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Relationships and Sex Education

Volume 645: debated on Thursday 19 July 2018

With permission, Madam Deputy Speaker, I would like to make a statement on the consultation on the Government’s proposals for relationships education, relationships and sex education, and health education, copies of which will be made available on the website.

Children and young people today are growing up in an increasingly complex world and living their lives seamlessly online and off. This presents many positive and exciting opportunities, of course, but also challenges and risks. In this environment, children need to know how to be safe and healthy, and how to manage their lives in a positive way. Ensuring that they have this knowledge also helps to tackle problems such as sexual harassment and sexual violence.

That was why, during the passage of the Children and Social Work Act 2017, the Government acted on the compelling case to make relationships education and RSE compulsory through regulations, and to consider doing the same for elements of personal, social and health and economic education. There was strong cross-party support then, and I am confident that we can continue to work together on these important reforms in that way.

Since the passage of that Act, we have engaged thoroughly with a wide range of organisations. Ian Bauckham CBE has been supporting the Department. With 33 years as a teacher and 13 as a headteacher, Ian has considerable experience in the education system. I thank him for his invaluable support and his advice to me and my predecessor.

Between November 2017 and March 2018, Ian led wide-ranging stakeholder engagement with groups representing teachers, subject specialists, parents, religious bodies, MPs and others. In addition, the Department launched a call for evidence to seek public views from adults and young people. More than 23,000 people responded, and the level of consensus has been encouraging.

I am pleased today to be able to announce the key decisions and to launch a consultation on the detail of the regulations and guidance. For relationships education and RSE, the aim is to put in place the building blocks needed for positive and safe relationships of all kinds, starting with family and friends, and moving out to other kinds of relationships, including those online. It is essential that we ensure that young people can keep themselves safe online—from the basics of who and what to trust, through to how personal information is used and can be used, and how to ensure that online relationships are healthy and safe. A guiding principle is that teaching will start from the basis that children and young people, at age-appropriate points, need to know the laws relating to relationships and sex that govern our society to ensure that they act appropriately and can be safe. This includes lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender relationships, which are a strong feature of the new subjects at age-appropriate points.

The draft guidance sets out core required content, but leaves flexibility for schools to design a curriculum that builds on it as is right for their pupils, bearing in mind their age and religious backgrounds. It enables schools with a religious character to deliver and expand on the core content by reflecting the teachings of their faith.

I also propose to introduce compulsory content on health education. This supports the findings from the call for evidence and engagement process, in which giving children and young people the information they need to make good decisions about their own health and wellbeing—particularly their mental wellbeing—was a clear priority for many who responded. This directly supports our Green Paper on children and young people’s mental health, as well as our manifesto commitment to ensure that all young people are taught about mental wellbeing. The focus on physical health also supports our work on childhood obesity.

Financial education is already on the curriculum in maths and citizenship, and careers education is an important part of our careers strategy. For those reasons, I do not consider that further economic education needs be made compulsory. I am committed, however, to improving the provision of financial and careers education, and will continue to work with stakeholders to do so.

Many schools successfully cover this content in a broader PSHE framework. They should continue to do so, adapting their programme to the new requirements, rather than starting from scratch. Schools are also free to develop alternative, innovative ways to ensure that pupils receive such education, and we want good practice to be shared so that all schools can benefit.

We have previously committed to parents having a right to withdraw their children from the sex education part of RSE, but not from relationships education in primary or secondary school. A right for parents to withdraw their child up to 18 years of age is no longer compatible with English case law or the European convention on human rights. It is also clear that allowing parents to withdraw their child up to the age of 16 would not allow the child to opt in to sex education before the legal age of consent. I therefore propose to give parents the right to request their child be withdrawn from sex education delivered as part of RSE. The draft guidance sets out that, unless there are exceptional circumstances, the parents’ request should be granted until three terms before the pupil reaches 16.

At that point, if the child wishes to have sex education, the headteacher should ensure they receive it in one of those three terms. This preserves the parental right in most cases, but balances that with the child’s right to opt in to sex education when they are competent to do so.

We are keen to hear as many views as possible through the consultation, and I encourage Members and their constituents to respond. The consultation will be open until early November and the final regulations will be laid in both Houses, allowing for a full and considered debate.

