Monday 25 February 2019
[Mrs Madeleine Moon in the Chair]
Relationships and Sex Education
I beg to move,
That this House has considered e-petition 235053 relating to relationship and sex education.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Moon.
It is often said that the British have a funny relationship to sex; we certainly have a very strange relationship to sex education, sometimes. We live in a society where explicit imagery, pornography and material that demeans and degrades women is available at a few clicks of a mouse, yet there are still some who resist teaching our children the facts about not only their own bodies, but emotions, relationships and all the things they need to keep them safe while they are young and to enable them to form healthy relationships as they get older.
I wondered why that was, so before the debate I had a look at some of the material circulating about these proposals. I must say that some of it misinterprets what the Government are proposing and is designed, I think, to alarm parents. The petition itself is not specific. It refers to
“certain sexual and relational concepts”—
I think that was designed to avoid the rules about material that is offensive to certain groups—and suggests that some of the material produced for children does “more harm than good”.
Let me say that there is absolutely no evidence for that whatever—zilch. In fact, the research that has been done, mostly in America, shows that young people who receive good relationships and sex education are less likely to form early sexual relationships, less likely to have an unwanted pregnancy, less likely to get pregnant early and less likely to get a sexually transmitted disease. For me, that is a whole series of wins.
However, we do not need to look far to find a great deal of propaganda directed at parents about this. I found on YouTube a programme called “The Makinations”, in which a presenter introduces a lady who he says is a teacher, and she presents a number of books that she says are available in schools. They then go on to object to those books. For instance, they object to one that I presume is intended to talk to young children about differences, which says that girls can have long or short hair; I am guilty of that. They also talk about gay people “posing”—their word, not mine—as parents, and about “state-sanctioned child abuse” and even “graphic cartoon porn”.
I found that chilling, but not for the reasons the authors intended. If stuff such as this is being directed at parents, I am not surprised that they become alarmed. Honestly, the fact is that it was vile and homophobic, but it was also not true. I speak in this debate not only as a parent, but as someone who used to be a teacher—in fact, two of us here, myself and my hon. Friend the Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East (Mike Kane), have taught sex education in school, although in my case it was some time ago. Schools do not use books about a penguin with two daddies—the first penguin in the zoo with two daddies—with all children. They use them when children ask questions, or with children who might have two parents of the same sex, just as they would use a book about a single-parent family with a child who came from a single-parent family.
The hon. Lady is making some excellent points. I remember my mum telling me how frustrating it was, as a single parent, when she went to the bookshop to find some books about single parents and there was only one book about a little boy with a single mum and about building a bed. One book—and I was born in 1983. We have come a long way, but does she not agree that inclusive education on sexuality and all kinds of families is vital?
I do, and I will come to that later in my remarks. Those of us who are long in the tooth will remember the controversy over a book called “Jenny Lives with Eric and Martin” in the 1980s. That book was available to teachers to use as necessary; it was not used routinely in schools.
It is important to say what is and is not being proposed by the Government. The Children and Social Work Act 2017 requires all maintained primary schools to teach relationships education, and all maintained secondary schools to teach relationships and sex education. Importantly, it qualifies that with the words “age-appropriate”, because teachers know that we cannot teach children concepts that their mind cannot grapple with. They simply do not take it in. Learning how children’s brains develop is part of a teacher’s training. We would be wasting our time trying to teach them things they cannot possibly understand at a young age.
Following the 2017 Act, the Government put out a call for evidence on the teaching of RSE and personal, social, health and economic education, and then issued draft guidelines last year. I have not yet seen the final guidelines—well, I have seen them, but they are under an embargo until the Secretary of State has finished his statement to the House. I will come on to that in a minute.
Does my hon. Friend accept that under a whole load of international treaties, as our constituents rightly point out, parents have the primary responsibility for bringing up their children and they may have different views from those she is expressing? Does she think, and will the law provide, that parents still have the right to opt their children out of these classes—with the variation, I understand, that that now applies only up to three terms before they turn 16? Is that not the right compromise between these two issues?
I will come to that later in my remarks, but of course my right hon. Friend is right that parents must play a major role in this. Most schools will want to work in co-operation with parents; we would be foolish to do anything else.
The Government issued draft guidelines for what should be taught in school, and it is important to look at how those draft guidelines work. In primary school, children should be taught about families, “people who care for me”, caring friendships and respectful relationships. They should be taught that there are different kinds of families and what to do if they feel unhappy or unsafe at home. That part is crucial because, although we hear much about stranger danger, let us remember that most children who are abused are abused within their own families. We must remember that. They need to learn about how to keep safe online and offline, and where to go for help.
