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Sex and Relationships Education (Curriculum)

Volume 586: debated on Tuesday 21 October 2014

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 education about sex and relationships, resilience against bullying and sexual abuse and ending violence against women and girls in the national curriculum; and for connected purposes.

I am very pleased to have the opportunity to present this Bill. I do so in view of the many disturbing cases of child abuse and exploitation that have come to light around the country recently. They include abuse in Derby, Telford, Peterborough and Rotherham and in north Wales care homes, and high-profile cases such as those of Jimmy Savile and Rolf Harris. There is also an ever-growing online threat. There are more opportunities for those who wish to harm our children to have unfettered online access to them. Tens of thousands of people are known to access child abuse images online, and I believe that we have reached a point at which we must think afresh about what more can be done to keep our children and young people as safe as possible from child sexual exploitation and abuse. One part of that will be ensuring that all children have access to effective, high-quality, evidence-based relationship and sex education in all schools.

I recently read Professor Jay’s report on the child exploitation scandal in Rotherham. Like all Members, I was shocked at what had happened to so many young people in the town, although we know that that was not an isolated incident. There are cases throughout the country of children being groomed and abused in towns and cities from Rochdale to Oxford. One particular instance in Professor Jay’s report caught my eye. Paragraph 8.13 states:

“The young people we met in the course of the Inquiry were scathing about the sex education they received at school. They complained that it only focused on contraception…They thought the sex education was out of touch and needed to be updated.”

What also caught my eye was that, according to the report, those young people had said that when a local organisation called Risky Business had arranged awareness-raising about child sexual exploitation, they had thought that it was very good, particularly when a survivor had spoken to them about their experience.

A clear recommendation in a recent report by the Children’s Commissioner on a national approach to safeguarding and protecting children was that, as part of the national strategy to tackle abuse, we need relationship education which explains what healthy relationships look like—answering questions such as “What is sexual exploitation?” and covering issues of consent and domestic abuse—and which is delivered in all schools by people with specialist expertise and knowledge.

Jane Lees, chair of the Sex Education Forum, has said:

“The details of the Harris and Savile cases have been shocking, in particular, the long periods of time during which victims suffered in silence and the wide range of ages of children and adults that were abused. The widespread publicity and information around the cases helpfully resulted in further victims coming forward. But we need to ensure that there is a better understanding of abuse so that children and young people are kept safe. It is for this reason we need a long lasting approach based on a guarantee that all schools teach children good quality SRE which includes learning to recognise and be able to talk about inappropriate sexual contact by others. Learning about what is and isn’t abusive behaviour is essential to help keep children safe from harm. We must respond to these cases by creating a legacy of guaranteed education for all children.”

For many years I have been convinced of the need to reform and overhaul the sex education that we provide for our young people, and to focus more widely on relationships and emotions. It is clear that the sex education that currently exists in schools is inadequate, just as the children in Rotherham said. It focuses on biology and what fits where, on sexual diseases, and on how not to get pregnant. We know that young people are often very savvy about the mechanics of sex, but lack any understanding of the potential dangers and threats that they face.

Ofsted has stated in recent reports that SRE requires improvements in nearly 50% of secondary schools. Students felt that there was too little teaching about relationships and too much emphasis on the mechanics of reproduction, and that lessons in personal, social, health and economic education had avoided discussions of sexual and emotional feelings and controversial issues such as abuse, homosexuality and pornography. Other recent evidence from Ofsted shows that, in some instances, SRE was limited to as little as two hours taught in the last year of primary school. Ofsted also found that younger pupils did not always learn the correct names for the sexual parts of their bodies. This can leave children muddled about their bodies and hampered by a lack of language to report sexual abuse. Plus, when the Sex Education Forum surveyed more than 800 young people, it found that one in three either did not know or were unsure about where to get help if they were sexually assaulted.

Now is the time to create a broad alliance of support for statutory sex and relationship education. A Mumsnet survey found that 92% parents wanted SRE to be compulsory at secondary school and that 69% wanted it to be compulsory at primary school, while 82% wanted it specifically to address sexual violence and bullying.

