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Statutory Sex and Relationships Education

Volume 620: debated on Tuesday 31 January 2017

I beg to move,

That this House has considered statutory sex and relationships education in all Government-funded schools.

I am very pleased to have secured this debate, and it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. As hon. Members on both sides of the House may know, this issue has been close to my heart for some time. I have been campaigning for improvements in sex and relationships education for several years. Actually, I think we should call it relationships and sex education, because I believe that the focus should be on equipping children and young people to establish healthy relationships and to build their self-esteem and self-worth.

One of the best examples that I have seen of great relationships and sex education was in a Catholic primary school, where children were learning about the body and about the clothing that people wear and why. The lesson looked at modesty and why certain parts of the body are special, private areas. It was done with parents being fully included in the lesson’s design, using the correct names for the parts of the body but in a safe and age-appropriate way. That is the type of age-appropriate, quality relationships education that I would like to see in all our schools and not just—sadly—in the few where a headteacher understands its importance and devotes time to it being taught well.

Under the last Labour Government, I had the honour of serving as Schools Minister during the passage of the Children, Schools and Families Act 2010. That happened in the final months before the 2010 general election and I regret that the Labour Government had left it so long to make important changes to sex and relationships education. By that time, it had become apparent that sex and relationships education in our schools urgently needed to be improved. The vast majority of parents—88%—told us that they agreed, and so too did the vast majority of children and young people. A wealth of educational specialists—the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, Brook, the Sex Education Forum and the Terrence Higgins Trust—all recommended at that time that the legal requirements on SRE should be strengthened.

Under the Education Act 1996, only maintained secondary schools were required by law to teach SRE and even they could get away with providing it only in science lessons. Three quarters of young people told us then that consent was not being taught even once during those lessons. One in seven pupils could not recall receiving any SRE at all. The guidance on the teaching of the topic, dating from 2000, clearly needed to be updated.

To address that, we planned to teach students much broader lessons covering a lot more than just the narrow biology of sex and what fits where. We felt that students needed to learn about healthy relationships in the broadest context, about being kind and valuing themselves and the other person, about self-worth and building up self-esteem, and about how they talk to and negotiate with one another. We felt that the issue of consent particularly needed to be addressed, that it needed to be spelt out clearly that physical and mental threats were not acceptable in any relationship and that no one should have to do anything that makes them uncomfortable or frightened. We also believed that young people needed to understand about keeping safe, which is especially important for younger children at primary school, and as children got older and became teenagers, to learn about sexual assault, rape and sexual harassment, and to understand what that meant. Should the worst happen, they needed to know whom they should approach and what they could do.

We argued that all that should be taught under the umbrella of a broader subject: personal, social, health and economic education. The Education Act 1996 needed to be amended so that all taxpayer-funded schools, including primary schools and academies, should be required to teach it. We wanted it to be statutory to ensure that teachers would then be required to have the proper training that they needed to deliver the subject well.

We agreed that although parents would still be able to opt their children out of most of the lessons if they wished—it is certainly worth noting that, as the law stands, a parent can withdraw a child from sex education up to the age of 18, even though the age of consent is 16—we negotiated with religious faiths such as the Catholic Church, so that we would guarantee that every child got at least one year’s teaching in SRE before they turned 16.

Does the hon. Lady concede that schools are currently obliged to follow section 78 of the Education Act 2002? That is about promoting

“the spiritual, moral, cultural, mental and physical development of pupils at the school and of society”.

Of course, some schools do that very well, but I want to ensure that all schools—whether academies, free schools or primary schools—provide that level of education to equip our children and young people for what life will throw at them. We need to strengthen provision. That is my issue.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this important debate and raising these issues. In respect of the previous intervention, it is not inconsistent with anything that she has outlined in her remarks to teach all young people about sex and relationships. Whether people are having sexual intercourse in a marriage or outside marriage, they need to know about how to interact properly in a relationship, with all that that might entail. That is a valuable point; it does not contradict previous legislation.

I accept that. It does not contradict it; it builds on it. That is where I want things to go. All the evidence shows that when taught properly, age-appropriate sex and relationship education and PSHE work. Research by UNESCO highlights that it can, importantly, delay sexual activity and increase the likelihood of contraceptive use. It is a vital tool in the fight to address unacceptable attitudes to women, combat child abuse and tackle homophobia.

I was describing what happened in 2010, just before the general election. Unfortunately, the Conservative party, faced with all the evidence, decided that it was not willing to support the clauses to introduce PSHE into the Children, Schools and Families Act 2010, so it was passed without those vital clauses. The argument used with me at that time by Conservative MPs was that the issue was one on which families, not schools, should take the lead. At the time, it often struck me that although of course families play a huge part in equipping young people for growing up and what happens in life, they often do not feel able to talk about such sensitive issues and want professionals to help. I also thought at the time that the children and young people who are most in need of relationship and sex education are, sadly, often from families where there might be domestic abuse or poor communication. They are the very children whom we want to ensure can access good-quality PSHE and SRE.