I cannot honestly see a difficulty with that. Saying to young children that there are different kinds of families is only reinforcing what they know. They know from their own experience, from their own classes, that some children will have a mummy and daddy, some will only have a mummy or a daddy and some, increasingly, may have two parents of the same sex. That happens.
In secondary school, what is proposed is necessarily more complex. Children will be expected to learn about the importance of marriage and that it must be freely entered into, which is crucial given that some British young people are still experiencing forced marriage.
This is a timely debate in a number of ways. I read somewhere today that the Secretary of State for Education implied that parents could actually opt out of this. Having said that, I know that my hon. Friend has looked at the guidelines. Do they take into consideration, for example, religious schools? Several parents from different strands of religions have written to me about this. Could my hon. Friend enlighten me?
The guidelines do take that into consideration. I will come to that in a moment.
Young people in secondary schools also need to learn about consent, what constitutes a respectful relationship and what constitutes sexual violence and sexual harassment. They also need to learn why what they see online is often a distorted picture of healthy relationships, about grooming and sexual exploitation and, I understand, about female genital mutilation and why it is illegal. Again, that is crucial to keeping people safe.
The hon. Lady is making a really strong case. Given that health workers and schools already receive FGM guidelines that say withdrawal from sex education is an indicator of risk, does she agree that it is actually incredibly dangerous if we allow the opt-out to be used in this blanket fashion, because it could mean that vital information is not passed on?
All of this is about trying to reach a sensible compromise.
Will my hon. Friend give way?
I want to make a little progress.
One thing to note is that primary schools are not obliged to teach sex education, but it is recommended that they take steps to prepare children for puberty. As puberty happens much earlier in children now, that seems sensible. Crucially, on the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham), the guidelines say that schools must take into account the religious beliefs of their pupils when drawing up their programmes, and that faith schools may use their faith to inform their teaching. In fact, the guidance suggests that a dialogue should take place on issues regarded as contentious.
When I taught years ago, that is exactly what we did; it is not new in any way. I spent my teaching career in Catholic schools. We would teach—particularly our older children—what the Church taught and what others believed, and we would have a debate about it. There are good reasons for that. First, schools do not want to produce people who cannot put forward a rational argument, and faith schools certainly do not want to produce children who cannot defend their faith. Secondly, I have yet to find anyone who can stop a teenager arguing about any of this.
There are, of course, those who say that all this should be down to parents, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Warley (John Spellar) mentioned. Parents are clearly crucial in all this and should be partners with schools. However, let us be honest: some parents do not do it, and some increasingly find themselves all at sea in dealing with online risks, domestic violence, grooming and so on. I was struck, even years ago, by the amount of wrong information and misinformation that children have in their heads. That was before the internet.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent presentation, as usual. Because of Ofsted’s powers and the way it deploys them, it is essential that we have total clarity about parental opt-outs and religious freedom. It is important in a debate such as this to understand that central to our unwritten constitution is the importance of religious freedom, as is the relationship between the state and parents. Because of those powers and their misuse in recent times by Ofsted, it is vital that the Government provide clarity. Does my hon. Friend agree?
I do. As I said, all of this is about trying to reach a sensible and reasonable compromise between competing issues.
Will my hon. Friend give way?
If my hon. Friend will forgive me, I must make a little progress, because lots of people want to speak.
Before the internet, children had enough wrong information in their heads. With the rise of the internet and stuff available at a few clicks, it is essential that we give children a proper education that protects them from some of the wrong information and ideas online, and that shows them what good, healthy relationships look like. Research from the Children’s Commissioners shows that many of our young people do not know what a healthy sexual relationship looks like and do not understand the concept of consent. That is very dangerous. It is why four Select Committee Chairs wrote to the Government in 2016 asking for relationships and sex education to be made mandatory in schools; it is why the Women and Equalities Committee, in its inquiry into sexual harassment and sexual violence in schools, asked for the same thing; and it is why that request is supported by Members from across the House.
This is about applying a bit of common sense to this situation and looking at the world that our children are growing up in, which is not the same one that we grew up in. I say with great respect to parents who think that their children are not seeing all this online stuff that, although they may think that they are controlling what is on their children’s phones or iPads, they are not controlling what their children see with their friends or what is passed around in the playground and so on.
