Making relationships and sex education work for children with SEND

To coincide with relationships and sex education (RSE) becoming compulsory on 1st September, the Sex Education Forum, together with Image in Action and Mencap, have published a new guide for teachers about how to teach RSE in an accessible way to ensure pupils with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) are not left behind.


While the Department for Education guidance (1) stresses that RSE must be accessible to all pupils and may be a particularly important subject for pupils with SEND, over three-quarters (76%) of teachers consulted by the Sex Education Forum said that practical advice on how to deliver RSE to students with SEND would be ‘very helpful’ (2).

While the curriculum and topics covered in RSE should essentially be the same for pupils with SEND as for mainstream pupils (2), there are some specific practical considerations for schools, such as planning to revisit topics, involving the wide range of staff who may be involved in the teaching and care of pupils and using informal opportunities, for example queuing for lunch could be a chance to reinforce learning about personal boundaries.

The guide is also a timely reminder of good practice that applies to all schools, such as using correct language for private body parts, establishing partnerships with parents and carers, and listening to children and young people themselves. 

Lucy Emmerson, Director of the Sex Education Forum, said:

‘Relationships and Sex Education is an important subject for all children and young people, because it deals with matters that affect their everyday lives such as changing bodies, emotions, friendships, family and intimate relationships. Statutory RSE correctly sets high expectations for meeting the needs of all children, and with adequate support schools will be able to achieve this. The extent to which RSE meets the needs of pupils with SEND will be a test of successful implementation of the new legislation.’

Richard Lawrence, project support assistant and co-chair of the Relationship and Sex Steering Group at Mencap and who has a learning disability, said:

‘People with a learning disability can and do fall in love. But lots of people have told me that because I have a learning disability, I don’t understand what a healthy relationship, consent or safe sex is. It’s negative attitudes like this that mean that people with a learning disability don’t get to learn about these important things like others do. They end up finding out the hard way, and this isn’t right. People with a learning disability need to be given the chance to learn so they can find love or have friendships.

“We all need to learn about sex, relationships, consent and our bodies. But it’s a lot harder for people with a learning disability to do this because accessible information is hidden away. That’s why we at Mencap are proud to be working with the Sex Education Forum and Image in Action on this guide for teachers. It will help teachers make relationship and sex education accessible to everyone, by giving people more time, using images and avoiding jargon, to make sure pupils with a learning disability can better understand.’

‘RSE for disabled pupils and pupils with special educational needs’ is available at:




About the Sex Education Forum
The Sex Education Forum, part of the National Children’s Bureau, is the national authority on relationships and sex education (RSE). We believe that good quality RSE is an entitlement for all children and young people and we are working with our 60+ partners, who all support statutory, inclusive RSE and include local authorities, children’s, religious, health and family organisations, to achieve this. Mencap and Image in Action are partners of the Sex Education Forum.

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About the National Children’s Bureau
For more than 50 years, the National Children’s Bureau has worked to champion the rights of children and young people in the UK. We interrogate policy and uncover evidence to shape future legislation and develop more effective ways of supporting children and families. As a leading children’s charity, we take the voices of children to the heart of Government, bringing people and organisations together to drive change in society and deliver a better childhood for the UK. We are united for a better childhood.

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There are approximately 1.5 million people with a learning disability in the UK. Mencap works to support people with a learning disability, their families and carers by fighting to change laws, improve services and access to education, employment and leisure facilities. Mencap supports thousands of people with a learning disability to live their lives the way they want.

For advice and information about learning disability and Mencap services in your area, contact Mencap’s Freephone Learning Disability Helpline on 0808 808 1111 (9am-6pm, Monday-Friday) or email

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What is a learning disability?

  • A learning disability is a reduced intellectual ability which can cause problems with everyday tasks – for example shopping and cooking, or travelling to new places – which affects someone for their whole life; 
  • Learning disability is NOT a mental illness or a learning difficulty, such as dyslexia. Very often the term ‘learning difficulty’ is wrongly used interchangeably with ‘learning disability’;
  • People with a learning disability can take longer to learn new things and may need support to develop new skills, understand difficult information and engage with other people. The level of support someone needs is different with every individual. For example, someone with a severe learning disability might need much more support with daily tasks than someone with a mild learning disability.