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Joint statement: Teaching about puberty

Teaching about puberty: Joint briefing by the Association of Science Education and the PSHE Association

This briefing is focused on the content of the Science National Curriculum for maintained schools although we hope that it will be of value to all schools which teach science. The briefing provides guidance to schools about their statutory duties to ensure that all children learn about puberty.

Teaching about puberty before children experience it is essential to ensure that pupils’ physical, emotional and learning needs are met and that they have the correct information about how to take care of their bodies and keep themselves safe. Teaching about puberty is also considered a key safeguarding issue by OFSTED. As Janet Palmer HMI (OFSTED’s PSHE lead) has said:

“If pupils are kept ignorant of their human, physical and sexual rights… they are not being adequately safeguarded. When inspecting schools … inspectors are guided to check that the sex education in  national curriculum science at Key Stages 1-3 is being adequately taught; and that primary schools have regard to the Department for Education statutory guidance on teaching pupils about puberty before they experience the onset of physical changes.”

“Inspectors leading Section 5 inspections have been guided to grade behaviour and safety separately and to take whichever is the lowest grade as the overall grade for the Behaviour and Safety strand of the Section 5 inspection framework; and if Behaviour and Safety are judged to require improvement this is likely to affect the grade for overall effectiveness.”

In order to keep pupils safe, it is vital that they learn about puberty before it happens. NHS advice states that puberty can begin as early as 8 for girls and 9 for boys. Year 5 is therefore the latest time in the school curriculum when this should be addressed. Schools that choose to teach about puberty earlier, for example in Year 4, have the flexibility to do so, as the National Curriculum clearly states that subjects can be taught earlier than the recommended school years set out in the framework.

The dividing line between teaching about the growth and development of humans as part of the National Curriculum for Science, and Sex and Relationships Education (SRE) as part of a PSHE programme, is sometimes misinterpreted. For clarity, teaching about the changes experienced during puberty is part of the National Science Curriculum and all pupils in maintained schools must therefore be able to access this learning; this learning can then be built upon in SRE. Section 405 of the Education Act 1996 sets out the right of parents to withdraw their children from SRE but explicitly states that this right only applies to those topics which fall outside the National Curriculum.

The 2014 National Curriculum is clear that teaching about puberty is an integral part of the Programmes of Study for Science at Key Stage 2, with the Year 5 Programme of Study stipulating that it is a statutory requirement that:

“Pupils should be taught to describe the changes as humans develop to old age”

This must include teaching about puberty, which is a principle change for humans as they develop and grow older. This is supported by the statutory guidance referred to by Janet Palmer and the non-statutory National Curriculum guidance for the Year 5 Programme of Study for Science which states:

“Pupils should draw a timeline to indicate the stages in the growth and development of humans.  They should learn about the changes experienced in puberty.”

It is clear, therefore, that schools should teach about puberty in either Year 4 or Year 5 depending on the needs of their pupils.  A high-quality science curriculum including learning about puberty will ensure that pupils get the learning they need. Parental right to withdraw children from this part of the school curriculum does not fall within this remit.

Statement published 4 September 2014 © Association for Science Education/PSHE Association 2014