It is shocking that 28% of 11-year-olds have viewed pornography. Unless we want them to grow up thinking that what they see is normal and a proper relationship, we need to do something about it. By not doing anything, we are not leaving our children innocent. We are actually leaving them to the worst possible teacher: the internet.
Will my hon. Friend give way?
I really must make some progress. I am sorry.
Of course, many parents want schools to be involved in teaching RSE, as do many young people. Research done for Ofsted in 2013 showed that many secondary school pupils felt that too much of their education was on the mechanics of reproduction, and that there was not enough about emotions, relationships, dealing with pornography and so on.
Prior to the debate, the Petitions Committee met some young people in Parliament’s education centre. As one of them said to us, “If you’re opted out, you can just google it.” That is the problem we face; that is the reality of life. Nevertheless, it is true that parents have a right to request an opt-out from sex education for their child, which the guidelines say should be automatically granted in primary schools and should be granted except in exceptional circumstances in secondary schools. I was quite concerned about that, but I have actually been convinced by something sent to me by the Catholic Education Service, which supports the opt-out on the ground that it gives heads the opportunity to discuss with parents why the lessons are important and why it is much better for children to be there, rather than getting a garbled version from their friends in the playground. That approach clearly works, because the opt-out rate in Catholic schools is very low, at about 1 in 7,800 children. That is in a faith-based education system.
That opt-out applies to the sex education element, not to personal, social, health and economic education or relationships education, and not to stuff in the science curriculum, which is part of the national curriculum. It is also true—certainly in the draft guidelines and I presume the formal ones—that the Government suggest that children can opt back in three terms before they reach the age of 16. Case law no longer supports an automatic and continuing opt-out, so we need to reach a sensible balance on when young people can decide for themselves.
All parents face this problem, whether in deciding when children can go to the shops on their own or when their children are deciding on a career. It is hard. I remember the first time we allowed my son walk up the road on his own to post a letter; we were hanging out of the bedroom window, keeping an eye on him for as long as possible. However, as parents, we have to realise that, while our job is to try to set our children on the right path, they will eventually make their own choices, which may not be the same ones that we would make.
Will the hon. Lady give way?
I will give way once more and then I will have to wind up.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady; she has been very generous. Of course she is right to say that good parents take the view that she has just described about their children. Much the best way of growing up to be a well balanced, kind, caring and loving person is to have well balanced, kind and caring parents. It is in the home that people’s ideas are first shaped and formed, notwithstanding the influences to which they are subject later on. For that reason, parents and parental choice are critically important.
Yes. As I have said, parents are vital to all of their child’s education, but particularly to relationships and sex education, and good schools want to work in partnership with parents. However, unless we allow our children to make choices, they will not develop the skills and the emotional resilience that they need in adult life, and I think that what the Government have suggested is a reasonable compromise.
So what is the problem? I think, from the correspondence that I have had, that it centres on the teaching of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues. Let us be honest, there is nothing new about this. Since 2010, schools have had a duty under the Equality Act of that year to deliver an inclusive and non-discriminatory curriculum, and many schools have gone further than that. I will refer again to a Catholic school, simply because that is the system I know. Cardinal Newman high school in Luton, for instance, has had all its teachers trained in LGBT and gender issues, so that they can tackle bullying and ensure that they give children the right guidance.
In the end, this is actually not about what someone called background indoctrination. We cannot indoctrinate someone to be gay any more than we can indoctrinate someone who is gay to be heterosexual, although practitioners of some very nasty conversion therapies have tried in the past. This is about respect for difference and recognising that we live in a pluralistic free society. If I demand respect for my faith, which is a minority faith in this country, I have to give the same respect to other people’s faith, but also to the choices that other people may make in life. This is about tackling bullying: 45% of LGBT people have been bullied at school. That has to end. Young people have to know that whoever they are, whatever their sexuality, they will be welcomed and cared for.
Most schools and, I think, most parents, whatever their background or religious affiliation, would have no problem whatever with that, but there has been a lot of misinformation going around, so I say to parents who are concerned, “First, talk to your child’s teachers. Go in; don’t let other people tell you what they are doing. Go and have a look at the materials they are using. Go and talk to them about what they are trying to achieve. And you will see that there is very little to worry you there.”
I say to the Minister—this is not a phrase often heard from my lips—that I think the Government have got this about right. There is the right to an opt-out in certain circumstances. There has to be a right for children to opt in at some stage, and I think that the Government have got the age for that about right—in other words, just before they leave school. I also say to parents, “Trust your children. If you have brought them up with the right values and the right perspectives on life, you have nothing to fear from this.” It really is about creating a society in which we can respect one another, respect our differences and work together. At a time when society seems to be becoming more and more polarised and people are shouting at one another on social media all the time, that is a sensible and reasonable thing to do and is good for all of us.