In the seven years since, more and more MPs from both sides of the House have fought to make the Government see sense. We keep being told that it is being considered—“There’s a review. We’re having a look at it. We agree things need to be improved”—but there is no action. Over the same period of seven years, the obligations on schools have only become weaker. As more and more schools become academies and more free schools open that do not have to follow the national curriculum, the proportion of schools required to teach SRE has decreased; now only 40% of schools need to do so.

I called this debate because now, more than ever, the Government need to revisit the issue. The Children and Social Work Bill, which is about to enter Report stage in the Commons, now offers them the opportunity finally to amend the law to bring about the changes that should have been incorporated into law in 2010. I hope that the Minister will be able to tell us today that the Government will accept the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy).

It is an understatement to say that since 2010, the arguments for improving sex and relationships education have only become stronger. When Labour tried to change the law seven years ago, we already knew that the case for doing so was overwhelming, but none of us predicted the shocking revelations that have emerged since, making the case even more overwhelming.

I am talking about things such as the revelations after the death of Jimmy Savile and Operation Yewtree. We have learned the scale of the exploitation of children and young people that has taken place over many years. Professor Alexis Jay estimates that in Rotherham alone, 1,400 children were abused in the sixteen years to 2013. Her report highlighted that in the minds of many children and young people, SRE in their schools was taught to an extremely poor standard and left them ill-equipped to understand that they were being groomed. We simply do not know the full scale of abuse across the rest of the country. It is thought that at any one time, approximately 5,000 young people are being sexually exploited. Online exploitation is now the fastest growing area of concern.

We also know even more than we did before about the shocking views that many hold about consent in relationships and women in general. A Fawcett Society survey released on 20 January asked:

“If a woman goes out late at night wearing a short skirt, gets drunk and is then the victim of a sexual assault, is she totally or partly to blame?”

Four in 10 men and a similar proportion of women said that she was. On the same day that that survey was released, the world bore witness to the inauguration of President Donald Trump, a man who has boasted of harassing women and who stands accused of abusing numerous female contestants on the American “The Apprentice”.

Half of all female students say that they are sexually harassed every single time they go out to a nightclub, half of all women in the workplace say that they have been harassed and one quarter of the female population has experienced domestic abuse, many on more than one occasion. By the time they start secondary school, the majority of children will already have been exposed to online pornography, often of the most violent nature. Eight in 10 teenagers get most of their teaching on sex and relationships from unreliable sources outside school.

It is no wonder that since Labour first recommended changing the law in 2010, even more organisations have joined the call for a change in the law. The Select Committees on Education and on Women and Equalities have also recommended changes, as has the Association of Police and Crime Commissioners. Our education system should be at the forefront of efforts to tackle those problems. I am the first to acknowledge that it is not the whole solution, but it has a big part to play and, sadly, we simply are not doing enough. A vacuum is being left that is being filled with unacceptable messages to our young people.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. One particularly important issue is that having such conversations in school, with age-appropriate information delivered by trusted adults that the children know well, provides a safe space. If any of those young people are experiencing difficulties or challenges, they know that they can speak without fear or embarrassment about anything that might be wrong in their lives. They can have an open and free discussion, which is incredibly important. Does she agree?

My hon. Friend makes the point well, and I absolutely agree with what she says about safe space.

I am coming to the end of my speech, but I have four asks for the Education Minister. First, will the Government accept new clause 1 of the Children and Social Work Bill on Report? Does she support making age-appropriate SRE—or, even better, the more encompassing PSHE—a statutory requirement in all academies, free schools, primary schools, and new grammar schools?

Secondly, will any amendment require schools to teach more than just the biology of sex in science lessons? Will schools be required to teach a broader form of SRE that covers consent and relationships? Will she commit to Labour’s original proposals by requiring PSHE to be taught in all schools? Thirdly, will the Government update the 17-year-old guidance on the teaching of SRE to cover same-sex relationships, child abuse, the dangers of online predators and internet pornography, transsexuality and violence against women and girls? Fourthly, what will the Government do to support our professionals to teach the subject in the best possible way? Four in five teachers feel that they are not sufficiently trained to teach SRE. What measures will the Government take to ensure that our teaching workforce get the training that they need?

In last week’s Adjournment debate, the Minister highlighted that we should take a comprehensive approach to the issue and take the time to review the options to ensure that we get it right. However, I say to her with the greatest of respect that that has already happened. We spent a great deal of time and consulted widely among the relevant people to ensure that our proposals were balanced and effective. I set out clearly in my introduction what steps Labour had put in place under the Children, Schools and Families Bill.

