education programme.

PSHE education

The PSHE Association’s programme of study for key stages 1-5 remains non-statutory. It has been in place since 2010, but has been regularly updated to ensure that it reflects an ever-changing society, with the most recent updates being in January 2020. It is likely that schools which have had a PSHE curriculum in place for some time and have been using the Programme of study as a basis for their provision.

The guidance contains:

  • An overview of the content and importance of PSHE education, and a correlation with the statutory guidance for RHE
  • Three core themes: Health and wellbeing, Relationships and Living in the Wider World, each containing comprehensive, developmental learning opportunities for each key stage
  • An overview of assessment, and links to further assessment guidance
  • Grids matching programme of study content to the statutory guidance.

Sex education

Sex education is optional for primary schools, but some confusion arises over the statement that primaries can determine what is included in their sex education programme (in addition to that delivered through Science). We can assume that sex education at primary is teaching about conception, usually in Year 6. Anything to do with puberty, periods or non-sexual relationships, comes under Health or Relationships education and must be taught to all children. Parents can seek permission to withdraw their children from sex education, which should be defined by a school and explained in its policy.

 Note: there may also be questions about aspects such as naming intimate body parts (outside from teaching about puberty) relate to the science curriculum and are necessary for teaching safeguarding. Schools should refer to the Keeping children safe in education document.

Am I teaching the right content?

The biggest difference between PSHE and RHE (other than status) is detail of content. If you are using the PSHE education programme of study to deliver your curriculum then the chances are you will be covering all the statutory content as well. There is less content within the statutory than the non-statutory guidance – for example, the statutory guidance does not include caring for the environment, financial education or developing thinking about a future career (all within the Living in the Wider World strand), nor does it contain the breadth of opportunities outlined by the non-statutory guidance. If a school uses PSHE as a structure by which to deliver the statutory content, it means that it will be integrating all aspects of that content, without being limited to it. The non-statutory guidance also gives schools an insight into what those top-level requirements can look like in practice, and a basis from which to form learning objectives and outcomes.

An additional benefit of using the non-statutory programme of study as a basis for delivering RHE is that the statutory guidance is heavily knowledge-based. Pupils are required to know things, but not how to do them. Knowing the facts about drugs and alcohol doesn’t necessarily help someone to manage a situation they might find themselves in; knowing the importance of giving and receiving consent in any kind of relationship doesn’t teach someone how to do this. Teaching skills and strategies for navigating relationships and maintaining wellbeing is included through the non-statutory programme of study.

As well as this, the statutory programme covers online safety, but doesn’t include issues around safety in other kinds of situations that are very relevant to this age group, such as roads, water, rail or safety at home. Learning opportunities in the non-statutory guidance at both key stages include recognising, managing and reporting risks (as well as how to seek help) in all these different scenarios.

What should I do next?

Carry out a top-level audit of your PSHE or RHE curriculum content against the statutory requirements using the PSHE Association’s comparison grids (pages 41-46) to help you see where and what the equivalent learning opportunities are. If there is additional content within your curriculum don’t worry – if it is necessary for your pupils’ needs and works for your school then continue doing it. You will be offering a broader programme developing essential skills for life than would be in the case if you were just providing the statutory aspects. If there are gaps, then work out where within your existing programme you could include these aspects, or whether you need to revisit your whole-school planning.

Next month’s blog will help with this and will focus on whole-school planning of a progressive programme from Y1 to Y6, including identifying essential topics and what these might look like at each age group.

Further Reading

Thank you very much to Lucy Marcovitch for writing this blog for us.

Lucy is a writer and educator with over 25 years experience in education. She began her teaching career in Leeds primary schools, then moved into resource writing and development. She spent 10 years as the National Curriculum advisor for PSHE education, which included participating in two National curriculum reviews, and developing the first national guidance, training and assessment resources for the subject. Her consultancy work includes developing and writing classroom resources and guidance materials, and educator training and guidance for a variety of charities and commercial clients including the BBC, Teach First, Hopscotch Consulting and Discovery Education. She is a part-time lecturer on the Childhood, Youth and Education studies BA at Coventry University.

Lucy Marcovitch