This very important change to the curriculum has to be delivered well, and although many schools will be able to adapt their existing teaching quickly, it is essential that schools that need more time to plan and to prepare their staff get that time. It is our intention that as many schools as possible will start teaching the subjects from September 2019. We will be working with schools, as well as with multi-academy trusts, dioceses and education unions, to help them to do so. All schools will be required to teach the new subjects from September 2020, which is in line with the Department’s approach that any significant changes to the curriculum have a year’s lead-in time. That will enable us to learn lessons from early-adopter schools and to share good practice further across the sector. We will be seeking views through the consultation to test the right focus for a school support package as we know that it is crucial for schools and teachers to be confident and well prepared.

Our proposals are an historic step in education that will help to equip children and young people with the knowledge and support that they need to form healthy relationships, lead healthy lives, and be safe and happy in modern Britain. I commend the statement to the House.

I thank the Secretary of State for advance notice and sight of his statement. He is right that Members on both sides of the House have worked on these reforms, including my hon. Friends the Members for South Shields (Mrs Lewell-Buck), for Rotherham (Sarah Champion), for Brent Central (Dawn Butler), for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) and for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips), as well as the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) and the Secretary of State’s predecessor, the right hon. Member for Putney (Justine Greening), who first committed to implementing these changes.

There is much that we all welcome, but I hope that the Secretary of State will address some unanswered questions. Will he tell us which elements of this so-called mandatory subject are actually mandatory? If this knowledge is the right of every child, how will he ensure that it is available to all, and how will his Department deal with schools’ decisions to change or remove parts of the curriculum?

I welcome the statement that children have a right to decide that they want to receive sex and relationships education. All children should be empowered to make healthy, informed decisions, and to know that it is not wrong to be LGBT and not acceptable to experience gender harassment or violence. But can the Secretary of State assure the House that pupils will be able to opt in confidentially if that is their choice? There was only a passing reference to violence against women and girls in the statement, despite evidence of the scale of that problem in our schools and in society. As the curriculum will at all times be age-appropriate, will the Secretary of State tell us why and how the opt-out applies to that part of the curriculum, and will he ensure that children will have the right to opt in to these lessons? Children must know their rights if they are to exercise them throughout their lives.

The Secretary of State will know that nearly half of LGBT pupils are bullied at school, yet fewer than half of them tell anyone about it, and this leads to pupils skipping school. The statistics on suicide attempts are truly shocking. I hope that the Secretary of State is mindful of the trans community, who experience terrible bigotry, yet two in five LGBT pupils are never taught anything about LGBT issues at school. Can he guarantee today that LGBT issues will be integrated in the curriculum and not an optional extra?

I welcome the Secretary of State’s comments on health education and the inclusion of mental health, but will there be any additional resources for mental health support? Will there be any additional funding for schools’ new educational duties, or are they being given new responsibilities when their budgets are already under severe pressure?

Parents tell me that they want their children to be well educated, safe and resilient. I hope that this new curriculum will help us to achieve that, but can the Secretary of State tell us how he will assess the impact of these reforms to ensure that this is the case?

A curriculum must be supported by the teachers who teach it. Will there be any new teachers who are trained to deliver the curriculum, and what new training will be available for all teachers who deliver it? Schools across the country are waiting for the report of the School Teachers’ Review Body and the Government’s response, even as the clock ticks down to the start of the new academic year. Will the Secretary of State undertake to come back with a statement on that before the House rises next week?

Earlier this week, Mr Speaker congratulated the Mother of the House, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), on joining the illustrious few of us Members who are grandparents. I am the grandmother to a seven-month-old, and I want to see her growing up happy, healthy and safe. If the House gets this issue right, we can make that more likely. I hope that these reforms will be in place and working well long before she is in school, and I look forward to telling her that we all played a part in making that happen.

I thank the hon. Lady for the tone and content of her response. I join her in thanking and commending all those on both sides of the House who have been involved in the development of these matters over quite an extended period, particularly during the passage of the Bill that became the Children and Social Work Act.

The hon. Lady asked what was truly mandatory. The only part of the curriculum that it is possible to withdraw from is the sex part of relationships and sex education. If a primary school offered sex education—that is not mandatory, but if it were—the right to withdraw would also apply there.

The hon. Lady asked—it is a reasonable question—how we make sure this actually happens. Schools have an obligation to have regard to guidance, and they do. There is also, of course, the system of Ofsted inspection, which looks at the moral and spiritual development of children.