As recent events in the United States show, we cannot assume that the most unacceptable attitudes to women and others will go away on their own. Educationalists, law enforcement experts and campaign groups all agree that the fight must start in our schools. Now, more than ever, we need to improve SRE in our schools. I hope that in the coming debates on the Children and Social Work Bill, the Government will do exactly that, good sense will prevail and young people will finally get the relationship and sex education that they deserve to equip them far better for life than the current outdated provisions.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward—for the first time, I think—and to take part in this important debate. I regret that I was unable to speak in the debate a couple of Fridays ago on the Personal, Social, Health and Economic Education (Statutory Requirement) Bill promoted by the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas). It is as well to put on record that, contrary to misinformation that circulated on social media, I did not participate in a wilful attempt to filibuster that Bill. In fact, I was a victim of the filibuster, because I did not get a chance to speak on the Bill in the four and a half minutes that were left after the previous debate, which was on the rather obscure issue of homosexual activity in the merchant navy. Anyway, I am here now.

I have a great deal of respect for the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson), who is always very sincere in her beliefs, but I think she is wrong on this issue. The correct way to introduce these proposals would be via stand-alone, bespoke primary legislation, because this is a very significant issue. I rather regret that she brought up a whole range of other issues, including the proclivities of the newly elected President of the United States. There are major societal issues lying behind some of the very regrettable attitudes to women and girls, but I do not think that we should move outside the bailiwick of what we are here to discuss, which is PSHE in schools. The hon. Lady is asking us to disregard the professional duties and conduct of teachers, governors and headteachers—interestingly, she made no mention of parents.

I want to make it very clear that I mentioned parents quite a lot. I certainly said at the outset that the best example that I had seen was a Catholic primary school that had fully consulted with parents and designed PSHE lessons with them.

I think we are on the same page, then. I ask the hon. Lady to forgive me for what I hope will be my only error in this debate.

Personal, social and health education is already a non-statutory subject on the school curriculum. Government guidance from September 2013 states that it should be taught in all schools as

“an important and necessary part of all pupils’ education… Schools should seek to use PSHE education to build, where appropriate, on the statutory content already outlined in the national curriculum, the basic school curriculum and in statutory guidance on…drug education, financial education, sex and relationship education…and the importance of physical activity and diet for a healthy lifestyle.”

I agree that so much of what we want to happen should, in theory, already be happening, but I am aware that it is not.

The hon. Lady has put a strong case, but there are questions to ask about her proposal. How does she see the provisions in new clause 1, which has been tabled to the Children and Social Work Bill, sitting with the current legislation on sex and relationships education? We frequently hear calls for compulsory sex education, as if there were not already statutory requirements for schools to teach sex education. However, as I am sure hon. Members are aware, under sections 80 and 101 of the Education Act 2002, maintained schools in England and Wales respectively have a basic curriculum, which for secondary schools includes sex education. Section 403 of the Education Act 1996 sets out the detail of the sex education that governors and headteachers are required to provide and states that they

“must have regard to the Secretary of State’s guidance”

on how it should be taught. Primary schools may teach sex education if the governors think it appropriate.

The Bill that was promoted on 20 January by the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion made no specific mention of the existing legislative provisions or of how her proposals would fit in with them. That lack of engagement with the current legislation meant that her Bill would have created significant confusion—and so, I believe, would proposed new clause 1 of the Children and Social Work Bill.

I am aware that there is some concern that sex education is not required in academies in the same way as in maintained schools, since academies are not required to provide a basic curriculum. They are, however, required to teach a broad and balanced curriculum within the requirements of section 78 of the Education Act 2002, to which I referred in my intervention earlier.

For a number of years we were told that SRE was needed to combat teenage pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections, but it is now argued that SRE is needed to ensure that young people can unravel the messages of pornography. People are rightly concerned that young people are getting the wrong messages on relationships—I agree with what the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North said about some of those messages.

I would argue that what is particularly concerning is not the issue of pornography but the spread of overtly sexualised images that young people are exposed to daily in the form of magazines, newspapers or online adverts that pop up on gaming systems, which young people are incredibly plugged into. That exposure means that young people’s awareness, understanding and maturity are being challenged far more than ever before. Does the hon. Gentleman think that that should also be considered?

Yes, I do. The hon. Lady makes a very valid point and an astute observation. What we require, however, is a coherent social and moral framework that involves all parties and stakeholders, rather than what appears to be potentially quite a draconian top-down approach that would insert into separate primary legislation a provision seeking change on a long-term endemic societal issue. The objectification of young people, particularly women, and the inappropriate way in which they are treated can lead to grooming, violence against women, trafficking and all the other issues that we know of, but, in fairness, that is some distance from the specific issue of PSHE—although, of course, they are linked.

What can the Government do? We need to look at the level and explicitness of pornography and how to protect children from it, rather than merely treating the symptoms of all the material that is circulating. The Government have taken that duty seriously with the Digital Economy Bill, part 3 of which will soon be implemented. The requirement of robust age verification is not the whole answer, by any means, but it is very important, and I take this opportunity to put on record my great support for the leadership that the Prime Minister and Ministers in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport have shown on it.

A better way of addressing our concerns would be to ensure that they are properly covered in the new sex education guidance that the Minister will no doubt tell us about later. I would also be interested to hear the views of the Minister and of the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North, perhaps in future debates, on how parents fit into the model that the hon. Lady proposes for PSHE. Under the current sex education law, parents can ask for their child to be withdrawn from PSHE lessons, but proposals such as the recent private Member’s Bill do not seem to give them that opportunity.