Order. Before I call John Howell, let me say that I have 14 Members on my list wanting to speak. If everyone behaves impeccably and takes no more than nine minutes, including interventions, we should be able to get everyone in. However, that does mean only those on my list making speeches and everyone being rigid when it comes to absolute tolerance of allowing colleagues to speak. I call John Howell.
I shall try to be absolutely impeccable, Mrs Moon. It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. It is also a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones), whom I seem to follow often in Westminster Hall debates. It is very appropriate that we should discuss this subject today when, as we can all see from the annunciators, the Secretary of State is still talking about relationships and sex education in the main Chamber.
There are two issues and I will treat them separately. The first is sex education, which is essentially about reproduction, and the second is relationships education. The issue of sex education raises two interesting points for me. The first is faith schools, and the second is the rights of parents. I am not one of those people who think that we should simply abolish all faith schools. Faith schools play a crucial role in our society and, at a time when we have gone a huge way to seeing what parents want—how they want their children to be taught—and allowing them to bring forward free schools, it is crucial that we acknowledge their rights to continue to have that with faith schools.
On the question of the rights of parents, I would like to start from the other end by saying that I do not think it is appropriate to put all the effort on to headteachers, who should have this decided by parents. I am sure that many of us remember the times when we had to have conversations with our own children about sex education, and however embarrassing they may have been—it was for me as a parent—it was for us to take them forward. I would like much more in the way of encouragement for the rights of parents. That is why I am enthusiastic about the right to opt out of sex education and to see that as part of the role of parents.
I will give way first to my right hon. Friend.
My hon. Friend talks compellingly about the rights of parents and of faith schools. Does he not also think that children have the right to know what a good, healthy relationship looks like in this day and age and how to keep safe? Do children not have that right as well?
I partially agree with my right hon. Friend but am not sure I go all the way with it. Faith schools provide a lot of such education, or could provide a lot of it, if they were worked with and engaged with in a much more successful way.
The hon. Gentleman talked about how a parent could be there to give guidance and should be able to opt out if they wish to give the guidance. What would he say to a parent who is perpetrating domestic abuse or even sexual violence at home, or to a child who is growing up in that type of environment? How will we ensure that, when those people opt out, the child can understand what a healthy relationship looks like?
The hon. Lady makes an important point. One does not want to see that level of abuse continuing down the generations, but those issues can be picked up by other measures and dealt with in that way.
Could the hon. Gentleman explain how he sees that happening? I will give him an anecdotal statistic from my constituency. I asked a headteacher of a primary school how many children in one class he thought might be subject to seeing domestic violence at home. His answer was five or six, which is pretty staggering. It shows a huge risk in the environments that many young children are growing up in.
I am afraid that I do not know the answer to the hon. Lady’s question. I will not attempt one off the top of my head, but will think about it for a little bit.
I believe that we already take away so much from childhood. We should fight against the sexualisation of children—that applies to all children. I see a need to address some of these issues, but I do not see that the details of reproductive sex art should be part of the compulsory situation.
There is a lot of good in the proposals for relationships education. I will give two examples, the first of which is mental health. I have always had a great interest in the mental health of children at schools in my constituency. One only has to look at incidents of children’s mental ill health to see that we do not want the child to continue to be distressed.
We live in a completely different age to that in which I was brought up. We live in an age in which there is a tremendous amount of social media—it is almost impossible to get away from it. That can produce the problems of pornography. There is a need to have some awareness, but that is an area in which the parents can be involved in a big way.
The second issue is online grooming. I come from a county that has had a major online-grooming scandal over the past few years. Seven individuals abused many girls—I have no idea how many, but the BBC claimed that hundreds of girls could have been abused in that way. I would like evidence to show what effect relationships education could have had in that situation. Could it have prevented that abuse from taking place or were parents in a better position to deal with it?
There are different types of relationships, of course. One cannot pretend that schools exist in a vacuum. One cannot pretend that we do not have lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender relationships. I have been very supportive of them. We have to acknowledge that that is the legal situation in the country. We need to talk about the fact that different forms of relationships exist and make that fact clear.