On how the right to withdraw will operate and the ability of children to opt in, there will continue to be, as I outlined in my statement, a parental right to withdraw. Its nature will change because the age-18 right is no longer consistent with legal precedent. There are cases where the parent wishes to withdraw the child from sex education and the child does not want that, but we are not expecting large numbers of those. Only a very small number of parents now withdraw their children from sex education; of course, there is sex education in most schools. In that case, the child would be able to access a term of sex education before reaching 16.

The hon. Lady is absolutely right about bullying, including bullying of children who are LGBT. A couple of things are very important and essential in that regard. The first thing is to be talking, from an early age, about the reality of bullying, but also, crucially, about some of the aspects of online bullying, which, by definition, is harder for grown-ups to understand than for children whose daily reality it is. It is also about having the core building blocks, from a very early age, of respect for others, kindness, getting on with people, and understanding that there are differences and that this is something to be celebrated.

The hon. Lady asked about mental health. We are putting considerable resource behind the mental health strategy. We have put out the Green Paper and we will respond before too long.

The hon. Lady asked about new duties being put on teachers and what support would be in place. She also asked specifically about the teachers’ pay award. I am not in a position to say something about that today, but it is, as she knows, a process that we are going through. On support for teachers and schools in delivering this new content, we will listen, through the consultation, to what schools tell us. I am open to what sort of support that should be, including how we work with initial teacher training and other training, but also, critically, with regard to the provision of quality materials. A lot of those already exist, but some may not and will need to be developed. We need to make sure that there is a repository where schools can go and reliably find quality materials for teaching these subjects.

The hon. Lady’s particular perspective, not only as a mother but as a grandmother, brings something additional to this matter. I join her in welcoming these moves forward and the benefits that they will have for all our children—and grandchildren.

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker.

My outburst was because I was so flabbergasted that the Government have now adopted the position that this House was debating in 2010 when the last Labour Government were in power. I remember very well the Schools Minister, who is sitting on the Front Bench today, arguing absolutely against the proposals that the Secretary of State is now making. However, having just looked up the biblical verse saying that when one sinner repents there is much rejoicing in heaven, I am really pleased that we are now in the position today where the Government are finally doing the right thing. But why does it have to take another two years to get to the point where our children and young people can have access to the quality relationships and sex education that we want them to have?

I welcome what I think were the hon. Lady’s words of welcome for what the Government are bringing forward today. Look, this has been a journey. Society changes. It is 18 years since this guidance was last updated. A lot has changed in the world since then, including the online world, and it is right that we reflect that.

The hon. Lady asked why it needs to take two years for children to be able to access good-quality content. It does not. Many schools do much of this today. Through this exercise, we will ensure that it is done comprehensively throughout the system, while also increasing consistency and making sure that children can access quality materials. We will make sure that this is all available from September 2019. As for when it becomes compulsory, I have made a commitment to the profession to give it due time to prepare for significant changes like this. I think that is the right approach.

In 2016, the Women and Equalities Committee called for compulsory relationships and sex education to help to tackle a culture of unacceptable sexual harassment in schools. I am so proud that this Conservative Government have listened and acted after a cross-party amendment to the Bill that became the Children and Social Work Act, so that, after a decade and a half of inaction by Governments of all colours, these proposals are before us today.

I pay tribute to the huge number of organisations that have campaigned on this over many years, including Girlguiding, the Children’s Society and Stonewall—the list goes on. There are also individuals who are behind why we are here today, such as my right hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Justine Greening). The Minister for Apprenticeships and Skills, my right hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Anne Milton), who is in her place, has done huge amounts behind the scenes to make sure that this is happening today. I thank my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for continuing with this work, and the Minister for School Standards, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Nick Gibb), for his tenacity in giving us improving standards in our schools and being able to embrace these sorts of ideas, which are challenging for Members across the House.

These are issues of child safety. How will we ensure that we do not have to wait another 17 years for this guidance to be updated? I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will be thinking about that, but perhaps he could talk about it further. We also have to get the Government’s recommendations put into action, as the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson) said, and avoid any further bureaucracy. What can parents do now to make sure that the schools that their children are in put compulsory relationships and sex education in place by September 2019 and do not create any further delay?

My right hon. Friend was correct to identify, as did the hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Angela Rayner), a number of individuals and organisations that have been instrumental in this process. She could of course have added herself to that list; I commend her for her work.

