DES Circular 11/87 (1987)

In this circular, the DES explained the new duties and responsibilities of governors, heads, teachers and local authorities in relation to sex education, following the passing of the 1986 Education (No. 2) Act.

The text of DES Circular 11/87 was prepared by Derek Gillard and uploaded on 11 October 2017.

Circular 11/87 (1987)
Sex education at school

Department of Education and Science
London: 1987
Crown copyright material is reproduced with the permission of the Controller of HMSO and the Queen's Printer for Scotland.

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Circular No 11/87
25 September 1987


To: All Local Education Authorities



1. Appropriate and responsible sex education is an important element in the work of schools in preparing pupils for adult life. It calls for careful and sensitive treatment.

2. Parents are the key figures in helping their children to cope with the physical and emotional aspects of growing up and in preparing them for the challenges and responsibilities which sexual maturity brings. The teaching offered by schools should be complementary and supportive to the role of parents. But some parents may not feel able to discuss sexual matters fully and freely with their children. Because of this schools have a clear responsibility to ensure that pupils are adequately prepared for adult life.

3. This Circular is set within the general context of new statutory provisions relating to the school curriculum contained in the Education (No 2) Act 1986. The Secretary of State has now initiated wide consultations on the Government's proposals for legislation on the national curriculum which will affect these provisions and responsibilities for the curriculum within schools. The 1986 Act places responsibility on governing bodies for determining what sex education should be offered in their schools and the Secretary of State reaffirms that this will remain so with the national curriculum. The Secretary of State believes that LEAs and governing bodies will welcome guidance on the effect of the new framework for the provision of sex education established by the 1986 Act and on other aspects of treatment of sexual matters within the school context. This Circular is concerned mainly with the compulsory period of schooling from age 5 to 16; but many of the considerations will have implications also for provision for pupils above that age range. It should be read in conjunction with the guidance in DES circulars 6/86 and 7/87 on other provisions of the 1986 Act.


4. For county, controlled and maintained special schools, section 18(2) of the Education (No 2) Act 1986 requires that:

"The articles of government for every such school shall provide for it to be the duty of the governing body:

a. to consider separately (while having regard to the local education authority's statement under section 17 of this Act [on their policy in relation to the secular curriculum in maintained schools]) the question whether sex education should form part of the secular curriculum for the school; and

b. to make, and keep up to date, a separate written statement:

i. of their policy with regard to the content and organisation of the relevant part of the curriculum; or
ii. where they conclude that sex education should not form part of the secular curriculum, of that conclusion."
Section 18(6) requires that:
"The articles of government for every such school shall provide for it to be the duty of the head teacher, in discharging his duties in relation to the secular curriculum for the school:

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... c. to ensure that that curriculum:
i. so far as it relates to sex education, is compatible with the governing body's policy (as expressed in their statement ...) except where that policy is incompatible with any part of the syllabus for a course which forms part of that curriculum and leads to a public examination."
These provisions will take effect progressively from 1 September 1987 as new articles of government under the 1986 Act are made. The articles of government for all such schools newly established after 1 September 1987 must satisfy the above requirements. The articles of existing county and maintained special schools must comply with these requirements by 1 September 1988, or such earlier date on which new articles or a new instrument of government are made for the school. For voluntary controlled schools the final date is 1 September 1989.

5. For all voluntary aided and special agreement schools, section 19(1) of the Act requires the articles of government to provide inter alia for the content of the secular curriculum to be under the control of the governing body; for the governing body to have regard to the policy of the local education authority as to the curriculum for the authority's schools; and for the head teacher to be allocated by the governing body such functions as will, subject to the resources available, enable him to determine and organise the curriculum. Articles of government for aided and special agreement schools newly established after 1 September 1987 must satisfy the above requirements. The articles of existing schools must comply with these requirements by 1 September 1989 or such earlier date on which new articles or a new instrument of government for the school is made. Section 18 of the Act does not apply to these schools, and section 19 makes no separate provision for sex education as compared with other parts of the secular curriculum. Nevertheless, the Secretary of State hopes that in discharging their responsibilities the governing bodies and head teachers of these schools will as far as possible have due regard to the general guidance in this circular.