We are not asking for sacred religious texts to be rewritten or torn up. The role of Ofsted, which was mentioned earlier, is absolutely crucial in that respect. I urge the Government to instruct Ofsted to take a sensitive approach in recognising the nature of faith schools, and to work with the schools to deliver a better view of the way in which they deliver education. That means that schools need to be able to teach—they have a duty to teach—what is allowable under the law without having to approve it. That is the situation at the moment.
In making these remarks I have been advised by the Jewish Community Council and the Torah Education Committee, which run a number of Orthodox Jewish schools. It should be taken as a positive sign that they have reached out, because they are concerned about the effects of the regulations and would like to work with the Government to take them forward. Above all, it is important to remember that we are not asking them to tear up the Torah in order to take this forward. We are asking them to work with the Government to come to a proper solution.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship in this debate, Mrs Moon. The turnout of hon. Members from across the House is testament to its importance.
It is a little disappointing that the debate clashes with the statement by the Secretary of State for Education. We will be making our speeches a little bit in the dark, as most of us have been here in Westminster Hall, rather than in the Chamber for that statement. Matters may have moved on a little, depending on the content of the Secretary of State’s statement. I wonder if that Government statement was initiated by this debate and the e-petition, which many of our constituents signed.
I want to put into context my contribution and the perspective of my constituents. My hon. Friend the Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones) discussed the whole range of issues around sex education, relationships and sex education and relationships education. However, most of my constituents have been contacting me about the specifics of mandatory relationships education at primary school. None of my constituents is seeking particular or differential opt outs at secondary school level. It is all about the age appropriateness of conversations with young children in the context of religious backgrounds.
When these issues were first raised with me, I did what all hon. Members do: I turned to the law itself. What does the Children and Social Work Act 2017 say in respect of mandatory relationships education for primary school pupils? Section 34 gives the enabling power to the Secretary of State to lay down the regulations and guidance, which I believe is the subject of the statement in the House today. It says that religious background and age appropriateness must be taken into account. That is the legislative protection for faith communities, so that children who are being educated in any part of the education system outside the faith school system are protected and have their religious background taken into account.
Before any relationships education is delivered, according to the legislation, there must be a consultation. Failure to hold a consultation has led to a number of issues arising in my constituency and across Birmingham. It was not just a badly conducted consultation that did not involve all parents; there was no consultation whatever. That is in direct contravention of the spirit of the draft regulations and the draft guidance, and the absolute commitment in section 34 in relation to religious backgrounds.
Parents come to me in my advice surgery and say, “There is no consultation, Shabana. Who do we complain to?” It turns out that there is no process and no guidance for how to deal with those concerns. Those parents’ first question to me is, “What is the sanction when a school fails to carry out any consultation at all?” It appears to me that there is no sanction or mechanism. The regional schools commissioner does not have a role. I do not think that the Secretary of State has a role. Nobody seems to be able to say what the sanction is when the process fails.
If a school does carry out a consultation, the question is who decides what is appropriate and what is not. What happens when you have conflicting views between different sets of parents? That is particularly important in respect of religious backgrounds. As a member of a faith community myself, I can tell the House that we are not all the same. There are many differences of opinion between religious groups—between different groups of Muslims—on what is appropriate.
I welcome those from faith communities who are watching this debate from the Public Gallery. I hope they will not mind me noting that many are from the Orthodox Jewish community. There is an interpretation of religious texts within the Jewish community that leads people to what is described as an orthodox set of values and beliefs. There is also a self-described modern, progressive and reform end of the Jewish community, as there is in the Muslim and Christian communities—in all faith communities, in fact.
What happens when religious background is taken into account in a primary school setting in Birmingham and there are two groups of Muslim parents with full religious conviction, one of which says, “Actually, we think this is unacceptable,” and the other says, “No, this is perfectly acceptable.”? Who is the arbitrator when their rights collide? There is nothing in the guidance and no consideration of the fact that it is perfectly possible for religious groups to come to different views about what is appropriate.
My hon. Friend is making a brilliant speech. Does she accept that that is a particular problem in academy schools, because the accountability points upwards to the office of the Secretary of State? At least with a local education authority school, one can go to one’s local elected representatives to try to sort the mess out.
My right hon. Friend has been attempting to reconcile conflicting interest groups in his constituency, as he will discuss later. He is right that most cases in our constituencies have arisen in academy schools, for which there is nowhere to go other than the Secretary of State. If those schools were within the family of Birmingham local authority schools, we could at least come together in a joint process that respects and gives voice to religious backgrounds—not just moderate, reform or progressive religious communities, but orthodox ones. We could negotiate a settlement that does justice by all parties, allows all our valued, loved and respected communities to be included in that process and enables our children to have the confidence to move forward in modern 21st-century Britain. That is what all the parents who have come to see me in the last few weeks want and why they wanted me to be in the debate.