My right hon. Friend is right about the importance of children knowing about issues around harassment and sexual violence. This whole approach is about building up from the very basic building blocks of respect for others. Then, as things develop and children get older, yes, it is very important to deal with these matters. Page 22 of the guidance states: “Pupils should know” about

“the concepts of, and laws relating to, sexual consent, sexual exploitation, abuse, grooming, coercion, harassment and domestic abuse and how these can affect current and future relationships.”

The hon. Lady asked about how parents can ensure that this is happening in schools, but of course in many schools it is happening. It is important to say that. We want schools to publish their policies on these matters and to encourage parental engagement.

Finally, on updates, yes, it must not be another 18 years before that happens again. We will update the guidance about every three years, because the pace at which the world is now changing—the online world in particular—requires that.

I thank the Secretary of State for making the statement. The issue is clearly a devolved one, but I have done a lot of work on financial education and its importance. It is a shame that financial education is not compulsory, because it is certainly an education that we all—every single person across the United Kingdom—need in day-to-day living. Financial education is not just about maths; it is about mental health, because being in debt at a young age or not knowing how to manage personal finances lies behind much of the depression, self-harm and suicides that we see among young people. Financial education is also key to relationships, because financial abuse can be a key component of domestic abuse. Being able to manage our finances independently is extremely important in ensuring that people can move on from those types of damaging relationships. Will the Secretary of State therefore look at the importance of financial education within the curriculum and ensure that everyone has the day-to-day living skills that they require for healthy and fulfilling relationships and lives?

The hon. Lady is right about the importance of financial education, and both the maths and citizenship curriculums include financial education content, such as practical aspects of the sort that she outlined. Another thing in the consultation document, although it is not in the headlines of the description, is a question about what more we might do for 16 to 18-year-olds. Now that the participation age is up to 18, when record numbers of people go away from home to university and have to budget and so on for the first time, we are asking what more could be done for 16 to 18-year-olds.

As has been said, education is a devolved area, but across the UK there is concern that in 2018 one in three young people made new friends online and that, sadly, one in four pupils reported being bullied online, and in the online world there is no respect for devolved or reserved boundaries or indeed for national borders. Does my right hon. Friend agree that keeping children safe online must be a priority of effective relationships and sex education?

I agree with my hon. Friend. The danger is that we grown-ups talk about helping children to make the distinction between the online and offline worlds, and how a social media friend is not the same as a proper friend, but for children growing up today I am not sure that there is a dividing line between the online and offline worlds—they are both an integral part of self. That makes it even more important to talk, right from the start, about the things that he mentions. From the very beginning, therefore, the curriculum includes online issues.

I am grateful for the Secretary of State’s statement. As he is aware, children and young people with learning disabilities are particularly vulnerable to bullying and indeed sexual abuse. What steps is he taking to ensure very good-quality relationships and sex education in schools for children with special educational needs, as well as in mainstream schools where children with learning difficulties are educated, to ensure that those children are properly protected as well?

This applies to all schools. In the consultation, I am very open to hearing from special schools, SENCOs—special educational needs co-ordinators—and others dealing with children who have particular needs and requirements in this area about what, if anything, we need to do, in particular about training or materials in that regard.

I, too, congratulate the Government on making progress on this important issue. There is cross-party agreement on its importance, and I hope that I played a small part with a private Member’s Bill that I promoted. In particular, I welcome the Secretary of State’s focus on mental health, but I will express two other quick concerns.

First, will PSHE and RSE be made available as free teacher subject specialism training courses? The training will be key, and we need to see it as part of the free teacher subject specialism.

Secondly, on withdrawing children from sex education, I do not think that the Secretary of State’s compromise works. All children in all schools should receive PSHE and RSE, and children’s rights and safety are at the heart of this. Let us not forget that the guidelines on female genital mutilation for health workers in schools already include withdrawal from sex education as an indicator of risk. I therefore gently ask him to look at the issue again. Children absolutely have to be at the heart of this policy and I am worried that his compromise does not do that.

I am happy to add the hon. Lady to the list of people who have played a part in this. People of course cannot withdraw from relationships education or from the sex education aspects of the science curriculum, and there are some aspects in the health curriculum, on puberty in particular. On the question of support for schools, the training needs and so on, we will look at all that through the consultation. I want to hear from schools about what they think is most important.