Order. Three more Back Benchers wish to speak; I know that the hon. Gentleman is very courteous and will want to give them all a chance to get in. If he stops speaking soon, they will each have five minutes, so I am sure he will want to bring his remarks to a conclusion.

I am always mindful of your charming and gracious admonitions, Sir Edward, so I will draw my remarks to a close. I would not want to prevent the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) from sharing his views with the world.

I will just conclude by saying that under these proposals—these potentially draconian measures—parents would potentially be less inclined to take responsibility for their children, teachers may be overburdened, and primary schools would be deprived of choice in the matter, which might be culturally sensitive. Sex education is a sensitive subject that requires close consultation. There is a thinly veiled attempt by some people—not the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North—to impose an ostensibly liberal agenda on the curriculum.

For all those reasons, the Government should listen to key stakeholders—not just to people who have a vested interest, but to constituents, charities, schools, governors, Members of Parliament and councillors. All their responses should be fed into the new guidance. However, we should think very carefully before disregarding the professional skills, knowledge and expertise of people at the lowest level of schools, the importance of a social and moral framework, or the centrality of parents.

Thank you very much, Sir Edward, for calling me to speak.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson) on securing this important debate and on her excellent speech calling for statutory sex and relationships education, for which she has campaigned in Parliament with dogged determination for many years.

Across Greater Manchester, there are many excellent projects organised by children and young people to raise awareness in schools and workplaces. They are particularly valuable, as young people listen to each other. There are some great examples of children creating videos and other materials, including a YouTube video about being groomed via text, which was made by Stockport Young Partnership. There has also been a good response to materials such as “Real Love Rocks” by Barnardo’s and GW Theatre Company’s “Somebody’s Sister, Somebody’s Daughter”.

My hon. Friend is also right about the need to inform children starting at primary school. This week, we learned that almost 100,000 eight-year-olds have a mobile phone, and that more than 20,000 were given a handset from the age of six. We need to be concerned about the potential access that allows predators to our children. As Simon Bailey, the National Police Chiefs Council’s lead for child protection, has said, once the police become aware that a child has been abused, “it is too late”. They have already been harmed. Prevention is the key to protecting children.

Talking to children for my 2014 report, “Real Voices: Child Sexual Exploitation in Greater Manchester”, and again this year for some new research, I was struck by how just many children said they thought sex and relationship education must start in primary schools. They felt it was too late to leave it until secondary school to talk about healthy relationships. They also talked about the difficult transition from primary to secondary school and how vulnerable children in particular needed more support. One girl said that teaching about relationships in primary school

“would help people who are younger and naive not to get into dangerous situations”.

She also said:

“In primary schools, they do not teach much about relationships. When you move to secondary school you do not know the rules or how the other years will act above you and so your actions can be altered because you just want to fit in with what the other kids who are older than you are doing.”

That shows the importance of information being given to primary schoolchildren, because it is important that they start secondary school armed with that knowledge.

We are getting much better at recognising children who are vulnerable to exploitation because of difficult relationships at home. However, what we are not so good at doing is recognising children who do not come from those backgrounds but who for whatever reason are isolated or outside their peer groups at the very time in their development when they are looking for the approval of their peers. Those problems can be exacerbated as a child moves from primary to secondary school.

Some children carry huge burdens of life’s worries. That struck me again when I attended a consultation day on a possible children’s advocacy house in Greater Manchester recently. In one group, children estimated that about 15 out of 40 children in their school class had problems at home or other problems. An indication of the sadness in some of their lives came in the comments they wrote on post-it notes and put on a tree, including: “Hope my sister gets better soon and my mum stops being in pain”; “I wish my Nana would get better”; and “I worry about my mum because she can’t go anywhere but she can go on crutches but she struggles”.

We also need to understand that children who exhibit antisocial and aggressive behaviour often do so because of problems at home. Those children are often supported in primary school, but at the transition to secondary school they find themselves excluded, either for short periods or permanently. That increases their vulnerability, not only to child sexual exploitation but to other forms of exploitation by criminal gangs, such as drug running.

In Stockport last year, the number of children excluded from schools for a fixed period trebled in number from year 6, the last year in primary school, to year 7, the first year in high school. There has also been a rise in peer-on-peer exploitation, fed by websites that promote sex as a violent activity and blur the lines between someone consenting and not consenting.

Although much needed, compulsory sex and relationships education is not enough on its own. We need an environment that encourages children to take responsibility for other children and a culture of respect for each other that informs every day at school. That has been done effectively in some schools to deal with bullying. In Stockport schools, a restorative approach is being developed, through which children help other children to resolve their conflicts and reach resolution. They reach out to children who are not part of a peer group.

