How to teach consent to primary pupils

Primary teachers want to teach their pupils about consent, but they’re unsure how. That’s according to the PSHE Association, which has seen increased demand from its members for materials to help cover this topic at an early age.

This has, in part, been driven by Everyone’s Invited, and the subsequent Ofsted review of sexual abuse in schools and colleges that was published last summer. The review found that issues such as peer-on-peer abuse and sharing of inappropriate images and videos were happening in primary schools as well as in secondaries.

The pressing need to tackle this topic at primary has been cemented in the new statutory relationships education guidance, too: it states that all primary pupils need to understand “the importance of permission-seeking and giving in relationships with friends, peers and adults”.

Teachers, it seems, are keen to do more in this area. But knowing that you need to introduce these lessons early, in an age-appropriate way, and understanding how to do that are two different things.

According to the PSHE Association, teachers desperately need support. In response, the association has produced a set of consent education guidance and lesson plans for key stages 1 and 2. Here, Jenny Fox, a senior subject specialist, explains the principles that underpin them.

Tes: To what extent is consent already taught in primary schools? 

Fox: Many schools have embedded PSHE education effectively and offer regular curriculum time to teaching about issues such as consent. But there will also be schools for whom this is brand new, and those who may be uncertain about where consent education fits in the primary curriculum.

There may even be schools that were doing a lot of foundational teaching – for example teaching about respectful friendships, gentle touch and sharing toys – but had never really thought about it as “consent” before.

More teaching and learning:

How should primary teachers cover consent in an age-appropriate way? 

The key is to encourage children to understand the key concepts of consent within friendships, drawing on realistic but non-threatening scenarios where children can understand their rights, rehearse strategies for seeking, giving and not giving consent, and evaluate situations in which behaviours are appropriate or inappropriate.

In our resources, these three areas are covered across three lessons: giving permission, personal boundaries, and touch.

So what does this look like in practice?

Let’s start with the lesson on how we ask for, give and not give permission.  

Children are supported to think about various different contexts in which they ask for permission and explore the language and ways in which they ask – for example, asking their parents to go to a friend’s house, borrowing a piece of equipment from a classmate, or asking a teacher if they can go to the toilet during a lesson.

Then they look at scenarios where one friend asks another friend’s permission for something and discuss what the possible responses might be. For example, the ways we can say “yes” to something we want to do, or, more importantly, the ways to say “no”, if and when we don’t want to do something. They also discuss the possible consequences of not asking permission at all. 

These are the fundamentals of recognising that other children have rights and the importance of considering and respecting these rights.

How do you teach primary children about personal boundaries?

In our lesson, we start by encouraging children to look at different types of close behaviours – such as sharing secrets, telling jokes, playing games, hugging, kissing on the cheek, showing photos – and think about where they might draw their boundaries with friends, family, and others, including in online interactions.

Pupils also look at examples of children who have different levels of comfort around personal space and boundaries. Pupils discuss how to manage these situations: for example, what a child who feels uncomfortable getting hugged by their grandma could do in that situation.  

The final area of focus, then, is touch. How should teachers approach this?

Here, teachers can begin by exploring different types of touch – such as biting, kicking, hugging, holding hands, pulling hair – and asking which are appropriate, inappropriate and which might depend on the context. 

In our resource, children then explore a case study where a character experiences different kinds of touch – from her friends, her little brother, and a peer at school – and review which instances are appropriate or inappropriate.

Teachers should also signpost to children who to talk to should they think something inappropriate has happened. 

Even with the help of ready-made resources, consent can still be a tricky topic to teach. What sort of challenges might teachers encounter?

Often, parents can present the biggest challenge. As with some other areas of relationships education, parents sometimes worry that the lessons may not be age-appropriate or may make reference to sex and sexual consent. 

Teachers need to make clear to them that teaching in this area at primary school only explores consent in platonic situations involving friends. Children won’t learn, for example, how consent applies to sexual relationships, though this foundational learning will be of great help in advance of exploring sexual consent in secondary relationships and sex education.  

Parents should be reassured by this. Teachers can also explain that the purpose of teaching is for pupils to be able to recognise their rights and stay safe and point out that understanding consent and related topics forms a key element of the schools’ approach to safeguarding.

Is there any scaffolding work that needs to run alongside teaching about consent?

Any lessons on this topic should sit within a wider framework of PSHE education. Knowledge and understanding need to be built up through sequenced learning; this cannot be achieved effectively by assemblies, tutor time and one-off awareness days alone, but must involve regular curriculum time. Ofsted’s sexual harassment review, for example, recommends “a carefully planned and implemented curriculum” as central to the solution.

Consent should also not be considered in isolation, but taught alongside other PSHE lessons about what it means to be a good friend, how to manage conflict, or lessons about keeping safe. 

PSHE education should be supported by a whole-school approach which embeds an ethos of rights and respect. It is important to identify staff who pupils can speak to should they have concerns and to signpost to wider sources of trustworthy support.

Would staff benefit from any specific training before teaching this topic? 

Our lessons come with detailed teacher guidance to help support confident teaching.

However, we consider it important that any teachers delivering PSHE education seek out training on the fundamentals of safe, effective practice. These include establishing ground rules with their class, using distancing techniques to avoid personal disclosures in an environment that may not be appropriate for this, and safe handling of questions. We go into greater detail about all of this in our guidance on handling complex issues and creating a safe learning environment.

At the PSHE Association, we also provide CPD on the very basics of understanding PSHE and more specifically on delivering RSHE effectively.

Find out about Tes Safeguarding Awareness Week 2022 (16-22 May). Everyone has the right to feel safe and this week Tes are offering free webinars, expert guides and resources to help support your school raise awareness around important safeguarding issues