I, too, welcome the statement by the Secretary of State. I am very pleased to have played a very small part in this, and I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Mrs Lewell-Buck) and the former Member for Crewe and Nantwich who did such great work on the Children and Social Work Bill—I was the Whip.

I want to ask the Secretary of State about child sexual exploitation. From what I understand about the parental opt-out, my concern is that it will contribute to some young women in particular having insufficient knowledge and understanding of what sexual consent means. They might not be able to understand what is taught to them about child sexual exploitation or abuse. Will the Secretary of State confirm whether the consultation has scope to include organisations that are specialists in child sexual exploitation?

I must add the hon. Lady, too, to the growing list, and yes, and we have already been listening to those expert organisations, some of whom create their own materials to help in teaching, running assemblies and so on. To be clear, it is not possible to withdraw from the parts of the curriculum that are connected with knowing where to get help or about the dangers that exist online and off. As I said, in primary school everyone will be going through relationships education, which will include staying safe online and offline. Relationships education includes awareness of where to go for help and of what is acceptable and what is not. These days, consent is a much broader question than it was, because of the online world, sexting and all such developments, and all children will be made aware of those matters.

I, too, welcome the statement, and perhaps I may add to the list of those who have campaigned for relationships and sex education in primary and secondary and for some of the updating that has now happened: in my role as shadow Minister with responsibility for preventing violence against women and girls, I have worked closely with my right hon. Friend the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper).

May I pick up on the particular point about prevention of violence against women? The Secretary of State alluded to some of the things that are in the guidance on abusive relationships, but there is evidence that a growing number of young people—teenagers and those just a little older—are subject to violent relationships. To what extent will resources be provided for specialist training and for organisations such as the Hollie Gazzard Trust—founded in memory of Hollie Gazzard who was 20 years old when she was killed by her ex-partner—to ensure that young people, boys and girls, understand the difference between an abusive and a healthy relationship?

Yes, this is fundamental. Understanding healthy relationships, what constitutes a positive relationship and what is not reasonable to have happen are the fundamental elements running through relationships education guidance. It starts with one’s relationships with family and friends, and as children get older it goes on to intimate relationships and so on. Specifically on the guidance, I am open to hearing from all organisations, including the one that the hon. Lady mentioned.

I, too, welcome the consultation. It is overdue, but I sincerely hope that the Government will press forward with it. I want to press the Secretary of State one more time on financial education. He may well have seen the harrowing BBC drama this week “Killed By My Debt”, the true story of 19-year-old of Jerome Rogers, who took his own life because of financial debt. The Secretary of State says that financial education should not be made compulsory because it is in other aspects of the national curriculum, but he will know that free schools and academies do not have to follow the national curriculum. How can he guarantee that all children, no matter what school they are in, have the skills they need to manage their finances?

I did not see the programme the hon. Lady mentioned, but I am very familiar with these issues. Before this job and before I was a Minister in the Government, I used to campaign on issues of financial education, and I very much welcomed the bringing in of more financial education and the shift to make sure that the GCSE included practical maths. As part of the process of looking at the aspects we are talking about today, I have been through that content in detail to check that it does in fact cover those practical aspects in exactly that way. Of course, all schools do maths, so there is not an opt-out in that sense. As I mentioned to the hon. Lady next to her—did I say this to the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas)? I do not know; it was a while ago—I am also considering whether there is more we need do about very practical life skills and preparation for adulthood for 16 to 18-year-olds.

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I very much welcome this statement. It is important that we reflect on the fact that this is not just about providing protection for possible victims of sexual abuse, exploitation, bullying and unhealthy relationships, but about reaching out to potential perpetrators, which is why it is important that as many young people as possible are part of this programme.

I want to ask about physical health education, particularly education about food. May I urge the Secretary of State to look at the work of the children’s future food inquiry? It is being carried out by two all-party groups, and it will report early next year. It is one thing to teach children what healthy food looks like, but if they are living in food poverty and do not have access to healthy food, that will not go very far.

The hon. Lady is right to identify the importance of the physical health parts of this programme. That touches on the obesity strategy, and we know that obesity is a serious problem that we have to face. This is really about empowering children to make good decisions about what they eat and about exercise; it is also about smoking and alcohol, and good decisions in such cases obviously involve just not doing them or, in the case of alcohol, not doing it to excess. Doing so from an early age is incredibly important. I will have a look at the report that she mentioned.