Of course we want parents and families to be part of the discussions with youngsters about relationships and keeping safe, but we cannot stand back and hope that all families will have those conversations when we know that it is often the most vulnerable children who do not have family support in this area. If we equip all our children with the tools to help them to keep safe, we will know that they have been taught how to identify abusive behaviour and the tactics of perpetrators and groomers, and that they will have learned what sexual consent actually means and what a loving and respectful relationship looks like.

We also know that there is huge support out there from charities and voluntary organisations. End Violence Against Women, the teaching unions, Brook, the Family Planning Association, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, the Terence Higgins Trust and many others are all calling for statutory SRE.

At Hull’s recent Freedom festival in September, I came across a grooming prevention initiative that was being run by the Hull domestic abuse partnership team and the Soroptimists. It highlighted for young people the behaviours involved in acceptable and unacceptable relationships. It had cards with questions such as “If he really loves you, how does he treat you?” and answers “He respects and trusts you for what you are”; He is kind and makes you feel comfortable”; “He listens to you and tells you the truth”. Similarly, it asked what an abusive relationship might look like. The answers included “He frightens me”, “He gets violent”, “He bullies me”, “He teases me in public” and “He always blames me”. That is the type of work that needs to be done in all schools and taught to all children and young people.

The time has now come for the Government to act. They have been woeful in looking at new ways of ensuring that we keep our children safe in the light of what has happened in recent times. The previous Education Secretary agreed to make financial education part of the national curriculum as he was concerned about students’ financial literacy. We now need to be concerned about keeping our children safe, and that means that we need compulsory relationship and sex education in all our schools. We want to build up our children’s self-esteem and confidence so that they are clear about what good healthy relationships look like and what is acceptable, and so that they know who to go to, and when, if they are concerned about unwanted or unacceptable behaviour towards them.

Protecting children is everyone’s business, and schools and education have a vital part to play. This is about reinforcing good parenting, not replacing it. However, leaving it all to parents, which is the current approach and the approach of decades past, is not working. That approach is failing, and it is not fit to deal with the challenges of the future. In our free, open digital technology society, we cannot protect youngsters totally from every conceivable danger or from the increasing opportunities available to potential abusers. However, a modern education can equip young people with skills that can tilt the odds in their favour and firmly against those seeking to harm or exploit them. Why would we not want to give them those skills? Why would we not introduce compulsory relationship and sex education to keep all our children as safe as possible?

I rise to oppose the Bill of the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson), but I should begin by congratulating her on the impressive doughnut she managed to arrange for herself, masking the fact that the people around the doughnut were the only Members on her side actually in the Chamber at the time. I give her full marks for her doughnut, which was better than her speech.

When a politician is faced with a problem—this is not necessarily a party political point—their solution always incorporates two ingredients. The first ingredient is that they have got to be seen to be doing something. I long for the day when a Minister stands up at the Dispatch Box and says, “Actually, that’s got nothing to do with the Government; that is for people to sort out for themselves.” They never do, however; politicians always want to highlight how important and powerful they are. The second ingredient in their solution is that what they propose does not really offend anybody. As long as they can come up with something that looks as if they are doing something and does not really offend anybody, that will be the solution they will go for, even if it will not make a blind bit of difference to the problem. [Interruption.] The hon. Lady’s speech today was a prime example of a politician who wants to be seen to be doing something with a proposal that does not really offend anybody, and which will make absolutely no difference at all to the problem she has rightly highlighted. [Interruption.]

The hon. Lady talks about the importance of dealing—[Interruption.] I know that Opposition Members are so intolerant of other people’s opinions that they do not like to listen to them—

Order. The hon. Gentleman was, I think, being heard, because he rarely has any difficulty in making himself heard, but the hon. Gentleman must be heard.

Thank you very much, Mr Speaker.

When the hon. Lady talks about the problems of child abuse, everybody agrees; of course we all agree that there is a massive problem with child abuse and it needs to be tackled. She highlighted the problems we found in Rotherham, but I am not sure most of my constituents would think the answer to that is to make sex education compulsory. Actually, I think what most people identified as the problem was the culture of political correctness that Labour councils up and down the country were cultivating, which prevented good people from speaking out about the disgusting things that were happening. If the hon. Lady had introduced an anti-political correctness Bill in Labour local authorities, it might have actually made some real difference. Trying to pretend that the solution to this problem is compulsory sex education is completely ludicrous.