Another thing that young people told me again and again was how much they valued talking to their peers. We have many successful peer mentoring programmes in Greater Manchester. One school I visited had a big team of peer mentors, and children had to apply to become a mentor as if they were applying for a job; for example, they needed to have references.

We need to understand that children are a resource in themselves. They understand social media in a way that we cannot. They understand exactly the pressures that they are subject to, and they need to be part of designing projects to inform other young people.

Thank you, Sir Edward, for calling me to speak. It is a pleasure to speak in this debate.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson) on presenting her case, and doing so quite well. I will adopt a similar attitude to my colleague, the hon. Member for Peterborough (Mr Jackson). Education is an essential part of the life of a child. Education must be a priority, but we must acknowledge that in the educational life of a child priority must also be given to things that are not simply academic. A holistic education is important. There must be space for personal development and I am completely supportive of that.

In fairness to the hon. Lady, she set out her case fairly well, but I need to put on the record my concerns and those of many others. Things of a personal nature, such as matters of morality, are better left to parents than to others. That is why I stand today to stress that any change in standards of teaching must contain the ability for parents to withdraw their children from classes. As the father of three boys, I was happy that the school took the role of teaching the mechanics of the “birds and the bees”, but I was also happy—indeed, very happy—that the role of teaching morality and the ramifications of choices was left to us to determine and discuss as a family. It is important to put that on the record.

Currently, primary schools do not have to teach pupils beyond the basic biological aspects of sex education that are required by the national curriculum. Secondary schools are required to teach 14 to 16-year-olds about sexually transmitted diseases, and they should do so. All schools must have an up-to-date policy that describes the content and organisation of sex and relationship education that is taught outside of the science curriculum. This policy must be made available for parents, including information on parents’ rights to withdraw their child from lessons if they feel that is important to them. I think the hon. Lady herself said that; I believe that was what she was saying.

If that is what the hon. Lady was saying, that is good news—I think we are probably on the same wavelength. To me, this is essential for any family: the right to teach their child the morality and the standards they hope their child will stick to, and the right to withdraw their child from a lesson that they feel will not complement how they teach their child. Again, that is an absolute must for me and the people I represent.

I read a very interesting article by Andrea Williams, chief executive of Christian Concern, which warned that making SRE compulsory would remove the freedom of parents to decide how and when their child is educated on this subject. She wrote:

“For many years, sex and relationship education has not provided a godly stance on sexuality or sexual relationships. Instead, it reflects our society’s increasingly liberal sexual norms.”

It is important that we make the distinction—draw the line—between those two. She continued:

“Making SRE mandatory would limit parents’ freedom to withdraw their children from these lessons if so desired and usurp their responsibility in deciding what they should and should not be taught at what age.”

That is a very important comment from a lady who is greatly respected.

I do not believe that making SRE mandatory can or should happen. As parents, the buck stops with us. We do the best we can with our children and we must be allowed to do so in moral teaching. With the spread of social media, more and more of our young people are taking and sending inappropriate photos, and that can lead to unsafe situations. This is something that parents must take on board and discuss with their children; those who do not wish to do so can allow the school to do so. The choice must be available for parents and I stand firmly by that view.

That is okay.

The other thing I wish to mention briefly is the fact that we must also allow teachers who are uncomfortable discussing and promoting British moral values that might undermine their own dearly held personal faith to withdraw from teaching those values, with no penalty and no fear of losing their job. We have many examples of that. There is the example of Ashers in Northern Ireland. We have the case of the bed and breakfast owners and that of the Christian registrar. It is not enough for our Prime Minister to talk about freedom to live one’s faith; we must now have the support of the law to do that. Any legislation must protect the right of teachers to withdraw from promoting values that undermine their faith.

I will leave it at this. I understand that we cannot press our faith on others, but by the same token we should not be expected to directly oppose the teachings of our faith on the say-so of others. Teachers do not want their teaching to promote the latest Government definition of morality; they want it to help a child to have a fully rounded life and to make a difference. Allow them to do that in an appropriate way and legislate to protect them with any proposed changes. We must learn lessons, just as children learn. I, for one, have learned a lot from the Ashers case about the need for protection, and I hope that the Government, and particularly the Minister, can take that on board.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson) for securing this important debate and for all the work she has done on the topic. We have heard some excellent arguments about the need for sex and relationship education, not least from my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey). I want to focus my remarks on my experience of uncovering allegations of historical child sexual abuse and also of representing Rochdale, a town that has been the victim of child grooming gangs.

Over the past few years we have seen a huge number of survivors of historical child sexual exploitation come forward, and I am sure that they have done this only now in part because of the lack of sex and relationships education back then. A review by the Cochrane Library of school-based education programmes for the prevention of child sexual abuse confirms what is obvious, which is that primary-aged children who are taught about the issues are three times more likely to report abuse.

My ex-wife, Karen Danczuk, successfully prosecuted her abuser late last year, after suffering in silence throughout her childhood and adolescence. She is now a patron of the National Association for People Abused in Childhood. She readily admits that she would have been more likely to disclose to the authorities that she was being abused if she had received relationships education. The fact that the abuse she suffered took place at home stresses the importance of that sort of education in schools. Likewise, kids in care and others who lack the typical family support structures may benefit from schools providing information about relationships.