The Role of Governors

6. In determining their policy for sex education, governors will also be required under the Act to have regard to any representations made to them by any persons connected with the community served by the school and to any representations made by the chief officer of police connected with his responsibilities. In the case of county, controlled and maintained special schools the governors will be statutorily required to consult the head teacher. The Secretary of State expects that governors will find useful the professional advice which the head and other staff are able to offer and the experience and expertise of teacher representatives on the governing body. The governors will also find it helpful to take account of the references to sex education in the HMI discussion document "Health Education from 5-16" (Curriculum Matters 6, HMSO 1986). Ultimately the content of the policy will be for the governors to decide, subject to the requirements of section 46 of the 1986 Act that sex education should be given in such a manner as to encourage pupils to have due regard to moral considerations and the value of family life (see paragraph 18 below). Whilst it may be some time for some schools before the requirements of sections 18 and 19 of the 1986 Act take effect, all governing bodies may well wish to consider what their policy on sex education will be before the sections take effect.

7. Section 18(2)(a) of the Act allows a governing body to decide that no sex education should be provided in their school. However, the Secretary of State expects that, in exercising their new powers, governing bodies will be strongly influenced by the widely-accepted view, that schools have a responsibility to their pupils to offer at least some education about sexual matters. In particular, pupils may need to know about sexual matters to ensure that education about health is not impaired, and that, for example, they understand about the relationship between certain forms of sexual behaviour and AIDS (paragraph 23 below).

8. The Secretary of State envisages that governors, as part of their responsibility for deciding policy on the content of any sex education to be offered, may determine their school's overall approach to teaching about sexual matters. They should consider whether and how parents should be given opportunities to see teaching materials for themselves and to receive explanations of the way in which they are to be used. They should also have a policy on whether and how to use outside speakers on particular topics, whose contributions would need to be consistent both with the governors' overall policy for sex education and with statutory requirements. But the governors should maintain a distinction between their responsibility for determining general policy on content and organisation, and the exercise of professional skills by the head teacher and staff in delivering the curriculum in accordance with the policy.

9. As part of their responsibility for determining policy on the organisation of sex education provision, the governors may wish to consider the extent to which it should form a discrete element in the curriculum or be spread across different programmes. They will also have the discretion to accept or reject requests from parents for their children to be withdrawn from any sex education to which they object. There is no statutory right for parents to cause their children to be withdrawn from sex education provision. However, some parents will have strong objections on religious grounds to their children receiving sex education and governing bodies should fully appreciate this in exercising their discretion.

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The Role of Parents

10. The increased proportion of elected parent representatives on governing bodies, provided for under the 1986 Act, will ensure that due weight is given to parental views in formulating the sex education policy for the school. Parents will also have the following opportunities, provided under statute, to be more closely involved in these and other aspects of their children's schooling.

11. The Education (School Information) Regulations 1981, made under Section 8 of the Education Act 1980, already require local education authorities and governors of aided and special agreement schools to publish information about "the manner and context in which education as respects sexual matters is given". The information will in future need to refer to the governors' policy on content and organisation, to any arrangements for parental consultation over the type of materials to be used, and to any discretionary arrangements for excusing pupils from sex education. With effect from 7 January 1987, the governing body of every county, voluntary and maintained special school has been required to publish an annual report for parents on the work of the school. That report and any other matters of interest to parents will be for discussion at an annual meeting of the full parent body, which will be able to pass formal resolutions which the governing body, the head teacher or the local education authority will be obliged to consider. Any concerns about the school's approach to sex education may thus be raised in this forum.

The Role of the Head

12. In discharging their responsibilities for the curriculum, including securing its delivery, the head teachers of county, controlled or maintained special schools will under the 1986 Act be bound by the governing body's stated policy, except where that policy is incompatible with any part of the syllabus for a course within the curriculum leading to a public examination. Where, for example, the syllabus for such a course in biology requires that pupils demonstrate some understanding of the facts relating to family planning, teaching in accordance with that syllabus is permitted, notwithstanding any indication to the contrary in the governing body's policy statement on sex education. With the help of the teaching staff, the head will have an important part to play in contributing to the preparation, and keeping up to date, of the policy statement. In exercising all these responsibilities, the head teacher of such a school is also bound by the requirement of section 46 of the 1986 Act, (see paragraph 18 below).

The Role of Teachers

13. The Secretary of State considers that the majority of the teachers involved have hitherto fulfilled their responsibilities in relation to this aspect of the curriculum with skill and sensitivity. The effective discharge of their responsibilities in implementing the governors' policy at classroom level will depend in large measure on their professional skill and expertise, possibly making use of the expertise of health service professionals.

