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Sex and Relationships Education

Volume 515: debated on Wednesday 8 September 2010

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require schools to provide sex and relationships education to registered pupils; and for connected purposes.

As people say, “ And now for something completely different.” I first raised the issue of teenage pregnancy, which is a big problem in many constituencies, and of sex and relationships education some three or four years ago. I was then interviewed by an ITV journalist whose first question was “What is the nature of the problem with teenage pregnancy?” I explained, and his next question was, “And what causes teenage pregnancy?” I said, “Well, I’m not an expert, but I think it is something to do with sex.”

There are some very depressing facts on teenage pregnancy. In 2008, there were 41,325 conceptions to girls under the age of 18 and 7,577 to girls under the age of 16. Of the conceptions among girls under 18, 42.4% went on to have abortions. For the girls under 16, the figure was 52.9%. We would all agree that that is an unacceptable situation for our society. Even more distressing, in 2007, 369 girls under the age of 14 became pregnant.

The problem is writ large in many different ways. As someone who is deeply concerned about my constituents and the problem of long-term deprivation, I find it embarrassing that half of the conceptions by teenage girls occurred in the most deprived 20% of wards. Infant mortality among children born to teenage mums is 60% higher than it is for older mothers. Even more depressing, the daughters of teenage mothers are far more likely to go on to be teenage mums themselves. That means that in constituencies such as mine teenage pregnancy and poverty tend to be handed down from generation to generation, as inevitably as a title or seat in the House of Lords used to be. I want to see an end to that.

The most depressing moment that I have had in recent years in discussing this issue was in my constituency, when I met a brave and wonderful young girl. I hope that she will be a wonderful mother and have a fulfilling life. When I first met her, she was 16 and was pregnant for the second time. The first time, she was made pregnant when she was raped by her father at the age of 13.

We know that teenage pregnancy is an enormous problem across the country. The map of teenage pregnancy reflects the map of deprivation. We should be embarrassed by the fact that the international comparisons are terrible. We have the highest rate of teenage pregnancy in Europe—not just slightly, but by far. It is five times higher than in the Netherlands, three times higher than in France and twice as high as it is in Germany. We should do everything that we possibly can to change that.

Some 75% of sexually active 16 to 25-year-olds do not use condoms, and the number of sexually transmitted infections is steadily and dramatically increasing. Young people represent only 12% of the population, but account for nearly half of all sexually transmitted infections. HIV infection has trebled over the past 10 years, with 7,000 new diagnoses every year—and many thousands probably go undiagnosed. In addition, many schools still experience a high level of homophobic bullying, with youngsters suffering and going on to have major mental health problems. Some end up committing suicide. The incidence of suicide among homosexual pupils is six times higher than it is among heterosexuals. In 1990, only 10.3% of women had had their first sexual encounter under the age of 16, but in 2000 that had risen to 20.4%, which is another depressing statistic.

Some Members may say that all that was the fault of the previous Government—[Interruption.] I can see a couple of heads nodding. But actually the dramatic increase in teenage pregnancy rates happened in the 1980s and the early 1990s. I do not wish to attribute that to any particular Government or political party, but I simply make the point that now more teenage mothers are in education, employment or training and the figures have fallen in the last 10 years. They have not fallen enough, or anywhere near as much as we wanted them to fall, but they have fallen by 13.3%.

There is no point in being judgmental about this. I have met teenage mums who have been wonderful mothers. They have triumphed over the odds and gone to provide successful careers for themselves and their children. Likewise, I have met many teachers who teach sex and relationships education in school and who do it wonderfully, superbly, including in many faith schools up and down the land.

The judgmental attitude of the past, which meant that girls who got pregnant were thrown out of their homes and ignored by society—everything was brushed under the carpet—has not done us any favours. There is one big difference between this country and European countries with lower rates of teenage pregnancy: all the other countries provide statutory sex and relationships education to every single child from an early age. That is particularly the case in the Netherlands, which has the lowest rate in Europe and by far the best sex and relationships education.

According to reports in recent years on SRE in schools, a remarkably high number of girls get to their first period without understanding what is happening to their body because they have not had any SRE. Far too many children say that they would much prefer their first talk about this to be with their parents but that it is far too embarrassing and difficult for that to happen, and far too many say that the only SRE they had was at the age of 15 when they were told how to put a condom on, in some schools, a banana, and in other schools, a broomstick.

If we start too late, when youngsters are already having sex, we have already lost. We need to ensure that every child in the country has good SRE. Schools should not be able to opt out entirely from providing it, because every child should have the opportunity. Of course, if parents want to withdraw their own child, and if the child does not want to attend, they should be able to do so. That is right and proper, and my Bill would provide for it. However, I do not think that we should have whole schools opting out, either because the governors refuse to contemplate it, or because they are just too lily-livered to ensure that a proper curriculum is in place. That is why I believe that there should be statutory provision. This provision was to have been part of the Bill that came before the House before the general election, but there was a dispute and consequently these elements of the Bill were removed. However, I very much hope that hon. Members this afternoon will give the opportunity for the Bill to proceed.

