Rachael Baker, Senior RSE Specialist examines the evidence.
Disabled children are almost three times more likely to experience sexual violence than non-disabled children (1). Young people with learning disabilities are more vulnerable both to being sexually abused and to displaying inappropriate or problematic sexual behaviour (2). People with learning disabilities are highly likely to report that they had inadequate relationships and sex education (RSE) in school.
Statutory Government guidance tells us that RSHE must be accessible for all pupils, particularly those with SEND, but gives little detail on how teachers in SEND schools go about developing and delivering meaningful and inclusive RSE to their learners. It does tell us that there may be a need to tailor content and teaching to meet the specific needs of pupils at different developmental stages.
Understanding some of the reasons why children and young people with SEND are vulnerable to sexual abuse can help with the design of effective RSE. Having additional communication needs and not understanding that what is happening to them should they be abused are barriers to recognising and reporting abuse (3). The Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (2022) documents several victims and survivors who ‘didn’t have the words’ and couldn’t be heard (4).
Applying age-ratings to RSHE guidance is not the answer. Instead, the focus of the RSHE review should be on responding to children and young people's needs and the evidence about RSHE pedagogy. Updated RSHE guidance should give more emphasis to skills development in RSHE curricula and must be clear about the importance of laying the foundations around basic knowledge early enough and often enough to help protect children, especially those with SEND.
What do learners with SEND need for RSE to be accessible and meaningful?
Long enough to explore complex topics safely at a suitable pace
Frequent so that learning can be chunked down into manageable portions, and revisited
Inclusive, so that they feel represented and visible
Safe with clear boundaries to be able to participate as much as they can
Learner led with learners interests, needs and wishes at the forefront, giving the skills to understand their sexuality and be able to make informed choices in adulthood
Successfully leading RSE in SEND schools
Sex Education Forum has trained hundreds of teachers in SEND schools. We know what a skilled job it is to teach RSE that meets the needs of a wide range of learners, and how seriously SEND schools take the subject.
This October a group of teachers from across the country will embark on our unique Developing RSE specialism in SEND schools programme. This is designed to enable teachers to successfully lead RSE in their setting, and includes activities to cascade to colleagues. The reason we developed this in-depth training is because the RSE of children and young people with SEND deserves high priority.
Find out more about the ‘Developing RSE specialism in SEND schools’ programme, and explore our calendar of courses, whether you are looking for a focus on PMLD, younger or older learners as they prepare for adulthood.
We have spoken in Parliament about the importance of prioritising RSHE support for special schools. Watch our CEO, Lucy Emmerson, in the Women and Equalities Select Committee one-off inquiry into RSHE.
1. Residential schools investigation report (2022) Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse, Crown copyright.
2. McNeish & Scott (2023) Key messages from research on children and young people who display harmful sexual behaviour. Centre of Expertise on CSA.
3. NSPCC website (Accessed 28 September 2023).
4. The Report of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (2022), Crown copyright.