Will my hon. Friend give way?
No, because I wish to give other hon. Members time to make their speeches.
It has been a real problem for parents to get a fair hearing about genuinely held religious conviction in an atmosphere that sometimes does not feel tolerant of religious beliefs. Most of those parents absolutely sign up to the equalities agenda. Particularly in the Muslim community in Birmingham, Ladywood, we recognise that our status as a minority community demands that we stand up for the rights of other minority communities.
It has to be possible to reconcile the differing perspectives on life of different minority communities. I consider it a failure of politics that we find ourselves in entrenched, polarised and divisive debates, where the rights of people are set against one another. We in Parliament—the representatives of the people—have not done our collective job to reconcile those rights. Instead, we have left it to schools. In Birmingham in some instances, that has left us in a total mess, which is not acceptable.
Some of what has been done in Birmingham is not part of an early roll-out of relationships education for primary school pupils, but action under the Equality Act 2010, as my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington North mentioned. The Equality Act sets out several protected characteristics. Nobody disagrees with the protection of those characteristics, but it is a fact of our modern politics—the culture war that we are all living through—that those protected characteristics conflict with one another in some cases. For example, there is no point talking about biological sex and gender identity with children, because the adults of our country cannot decide what the exact relationship between the two is. Those two protected characteristics are clearly in contested territory.
Who decides how we navigate that contested territory and draw a line that does justice by competing groups? It must be Parliament; it cannot simply be left to teachers or state officials acting in other capacities, such as in prisons or schools. There has to be a negotiated settlement led by the Government with input from every part of Parliament. There must be an acceptance that, in a diverse society, we must pitch at negotiated settlements between different groups in which most people can come to a compromise, because they are the greatest thing that we have to offer.
In the absence of anybody willing to play that role, I do not blame parents for saying that they want to opt their kids out, because the subject has become so divisive and polarising that they cannot see another way out. Without any arbitration mechanism or protection for those of us at the unfashionable end of the faith spectrum, in orthodox religious communities—I am an orthodox Muslim—whenever there is a conflict about rights, everybody feels it is okay to ride roughshod over orthodox communities and push them to one side.
I do not believe the Government have the right to legislate for the calling of an individual’s conscience. I ask the Minister to take that point away. Unless he can come up with a system that ensures fairness between competing rights, he must give way and allow a right to withdraw.
Before I call Fiona Bruce, I remind hon. Members that it is not appropriate to refer to visitors in the Gallery. In this debate, it is especially inappropriate, as people may not wish to be identified.
I welcome the debate, not least because what unites all petitioners, and no doubt hon. Members, is the desire for young people to develop healthy relational foundations for adulthood. Given the modern challenges facing children offline and online, the case for updating the sex and relationships education guidance of 19 years ago is compelling.
Sadly, the World Family Map shows that Britain is a world leader in family breakdown, with record numbers of children experiencing parental break-up before they get their GCSE results. The debate should not be a call for no change—none of us can be complacent in the face of such challenges for children and families in our constituencies—but we need to be clear about what needs changing.
In many ways, the requirement is nothing new: to help young people understand the age-old ingredients of a long-term stable relationship in adulthood, and the importance of marriage and family. Let us give the Government credit where credit is due. The draft regulations spell out that pupils should learn about
“the nature of marriage and”
“importance for family life and the bringing up of children”,
which should not be controversial.
Last year, in a poll commissioned by the Centre for Social Justice, almost eight in 10 young people said that they wanted to get married and wanted relationship education to help them to understand how to build long-term lasting relationships. That is what the Government’s relationships and sex education plans deliver, which is to be welcomed.
I have long argued, however, that the push for compulsory sex education in all schools is wrong for two key reasons: first, parents are the primary educators of children about sex and, secondly, the emphasis should be on relationships, which would put sex in the context of stable long-term relationships. I therefore encourage the switch to the name “relationships and sex education”—not to play with words, but to make relationships foundational. Relationships education should be integrated from primary school years through to relationships and sex education in secondary school years.
In talking about the need to update the rules, does my hon. Friend agree that it is important to take into consideration the views of the orthodox Jewish faith, which we have heard about, and of the Muslim faith, such as the Sutton Central Masjid, which has lobbied me? As we heard from the hon. Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones), we also need to make sure that young children can learn the actuality, rather than relying on the internet or their peers in the playground.