I am thoroughly aware that just improving SRE in schools will not transform every aspect of the problems I have been referring to. Under-age drinking is still one of the main reasons a lot of young girls get pregnant, because all the good intentions that a couple might have at six o’clock on a Friday evening, when they are completely sober, might completely and utterly disappear when they are blotto at 11.30 pm. We need a better youth service so that young people are engaged with responsible adults who can give them a strong sense of their own self-confidence and self-worth, so that they can make better decisions in life.

In addition, it is important that we have proper early intervention, particularly for girls who are under-achieving in school. So often, young girls, when they feel that they are not loved at home or doing well at school, will almost, in the words of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, make a career decision to get pregnant. We should be ensuring that there are better alternatives for those girls, so that they can make better choices for themselves and their children in life. I hope that the House will agree this afternoon that, in the words of the Secretary of State for Education,

“it is vital that all children have high-quality sex and relationships education”.—[Official Report, 12 July 2010; Vol. 513, c. 656.]

I want to make it clear that I do not propose to press this to a Division, but I give advance notice to the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) and his hon. Friends that there are many in the House, not just on the Government Benches but on both sides, who will fundamentally fight his proposals, because we believe that they are the wrong thing for this country. I believe that primarily because this aspect of sexual and relationships education is the fundamental, primary domain of parents within families.

The hon. Gentleman might not have intended to be disingenuous, but it simply is not true that there is not an obligation for elements of sex education to be present within our education system. It exists at secondary school level. One of the things that concerns me about his proposal is that it would introduce the concept of sex education for all key stages, which would include, of course, five and six-year-olds. I have a further concern. As is appropriate, curriculums are developed by school governors, with teachers and parental involvement. That is important. However, his proposal, which suggests a one-size-fits-all approach—imposing something from the centre—goes against the current thinking, which is about local schools knowing best, in conjunction with parents in particular. It is imperative that parents continue to be able to exercise the right to withdraw their children from lessons that they do not believe to be in their children’s interests, and if they would rather teach SRE themselves. He added the proviso that children should be able to make that decision for themselves, but I believe that parents should be able to override them until they become of an age when they are legally entitled to do other things themselves.

This imposition on primary schools is fundamentally wrong. Putting it on the statute book is heavy-handed and belies the fact that secondary schools already undertake elements of this education. The constant approach of getting the state to undermine and supersede parental authority is fundamentally flawed. What has been the impact of sex education? A campaigner for the British Pregnancy Advisory Service said:

“There have been a large number of studies about the impact of sex education on abortion rates and pregnancy rates, and these frequently tend to show they are not having the kind of impact that the family planning specialists want. They mainly make us feel good that we’re educating people more thoroughly, but they do not seem to have much impact on the abortion rate.”

Let us go further. The SHARE scheme in Scotland conducted a test across a wide number of schools using a well-documented control group. It is probably the most carefully designed and rigorously tested such programme in the United Kingdom to date, and at the end of it, the researchers concluded:

“This specially designed sex education programme did not reduce conceptions or terminations…compared with conventional provision. The lack of effect was not due to quality of delivery.”

They also said that

“complementary intervention should be suggested”,

including socio-economic interventions and parental influence. To be honest, we do not need a big research programme to know that parents are the best people to discuss with their children the concept of sex and relationships education. Dare I say it—I am not trying to be flippant—but perhaps for teenagers the very fact that their parents had sex to have them puts off the discussion. Perhaps that was the case when the hon. Gentleman was growing up. However, we should be braver than that.

In the evidence that the hon. Gentleman cited, he mentioned many different countries, such as Holland, which has invested in sex education. However, he might also have seen the article in The Times that read:

“The Dutch Government still penalises single mothers under 18, who are expected to live with their parents if they become pregnant. Until six years ago the Government gave them no financial support.”

That might be an example of socio-economic intervention.

The hon. Gentleman failed to mention Italy, which also has low levels of teenage pregnancy, but does not invest significantly in school sex education, so we should not follow the example of the Netherlands and other countries he cites, or indeed France where the abortion limit is at 12 weeks, and suggest that sex education from the age of six is the right way to reduce sexual intervention. Dare I say it, but in the last so many years when sex education has been the norm, the great experiment of the ‘60s—

Oh, it certainly has, yet the percentage of people having sex under the legal age limit has doubled. That is not a record that this country should be proud of. I agree with the hon. Gentleman: I am not condemning teenage pregnancy—far from it. I do not think that the age of somebody always reflects whether they are a good mother. However, the fundamental principle is that families and parents know best, not the Government, so we will oppose this Bill fundamentally, every hour, every day.

Question put (Standing Order No. 23) and agreed to.


That Chris Bryant, Ms Diane Abbott, Sir Peter Soulsby, Jessica Morden, Nick Smith, Katy Clark, Mrs Sharon Hodgson, Luciana Berger, Karl Turner, Heidi Alexander, and Alex Cunningham present the Bill.

Chris Bryant accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 11 February, and to be printed (Bill 69).