The Role of the LEA

14. Section 17 of the 1986 Act requires LEAs to determine and state their policies in respect of the secular curriculum for county, controlled and maintained special schools, having considered the range and internal balance of that curriculum. In carrying out that duty, LEAs will need to decide to what extent their policy statements, which will be subject to section 46 of the Act, should refer specifically to sex education. The governors will be obliged to have regard to the relevant parts of the LEA's statement, but will not be bound by them.


15. At the primary level particular care and sensitivity is needed in matching teaching to the maturity of the pupils involved, which may not always be adequately indicated by chronological age. At this level, teaching should aim to help pupils cope with the physical and emotional challenges of growing up and give them an elementary understanding of human reproduction. Pupils' questions should be answered sensitively and with due consideration for any particular religious or cultural factors bearing on the discussion of sexual issues.

16. In the secondary phase, sex education does not usually feature as a discrete subject on the timetable but is commonly subsumed within a broader programme of personal and social education or health education. Whilst the physical aspects of sexual behaviour may well be encompassed within the teaching of biology, opportunities for considering the broader emotional and ethical dimensions of sexual attitudes and mores may arise in other subject areas.

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Teaching in Special Schools

17. Special schools have a particularly sensitive role to play. Although all parents have had to cope with the problems of their own puberty and sexual development, very few of them are themselves disabled in any way and may have difficulty in understanding the extra problems of the disabled. Children with learning difficulties need more help than others in coping with the physical and emotional aspects of growing up; they also need more help in learning what sorts of behaviour are and are not acceptable, and they may need to be warned and prepared against unacceptable behaviour by adults. On the other hand some parents may find it difficult to come to terms with the idea that disabled children will some day become sexually active. The governors of special schools - and of any schools which cater for pupils with special educational needs - will need to take particular care in working out their policy, and in ensuring that the support of parents is enlisted in implementing it.


18. Section 46 of the Education (No 2) Act 1986 requires that:

"The local education authority by whom any county, voluntary or special school is maintained, and the governing body and head teacher of the school, shall take such steps as are reasonably practicable to secure that where sex education is given to any registered pupils at the school it is given in such a manner as to encourage those pupils to have due regard to moral considerations and the value of family life."
Section 46 came into force on 7 January 1987, and the duty is imposed on all the parties specified.

19. The Secretary of State considers that the aims of a programme of sex education should be to present facts in an objective and balanced manner so as to enable pupils to comprehend the range of sexual attitudes and behaviour in present day society; to know what is and is not legal; to consider their own attitudes, and to make informed, reasoned and responsible decisions about the attitudes they will adopt both while they are at school and in adulthood. Teaching about the physical aspects of sexual behaviour should be set within a clear moral framework in which pupils are encouraged to consider the importance of self-restraint, dignity and respect for themselves and others, and helped to recognise the physical, emotional and moral risks of casual and promiscuous sexual behaviour. Schools should foster a recognition that both sexes should behave responsibly in sexual matters. Pupils should be helped to appreciate the benefits of stable married and family life and the responsibilities of parenthood.

20. Schools have a responsibility to ensure that pupils understand those aspects of the law which relate to sexual activity. Pupils should understand three things in particular, which are that:

i. except in certain very restricted circumstances, it is a criminal offence for a man or boy to have sexual intercourse with a girl under 16, irrespective of whether she consents;

ii. homosexual acts (defined as buggery or gross indecency) between males constitute a criminal offence unless both parties have attained the age of 21 and the acts are committed with the consent of both in private (ie, where only the two parties are present); and

iii. it is an offence to make an indecent assault on a person; and a girl or boy under 16 cannot in law give any consent which would prevent an act being an assault for the purpose of this offence.

21. Schools cannot, in general, avoid tackling controversial sexual matters, such as contraception and abortion, by reason of their sensitivity. Pupils may well ask questions about them and schools should be prepared to offer balanced and factual information and to acknowledge the major ethical issues involved. Where schools are founded on specific religious principles this will have a direct bearing on the manner in which such subjects are presented.

22. There is no place in any school in any circumstances for teaching which advocates homosexual behaviour, which presents it as the "norm", or which encourages homosexual experimentation by pupils. Indeed, encouraging or procuring homosexual acts by pupils who are under the age of consent is a criminal offence. It must also be recognised that for many people, including members of various religious faiths, homosexual practice is not morally acceptable, and deep offence may be caused to them if the subject is not handled with sensitivity by teachers if discussed in the classroom.

