Policy Making about Relationships and Sex Education in English Primary Schools

  • Rachel Wilder

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Relationships and sex education (RSE hereafter) is a fiercely political subject, and nowhere is it more contentious than at the primary school where, by some accounts, children’s innocence is at risk and which is, by other accounts, an opportune moment for children to acquire important life skills and develop inclusive and informed attitudes about sexuality and relationships. Schools are tasked by the government with developing their own RSE policy, but there is a paucity of knowledge on how they navigate the landscape and what criteria inform their deliberations.
I used in-depth interviewing to gather data about RSE policy making from key decision makers – e.g. members of the senior leadership team, teachers, administrators and advisors – at three primary schools, all located in the same English city. Informed by a Critical Realist philosophical approach, my analysis draws on a number of theories to serve my research aims: Macmurray’s writing about ‘the personal’ and ‘the functional’ and his typology of knowledge in education (1933, 1958, 2012); Social Realist theory about how cognitive norms and values contribute to curricula (Young, 2008; Moore, 2009); Morriss’ conceptualisation of power as the capacity to affect outcomes (2008); and Goodnight’s framework of argumentative strategies – technical, public or personal (2012). This research is a methodologically innovative approach, relevant for policy as well as scholarly work in the field.
This study offers persuasive evidence that in developing their school RSE policy, school decision makers draw significantly upon standards of knowledge, educational values and practices that are defined within the school itself. Decision making sometimes echoes wider public and political discourses – e.g. child protection, educational effectiveness – but local culture and leadership are dominant driving forces. This thesis confirms previous work suggesting that agents are more likely to make appropriate decisions about RSE when they possess epistemic knowledge in the subject, and deepens understanding of structure and agency by demonstrating that agents’ capacities to make decisions about RSE are enhanced by collective knowledge of and commitment to the principles of RSE.
Date of Award7 May 2019
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Bristol
SupervisorDebbie L Watson (Supervisor) & Ailsa M Cameron (Supervisor)


  • primary school
  • England
  • relationships and sex education
  • critical policy studies
  • Macmurray
  • Critical Realism
  • social realism
  • argumentative turn
  • decision making
  • policy making
  • power
  • leadership

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