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Relationship, Drug and Alcohol Education (Curriculum)

Volume 551: debated on Wednesday 17 October 2012

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 the Secretary of State to make provision to include relationship, drug and alcohol education in the national curriculum; and for connected purposes.

Growing up today is full of wonderful opportunities and freedoms for our young people, but it is also probably the most challenging time ever to be a young person faced with questions such as, “My mates are drinking; should I drink and, if so, how much?”, “What are legal highs, and are they safe just because they are legal?” and “What does a healthy relationship look like?”

Like many hon. Members, I believe that the role of education involves much more than simply teaching a limited range of academic subjects. It has a powerful role in preparing and equipping young people for life by giving them the knowledge and skills to deal with the complexities of living in a modern, fast-changing world. We need to recognise that, along with support from parents and families, schools have a vital part to play in producing confident, well-informed young people.

I am pleased to bring forward this Bill, with its focus on relationship, drug and alcohol education, as I believe that these are key areas for all our young people growing up. We can show that well-planned, coherent and effective education programmes on drugs, alcohol and relationships can work. There is evidence that specific programmes can have a measurable impact on young people’s behaviour, in regard to the use of alcohol, tobacco and cannabis. Programmes such as “Relationships without fear”—a school-based intervention programme on developing healthy relationships and challenging domestic violence—can be shown to prevent domestic abuse by giving young people the knowledge, skills and advice to enable them to deal with abusive relationships.

We also know, however, that fear-based approaches that just give information without addressing the social context of drugs, for example, are not effective. Young people need the opportunity to consider, reflect on, evaluate, discuss and reach conclusions about drugs, alcohol and relationships in a safe, educational environment. We came close to making those subjects compulsory in the Children, Schools and Families Act 2010 under the previous Labour Government, but the Conservatives blocked the introduction of those provisions in the wash-up before the 2010 general election. When the coalition came into government, it instigated a review of personal, social and health education, but the review concluded nearly a year ago and the Government have still produced no proposals. Indeed, in the Government’s recent guidance on drugs and alcohol, they have specifically removed advice to schools about drug and alcohol education.

Why do I want to make these subjects compulsory? The main reason is to ensure that training will be made available for teachers and that resources will be allocated. For too long, many PSHE teachers have been talked into teaching this subject as an add-on to their main subject area, without having any specialist training or knowledge. We know that there is a mixed picture across the country, with some good practice and some that is not so good, but all our pupils deserve access to good quality PSHE.

The Bill would ensure that all children had access to good quality, age-appropriate education in relationships, drugs and alcohol throughout their education. Such topics would no longer be treated as trivial or as an add-on. Experts say that good quality education in this area can be achieved by one hour a week of the curriculum being devoted to the subject, and I believe that it could be incorporated in the curriculum fairly easily.

Turning to the specific issue of drugs and alcohol, we know that 60% of drugs education involves less than one hour per pupil a year. It is often of poor quality, incomplete or, at worst, totally irrelevant. The charity Mentor has reported that some 16-year-olds are getting the same lessons as 11-year-olds. In the week that the UK Drug Policy Commission published its report after six years of research, one of the key recommendations made was the need for prevention work through good drugs education in schools, best delivered through evidence-based life skills programmes.

I want to mention particularly the need for education about new drugs—often known as legal highs or club drugs. Twenty-eight new legal highs were identified in the first five months of 2012. How many hon. Members would know what to say if they were asked about “meow meow” and how it affects people? Most people do not know about club drugs and their effects, or, more importantly, their effects if taken with alcohol.

Yesterday morning, I attended the launch of the Angelus Foundation’s “Find out” campaign. The Angelus Foundation was set up after the death of Hester Stewart, who took a legal high, GBL. The foundation’s aim is to raise awareness of the risks of using legal highs and club drugs, working alongside the Amy Winehouse Foundation. In a poll conducted by the Angelus Foundation, it was found that 45% of 16 to 24-year-olds admitted to having been offered legal highs and 67% did not feel well informed about the risks, while 86% of parents lacked the knowledge to warn their children about legal highs.

At yesterday’s launch, Maryon Stewart, the founder of the Angelus Foundation, and Mitch Winehouse both spoke passionately of the need for our schools to educate our young people about drugs and legal highs, and particularly about the new drugs and the club drugs. Families and parents do not have the information to give to young people, while young people themselves are desperate to know more. A year 8 pupil, when asked what he would like to be taught about drugs, told Mentor, “Everything,” as “barely anything is taught.”

As for alcohol, an Ofsted report of 2010 said that students’ knowledge about its social and physical effects was rudimentary in about half of the secondary schools Ofsted had visited, yet the Government’s own alcohol strategy refers to the importance of teaching PSHE—personal, social, health and economic education—to help them in their aim to reduce alcohol consumption amongst young people. It is worrying to note that in the new, revised science national curriculum, all reference to alcohol, drugs and tobacco has been removed.

Finally, on relationship education, the only compulsory education our young people receive in terms of sex and relationships is currently within the science curriculum, and it relates to reproduction, anatomy and the spread of infections. For many years, parents have asked for relationship education to be included alongside the science. A recent mumsnet poll showed that 90% of respondents want relationships and sex education made compulsory in secondary schools. Some schools have provided very good relationships education, working together with parents. The best example I have seen was in a Roman Catholic primary school in inner London, teaching children about healthy relationships, building up children’s confidence and self-esteem in an age-appropriate way.

Just to challenge the myths, let me say that we know high-quality sex and relationships education does not encourage young people to become sexually active. We know through international research that good relationships education will delay the age at which a young person starts a sexual relationship. Particularly importantly, in the light of the horrific stories we have heard in recent weeks of children being abused in the Jimmy Savile scandal, we know that SRE can equip children and young people with the language and skills to understand appropriate and inappropriate behaviour and relationships, to be able to resist pressure and to know who to talk to and how to access help and support when they need it.

I also want to refer to the shocking statistic from the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children that one in three young women in a relationship have suffered abuse. We need to instil confidence in our young people, and especially young women, about what a healthy relationship looks like. The End Violence Against Women Coalition has launched the excellent campaign “schoolsafe4girls”. It recognises that harassment and abuse of women and girls is widespread and that schools have a unique and critical role to play in addressing harmful attitudes and abusive behaviour. The coalition is calling for schools, parents, students and the Government to work together to ensure that all girls are safe.

This Bill has cross-party support and support from many leading charities and organisations, including Brook, the Family Planning Association, Adfam, the Angelus Foundation, the End Violence Against Women Coalition, Mentor, Alchol Concern, Turning Point and many others. Those organisations recognise the importance to society of educating our young people, which can have a huge impact in preventing social problems from developing.

I am pleased to see that the new Under-Secretary of State for Education, the hon. Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss), is present. I am sure that she will take particular account of the fact that although we cannot protect young people from every danger, we can equip them better at school and tilt the odds in their favour.

This is a sensible Bill. It is evidence-based, and I believe that it will have a real, positive effect on young people’s lives and on society in general.

Question put and agreed to.


That Diana Johnson, Mrs Sharon Hodgson, Chris Bryant, Barbara Keeley, Roberta Blackman-Woods, Kate Green, Andrew Percy, Annette Brooke, Lyn Brown and Nic Dakin present the Bill.

Diana Johnson accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 9 November and to be printed (Bill 73).