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23. The Government has emphasised that the key to limiting the spread of AIDS lies in enhanced public understanding about the disease and the ways in which infection is and is not transmitted. Schools can contribute towards the general level of awareness through the teaching which they offer. The Secretary of State believes that education about AIDS is an important element in the teaching programmes offered to pupils in the later years of compulsory schooling. Schools should also be prepared to respond to questions about AIDS from younger pupils. Schools have a clear responsibility to warn pupils of the health risks of casual and promiscuous sexual behaviour - whether heterosexual or homosexual - and of the dangers of drug abuse. Whatever the overall policy on sex education adopted by the governing body, particular attention should be given to the forms of sexual and other behaviour which carry a risk of infection with the AIDS virus and about ways in which risks may be avoided or lessened.

24. So that teachers and other education service professionals may themselves be fully and accurately informed about AIDS, the Department has issued (together with the Welsh, Scottish and Northern Ireland Offices) a factual booklet ["AIDS: Some Questions and Answers" (1987)] to staff in all schools. The Secretary of State has announced the commissioning of a video package for use with pupils in the later secondary years, which will be made available to schools shortly, and the need for other teaching materials is under review. The DES/Welsh Office booklet "Children at School and Problems related to AIDS" (issued in 1986) gave advice on measures to be taken in schools to avoid the spread of infection and to care for infected pupils.


25. It is important to distinguish between, on the one hand, the school's function of providing education generally about sexual matters on the basis described above and, on the other, counselling and advice to individual pupils particularly if this relates to their own sexual behaviour. Good teachers have always taken a pastoral interest in the welfare and well-being of pupils. But this function should never trespass on the proper exercise of parental rights and responsibilities.

26. On the specific question of the provision of contraceptive advice to girls under 16, the general rule must be that giving an individual pupil advice on such matters without parental knowledge or consent would be an inappropriate exercise of a teacher's professional responsibilities, and could, depending on the circumstances, amount to a criminal offence. The provision of contraceptive advice and treatment was addressed by the House of Lords judgment in the Gillick case(i). The House of Lords found that, while it should be most unusual for a doctor to provide such a service to a child under 16 without parental knowledge or consent, there were circumstances, described in the judgements, where he or she would be justified in doing so. These circumstances hinged essentially upon the nature and context of medical advice and treatment in connection with the supply and use of contraceptive devices. They have no parallel in school education.

27. A teacher approached by a pupil for advice on these or other aspects of sexual behaviour should, wherever possible, encourage the pupil to seek advice from his or her parents. Where the circumstances are such as to lead the teacher to believe that the pupil has embarked upon, or is contemplating, a course of conduct which is likely to place him or her in moral or physical danger, or in breach of the law, the teacher has a general duty to warn the pupil of the risks involved. Whether the teacher should take the matter further, by informing the head teacher, and whether the head teacher should consider involving the pupil's parents, the specialist support services, or the local education authority, will depend on the particular circumstances involved and the professional judgement of the staff.

28. Guidance on the action to be taken in cases of suspected child abuse, and the role of schools in educating pupils about the dangers, will be the subject of a separate circular later this year.


29. Action should be taken in accordance with sections 17-19 of the Education (No 2) Act 1986 by:

a. local education authorities, to consider the place of sex education in their statements of policy on the secular curriculum for their schools (paragraph 14 of this circular), and appropriate support for those involved in giving sex education (paragraph 13);
(i) Gillick v. West Norfolk and Wisbech Area Health Authority and the Department of Health and Social Security [1986] AC 112

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b. governing bodies of county, controlled and maintained special schools, to prepare and keep up to date their statements of policy on the content and organisation of any sex education in their schools (paragraphs 4-9). Whilst this requirement will take effect over a period of time for all schools, governing bodies may wish to begin to prepare their policy before being required to do so by the law;

c. governing bodies of aided and special agreement schools, as their revised articles of government come into effect, to determine the content of the secular curriculum, having regard to the policy of the local education authority as to the curriculum for the authority's schools;

d. head teachers and their staff, to plan and carry out programmes of sex education in accordance with the governors' policy (paragraphs 12-13);

e. all the above parties, to perform their respective functions in accordance with section 46 of the Act and in the light of the guidance in this circular (paragraphs 15-29).


30. All enquiries relating to this circular should be addressed in the first instance to:

Mr TP Dracup
Rm 4/91
Schools Branch 3
Department of Education and Science
York Road