Karen’s case also highlights that 11 is too late to start offering relationships advice in schools; her abuse started when she was about six years old. It is therefore imperative that children are made aware of the power within relationships much earlier in their education. I spoke to Karen earlier today, and these are her own words: “The thing to remember with cases like mine is that I didn’t know any other life. I didn’t know that this shouldn’t be happening. There was nobody saying, ‘It shouldn’t be this way.’ If there had been, maybe I would have recognised sooner that what I was going through was wrong.” What she is saying is that relationships education could be exceptionally helpful.

We also know, however, that the problem is not just historical cases. There are also the cases in Rochdale and Rotherham, towns that have been blighted through the sexual exploitation of vulnerable children. We need to see sex and relationships education improved right across the board. We should not have a postcode lottery. The status quo puts children who might not attend council-controlled secondary schools at risk. More academies and more free schools means that more and more children might be put at risk, and that is simply not acceptable.

All of that is why I support the attempts of my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North to make sex and relationships education a statutory requirement in all state-funded schools.

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair this afternoon, Sir Edward. I thank the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson) for bringing forward this important, interesting and informative debate.

We all have a role to play in raising awareness of the challenges and potential dangers our young people face and in ensuring that they are equipped to cope. Sex and relationships education plays a vital part in that but so does society, and debates such as this are really important in bringing the issues to the fore. As a teacher in Scotland I taught—along with physics—what is called personal, social and health education, and it was an element I really enjoyed. Through it, teachers are able to form great relationships with their pupils in ways they cannot always do in a subject class. Relationships, sexual health and parenthood education is an integral part of the health and wellbeing area of the school curriculum in Scotland. Schools equip young people with information on a range of issues, depending on their age and stage. Several Members have highlighted the importance of starting sex education young, and that is right. It is important that our young people are able to identify body parts and use their correct names, as the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North mentioned, at an early stage. It should not be when we get to teenage giggling that we have to start using the correct names; it has to be normalised very early on.

The curriculum in Scotland includes information on puberty, sexually transmitted infections, contraception, how to access sexual health services and issues such as looking after a baby when you are on your own. The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North also highlighted the importance of having parents involved, and a really important aspect of the curriculum in Scotland is that children have to bring the stuff home to get it signed off, so discussion is instigated by schools, forcing parents to be involved. That is such a simple thing to do. Parents are also brought in to schools when a particular element is about to start and those who have concerns, such as those that the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) highlighted, are able to discuss them with the school in an open and collaborative way. That is very important. There are schools, such as those that the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North mentioned, doing that great work across the UK.

Sticking with parents, the hon. Member for Strangford also mentioned the requirement of allowing parents to withdraw from SRE if they feel that that is appropriate for their children. If parents who are involved and are interested in every aspect of their child’s education want to give their particular flavour to something, that is up to them. They can teach the morality beyond the mechanics of sexual reproduction. That is important, but we must remember that many parents do not want to have the discussions with their children and the proposal we are debating attempts to address that.

A number of Members mentioned young people having respect for themselves, which is important, as is the consideration of different types of relationship. I want quickly to mention the Time for Inclusive Education—TIE—campaign and the great work it has done on the understanding that sexuality is not necessarily heterosexual. Great work is being done in schools just now and the Scottish SNP Government have made a commitment in their manifesto to work with the TIE campaign

“to promote an inclusive approach to sex and relationships education”.

[Interruption.] I understand, Sir Edward. I will just keep going.

I spoke to my son this morning. He is 18 and has just left school, and I asked him whether he had had information about online predators and other online dangers. He said that they had done a lot of work on that, talking about social media—

Order. The hon. Lady has had five minutes and the Chairman of Ways and Means has said that Opposition spokesmen on hour-long debates should speak for only five minutes.

Thank you, Sir Edward. I will finish now. There have been many great contributions this afternoon and this is a debate that obviously has a lot of time still to run.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson) for securing this important and timely debate. I know that the Government and the Opposition share the common goal of ensuring that our children can approach the world around them with the skills and resilience they need to thrive. Children need to understand what healthy, meaningful friendships look and feel like. They need to know that it is important to respect themselves and others and to be kind and thoughtful about other people’s feelings. Our common goal is underpinned by a desire not only to see children thrive, but to see them having the knowledge to contextualise some of the more harmful things they see in the world. They need to know explicitly that men and women are equal, to understand body autonomy and integrity and to know that pinching, groping or any form of sexual harassment is never okay.

Children need to be taught that if someone touches them without their permission, they can and should tell someone, and that no one—child or adult—should ever make them feel scared, frightened or exploited. My hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn) made representations on safe spaces, and I am confident that all Members in the Chamber would agree with her.