We have been having sex education in our schools for more than 40 years, and it was supposedly going to solve things such as teenage pregnancies and unwanted pregnancies. Most of my constituents would probably conclude that the more sex education we have had since the early 1970s, the more teenage pregnancies and unwanted pregnancies we have had. [Interruption.] Perhaps somebody might look at the evidence—[Interruption.] I know Opposition Members do not want to hear this, but they might want to look at the evidence and then they might think that perhaps we should try less sex education in schools—or perhaps, even better, no sex education at all. That might be a better tactic. [Interruption.]

I will point out—[Interruption.]

Order. Fiona Mactaggart, you are an excessively excitable individual on occasion. Calm yourself and seek to behave with restraint, and as the aspiring stateswoman you should want to be.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. The Labour party is known for its intolerance of other people’s opinions. I am just pleased Labour Members are highlighting that so effectively today.

The sex education fanatics always point to Holland, because in Holland they have lots of sex education at a very young age and they have very low levels of teenage pregnancy, but the sex education fanatics never mention Italy. Italy has equally low levels of teenage pregnancies and unwanted pregnancies, but has very little sex education. A few years ago I looked at what Holland and Italy had in common, because then we might find out the true solution. What they have in common—and have had in common for many years—is that they have much closer family units, where families are much more likely to do things such as eat meals together. They have also historically been spectacularly ungenerous to single mothers in the benefits system and the housing allocation system. If we want to tackle issues such as teenage pregnancies and unwanted pregnancies, it would be much better to look at the benefit systems and the housing allocation system. That would make much more of a difference than this ridiculous obsession with more and more sex education.

As sex education has failed, people like the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North have said, “Actually, what we need is more sex education.” As we have had more sex education, however, the problem has got worse, as she has highlighted. She then changes tack and says, “Actually, what we need is better sex education.” Actually, one day everybody will have to conclude that what we need is less sex education, or even better, none.

The hon. Lady spectacularly failed to mention the role of parents. The message we should be giving to parents is this: “Being a parent is a very responsible business. You should not enter into it lightly and there are things that only parents can do and are expected to do, because the state cannot fulfil the role of a parent for you.” We have got ourselves into a problem by saying, “If you’re a parent, don’t worry about what you do. Don’t worry about whether you’re doing a good job, because if you don’t do a good job of it—if you don’t care about it—the state will pick up the pieces for you.” That is an appalling message to send out to people. We should be saying, “This is a serious business and an important matter and there are certain things that are your responsibility alone, and the state cannot take those functions away.”

Some parents may well be bad at teaching sex education, but who is to say that all teachers are good at teaching sex education? It may well be that many teachers are not very good at teaching sex education and that the parent would have been the best person to teach it to the child. We should not forget that point.

My job as a parent is to bring up my children with my values and the values I think are important to instil in them. I do not want my children to have the teacher’s values instilled in them, whether or not I like or support them. These are things that should be done by parents and parents alone. Teachers should be there to teach children about things parents are not capable of teaching, not about the things that parents should be teaching if they were doing their job properly.

If we want to tackle the problem of child abuse—which we all want to do in this House—let us look at the root causes: the political correctness of the Labour party that caused the problems in Rotherham. Let us not go down the route of this nanny state version of a Bill which is a complete waste of time and will make absolutely no difference at all, but fulfils the role I mentioned at the start, of a politician who wants to look as if they are doing something proposing something that does not really offend anybody. It offends me, and it offends people out in the country.

I will not delay the House by calling for a Division, as there is an important debate coming up and I would not want to highlight how silly some of the Labour Members are in the Lobby. So we will just leave it at that, but I hope this Bill goes absolutely nowhere.

Question put and agreed to.


That Diana Johnson, Simon Danczuk, Sarah Champion, Kevin Barron, John Healey, Mrs Sharon Hodgson, Lyn Brown, Barbara Keeley, Roberta Blackman-Woods, Andrew Gwynne and Wayne David present the Bill.

Diana Johnson accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 21 November, and to be printed (Bill 101).