My hon. Friend is right. Many organisations and schools have said that for years, including the Catholic Education Service, which has been a leading advocate of relationships-based education for some time, the Relationships Alliance and the Centre for Social Justice.
The gap in education is due not to a lack of sex education, but a lack of relationships-based education. Even for some primary school children, the problem is not a lack of knowledge about sex, but a lack of knowledge and understanding about respectful healthy relationships. I commend these proposals, which seek to address that, and the way in which the Secretary of State has engaged on the issue. For example, the issue of consent is a relational one before it becomes a sexual one. The addition of health education as a statutory requirement alongside RSE reflects the wider challenges affecting young people’s health and wellbeing, such as the impact of alcohol and drugs.
I am pleased that the Government listened to the cross-party call for action led by my former colleague, David Burrowes, who has done so much work on this issue, and acted when the Children and Social Work Act 2017 introduced compulsory relationships education in primary schools, and relationships and RSE in secondary schools.
However, the main focus of this debate is the right of parents to withdraw their children from sex education. We have to recognise that although the current right may be exercised only rarely, it is consistent with a fundamental principle enshrined in article 2, protocol 1 of the European convention on human rights:
“the State shall respect the right of parents to ensure such education and teaching in conformity with their own religious and philosophical convictions”.
The petitioners feel that parental authority is undermined by the lack of any parental right to withdraw a child from relationships education at primary and secondary school and by the proposed replacement of the parental right of withdrawal at secondary school with the “right of request” just in relation to sex education, with the final decision being made by the headteacher and not the parents. That may be said to happen only in “exceptional circumstances”, but those circumstances are not defined, and the very fact that the caveat exists is a breach of the current parental right to withdraw children. For many, that is a breach too far, and I agree with that assessment.
During the debate in Committee on the 2017 Act, Edward Timpson, the then Minister for Vulnerable Children and Families, said that
“We have committed to retain a right to withdraw from sex education in RSE, because parents should have the right, if they wish, to teach sex education themselves in a way that is consistent with their values.”—[Official Report, 7 March 2017; Vol. 622, c. 705.]
I am clear that there is a distinction between relationships education and sex education, so I do not believe that a parental right of withdrawal is necessary for relationships education in primary schools. Parliament decided not to extend the right of withdrawal to relationships education and also resisted attempts by the Opposition to remove the right altogether—quite rightly, too.
I appreciate the case that the hon. Lady is making. It is important that young people learn about respectful relationships, and are equipped with the knowledge, resilience and confidence they need to challenge exploitative relationships.
However, a number of my constituents have been keen to stress the central role that parenting plays in children’s learning about sex and relationships. I must also stress the need to safeguard the rights of both religious and parental beliefs during the implementation of these regulations. Does the hon. Lady agree that, for that to happen, it is critical that the Government introduce these reforms in collaboration with parents and religious groups, by listening and responding to their concerns in more detail?
I agree that consultation and deliberation are good, and I think the Government have done those things to a great degree. What I am saying is that I do not believe it is right that parents should not be able to withdraw their children from sex education in senior schools. I do not have a problem with children having relationships education, but there is a difference between that and sex education.
While I am sympathetic to the petitioners’ concerns about weakening the parental right to withdraw, I am saying just what I have expressed. The draft regulations propose that
“the pupil must be so excused until the request is withdrawn, unless or to the extent that the head teacher considers that the pupil should not be so excused.”
The proposals put the final decision firmly in the hands of the headteacher, not the parents. Yes, the draft guidance states in paragraph 43 that
“except in exceptional circumstances, the school should respect the parents’ request to withdraw the child, up to and until three terms before the child turns 16.”
However, no attempt is made to define what “exceptional circumstances” are and ultimately the guidance is just that—guidance. It is the regulations that define the law, and so they matter. They remove the right of withdrawal from parents and place it in the hands of the headteacher, who in effect will have total discretion to make the decision, with no requirement to explain it in any way.
What the Government state in the guidance actually affirms parents as the prime educators, as the guidance says:
“The role of parents in the development of their children’s understanding about relationships is vital. Parents are the first educators of their children. They have the most significant influence in enabling their children to grow and mature and to form healthy relationships.”
But the Government do not follow through on that affirmation when it comes to the detail on the right to withdraw. Headteachers are given a power of veto on parents’ rights, which is not consistent with the Government’s own guidance, legislation or the ECHR.