The Sex Education Forum survey of 2,000 young people found that more than half of them did not recognise the signs of grooming for sexual exploitation. We heard some powerful testimony from my hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale (Simon Danczuk) this afternoon, and I applaud all his efforts on sexual exploitation in his constituency and across the country. More than four in 10 of those surveyed had not learned about healthy or abusive relationships. Half of the young people surveyed did not learn how to get help if they had been abused.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North suggested, children have to be taught in an age-appropriate and sensitive way how to build and maintain healthy friendships and relationships. The fact is that the lack of statutory sex and relationships education in primary schools and high schools is leaving our children vulnerable.

The Minister may claim today that many children are receiving good-quality SRE, but I challenge her ability to make that claim. We heard this afternoon that four in five teachers are not adequately trained to provide SRE. SRE is introduced at key stage 3, when a child is 11 years old, and is only statutory in state-maintained schools. At the time of the school census in January 2016, only 35% of high schools were still state-maintained. Furthermore, the only compulsory element of SRE that those schools must teach and a child must be present at is the biology of sex, which is provided as part of the science national curriculum.

The guidance that schools, whether state-maintained or academy, rely on to teach the non-compulsory elements of SRE is 17 years out of date. It was written well before the advent of social media and universal access to the internet. Ofsted has found that SRE required improvement in more than a third of schools, with primary pupils ill-prepared for the physical and emotional changes of puberty. It found that secondary education placed too much emphasis on the mechanics of reproduction. I was struck by the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey) about conversations between young people that exposed their level of vulnerability.

A British Humanist Association report looking at how PSHE and SRE are inspected in English schools was published this month. It found that SRE was mentioned by inspectors in less than 1% of the 2,000 Ofsted reports it analysed. Many schools may be providing good-quality SRE, but we need certainty that every school, regardless of their governance and how they are funded, is giving children the knowledge and confidence they need to thrive. I know that the Government recognise those problems. Ministers have been honest with the House that SRE requires considerable improvement, and I welcome their desire to ensure that that is done well, rather than being rushed.

I hope, however, that the Minister will recognise that the Government are running out of time to amend the Children and Social Work Bill. Can she reconfirm, as she said at last Monday’s Adjournment debate, that the Minister of State for Vulnerable Children and Families will definitely bring measures on SRE forward as part of the Bill? I want her to know that if those amendments pave the way for good-quality, age-appropriate, statutory SRE, the Opposition will be minded to support those amendments and seek consensus across the House. Can she tell us more about the Government’s plans to ensure that all children, not just those who attend a state-maintained high school, have access to high-quality, age-appropriate SRE? I hope she can understand why Members from all parts of the House are so passionate about the issue.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your stewardship, Sir Edward. I thank the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson) for securing this important debate and for her constant and consistent engagement on the important issue of sex and relationships education and personal, social, health and economic education. I also congratulate her constituency and the whole city of Kingston upon Hull on its acclaim as the UK city of culture for 2017.

I very much welcome the opportunity to debate these important issues again. As various Members have mentioned, we spoke about them in last week’s Adjournment debate, but it is always valuable to gather and hear more views from more Members from all parts of the House on these areas of concern. I entirely share the hon. Lady’s view about the value of children and young people having access to effective, factually accurate and age-appropriate sex and relationships education. I agree with her and the Opposition spokesperson that it has to be about more than that; it has to be about healthy relationships, consent and respect for oneself and others. Those things are so important if our children are to face the challenges of the modern world. It has been helpful to hear views from Members from all parts of the House, particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Mr Jackson), whose birthday it is today.

My hon. Friend the Minister for Vulnerable Children and Families has already committed to come back to the House during the consideration of the Children and Social Work Bill with an update on how he intends to proceed. I have to be careful not to steal his thunder, particularly because he is as we speak on paternity leave, which is evidence, if needed, that he was definitely there for that class on which bit went where.

I reassure Members that the Government take the matter seriously. We welcome the extremely helpful input from the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North, many other Members and the Women and Equalities Committee, and the ongoing scrutiny of the Bill. The issue is a priority for the Government.

The paternity leave of my hon. Friend the Minister for Vulnerable Children and Families will no doubt be interrupted by the Whips tomorrow evening for the vote on article 50. May I press the Minister specifically on the issue of continuing to allow parents to withdraw their children from some classes under any new guidance issued by the Department? Hitherto, that has been a central tenet of Government policy on this sensitive issue.

The input of parents on this subject is fundamentally important, as is the input of teachers and other professionals. The Government are fully committed to exploring all the options to improve the delivery of sex and relationships education and PSHE. We want to ensure the quality of delivery and the accessibility of teaching so that all children can be supported to develop and thrive in modern Britain.

On that point, I am sure the Minister is aware that many young people find it difficult to talk to their parents about these issues. There is good evidence to suggest that young people sometimes find it difficult to talk to austere parents with a strong religious background about such issues as homosexuality, particularly if they are coming out about their own homosexuality. I hope she will factor those issues in and feed them back to her colleague when he comes back from paternity leave.

That is why it is fundamentally important that we get it right. We have to proceed taking all views into consideration. The existing legislation requires that sex education be compulsory in all maintained secondary schools. Academies and free schools are also required by their funding agreement to teach a “broad and balanced curriculum”, and we encourage them to teach sex and relationships education within that. The Government believe that transparency and consultation between parents, teachers and pupils are vital in the effective delivery of SRE. When developing their SRE policy, all schools should consult pupils’ parents and make the policy available to parents on request and at no charge.

Parents have the right to withdraw their children from any parts of sex and relationships education except the aspects included in the statutory science curriculum at each of the key stages. Many schools choose to cover issues of consent within SRE, and schools are both able and encouraged to draw on guidance and specialist materials from external expert agencies. For example, Ofsted publishes case studies on its website that efficiently highlight effective practice in schools, including examples of SRE as taught within PSHE. We are actively encouraging schools to use the Ofsted case studies as a resource when they are tailoring their own programmes to meet the specific needs of their pupils. Members have spoken about the support available for teachers, and that is the support. In addition, in 2014 the PSHE Association, Brook and the Sex Education Forum produced a supplementary guidance document on sex and relationships education for the 21st century, which provides specific advice on what are unfortunately increasingly common risks to children in the modern world, such as online pornography, sexting and staying safe online. That very useful guidance provides teachers with the tools to support pupils on these challenging matters, developing their resilience and their ability to manage risk.

We are actively considering calls to update the guidance on SRE, which was issued back in 2000. Feedback we have received indicates that the guidance is clear, but we understand the argument that it is now 17 years old and needs to be updated, and we are exploring options for doing so. We are fully committed to improving the quality and accessibility of SRE and PSHE. Our intention is to follow a responsible and dynamic approach that engages a wide range of views, including those of parents, teachers and young people. We know that SRE is a developing and vital area of education and we need to do all that we can to ensure that our guidance is fit for purpose and can equip our children with the skills they need to be safe in modern British society.

More broadly, the Government have already shown an understanding of and initiative on the issues that are affecting children and young people today. The advent of social media and other online services has provided great opportunities for young people, but we are very aware that they can also compromise young people’s safety and expose them to a number of risks. The Government expect online industries to ensure that they have appropriate safeguards and processes in place, including access restrictions, for children and young people who use their services.

We have published a guide for parents and carers, which includes practical tips about the use of safety and privacy features on apps and platforms, as well as conversation prompts to help start conversations about online safety. We have also funded the UK Safer Internet Centre to develop new resources for schools, including guidance on understanding, preventing and responding to cyberbullying, and an online safety toolkit, to help schools deliver sessions about cyber-bullying, peer pressure and sexting.

The hon. Member for Rochdale (Simon Danczuk) spoke powerfully about his ex-wife’s experience of abuse in childhood. He might be interested to know that the Government Equalities Office and the Home Office jointly funded a £3.85 million campaign, which was the second phase of the “This is Abuse” campaign, called “Disrespect NoBody”. That ran until May last year and asked young people to rethink their understanding of abuse within relationships. It addressed all forms of relationship abuse, including controlling and coercive behaviour and situations, including in same-sex relationships. Some of it contained gender-neutral messaging; other elements depicted male victims and female perpetrators. It also had an online toolkit that provided advice, guidance and real case studies on issues around pornography, controlling behaviour, consent and rape. It was targeted at 12 to 18-year-old boys and girls, with the aim of preventing them from becoming either perpetrators or victims of abuse.

We welcomed the comprehensive report by the Women and Equalities Committee on sexual health and sexual violence in schools. I was privileged to be able to give evidence to the Committee. The report was published on 13 September last year and contained a number of recommendations, including proposals relating to SRE and PSHE.

I emphasise that we are unanimously in full agreement that sexual harassment and sexual violence in schools, in any form, is absolutely unacceptable and should not be tolerated. The Government’s aim is to ensure that our schools have the tools they need to deliver outstanding sex and relationships education that meets the needs of all pupils in our education system. As I have said, my hon. Friend the Minister for Vulnerable Children and Families has committed to update Parliament further during the passage of the Children and Social Work Bill. This is an important issue, and we are serious about the need to use any and all effective means to remove sexual harassment and sexual violence from the lives of young people, to equip them with the confidence to know what healthy relationships look like and to have respect for themselves and others, and to prepare them for the various challenges they might face in modern Britain.

I am very grateful for all the contributions made today. I understand that this is a very sensitive issue and that people have strong views about the role of parents and what should be taught in schools, and it is a positive move that we are able to have this debate.

However, as I tried to set out in my speech, seven years down the line from when we tried to bring in this measure in 2010, we still seem to be having the same conversations about reviewing things and looking at best practice. For many of us, the time has come—we need to act now for the benefit of children and young people.

I do not think the Minister was able to say directly what is going to happen to the new clause in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy), which is to be considered on Report, and whether the Government are minded to accept it. That would be the most sensible course of action.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered statutory sex and relationships education in all Government-funded schools.

Sitting adjourned.