We have the requirement of the ECHR to respect
“the right of parents to ensure such education and teaching in conformity with their own religious and philosophical convictions.”
We also have primary legislation in the Children and Social Work Act 2017, which states:
“The regulations must provide that…when relationships education or relationships and sex education is given….the education is appropriate having regard to the age and the religious background of the pupils.”
I will finish by saying that I do not believe that it is logical that a parent should have the right to withdraw a child aged 11, in year 6, given that there is, for example, a conditional right for an 11-year-old in year 7 to be withdrawn. I have not explained that very clearly, so I will just try again: I am not convinced about the Government’s legal and policy case for diluting a parent’s absolute right of withdrawal for an 11-year-old in year 6, compared with a conditional right for an 11-year-old in year 7.
It is a pleasure to serve under you today, Mrs Moon.
I stand as somebody who is passionate about the importance of relationships and sex education for all children at all ages, because I am a child of the generation of section 28. I am a child who was at school in this country when the Government also tried to set rules about what we could and could not learn about what was a healthy relationship. And I remember seeing the damage that that did to children in my school and their sense of self-worth, and to the teachers, who felt frightened to answer the questions that the children had.
I am a child of that generation who, if we are right that we want children to opt out of relationships and sex education, is a living embodiment of the consequences of that, because we were a generation that did not have the internet. However, we had Jimmy Savile. We had predators in our communities. We had children living in families with domestic abuse.
I start today with a concern about the rights of the child in this context. We are all informed by our experience. My own experience is that, living through that kind of education—there was an absence of accurate, factual, child-based education—affected my generation.
For me, the case for RSE for all children at all ages, in an age-based and appropriate manner, is about safeguarding, because in the absence of those lessons it was not that we had a knowledge vacuum in my generation. I clearly remember the day that somebody brought a copy of “Lace”, by Shirley Conran, into school, and the lessons that book gave us. I am still unable to look at a goldfish in the same way that I did before then.
I say to every parent—every parent who is here today, all those parents who have written to me, and all those parents who have not written to me but who have been part of the work that we have been doing in Walthamstow about RSE—who cares about their children and want the best for them: “Thank you. Thank you for caring about your children.” It is the children who will not receive this education but who other children will still have to talk to in the playground, and still be in a classroom with, who I want to ensure are equally taught the right values and the right approach to other children.
For me, that is the question we face when we have an opt-out. What are the consequences for the children who have not had parents in their lives giving them good direction, and who instead have parents who cannot be in the playground with them when that copy of “Lace” is circulated, and who cannot monitor 24/7 what is found on the internet? Yes, it is also those parents who are not the best of parents, but we must make sure that their children are not let down by us.
I say that because I live in a community where we have just had the first successful prosecution for female genital mutilation, which involved a primary school-age child. We have to recognise that not every parent is as good as the parents who care enough to be concerned and who want to get this right.
We also have to recognise the parents who have been misled. My hon. Friend the Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones), who opened the debate, spoke so well about that. A woman came to my surgery this weekend to say to me, “I’ve had a leaflet about this. This is about teaching my little boy that he must be a little girl.” That is completely not what this process is about. My generation did not have this education, yet there are certainly transgender people of my age and gay people of my age. It that proves anything, it is that this is not about sex and relationships education; it is about how that child is supported to cope with the world we are in today.
There is strong evidence of the benefits of relationships and sex education at all ages. It helps children to have the kind of healthy, productive childhood we all want for them. When we hear that 45% of teachers report homophobic bullying in primary schools, we know that what we are talking about is bullying, and if we care about the rights of children we must address that. There is also a rising incidence of peer-on-peer assaults—children attacking children. In that vacuum in which the alternative is the internet or the playground, I want a teacher to be the one to help ensure that children are given the best factual and accurate education. For too long, we have allowed this country to put composting as a requirement of our curriculum but not consent and, as a consequence, children have been left vulnerable.
I understand the process the Minister has gone through and, like me, he will have seen many good examples of faith-based sex and relationships education. I feel strongly about the importance of speaking up for faith-based communities who have engaged in the process, and who are the best of their faith by wanting to get this right, as my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Shabana Mahmood) said. However, I also recognise the importance of its being the exception rather than the rule that children are opted out of something that can keep them safe, which is what relationships and sex education is about, at its heart.
I ask the Minister to consider monitoring both the numbers of children removed from lessons and how the consultations happen, and also to consider how we ensure that never again do we see a six or seven-year-old unable to describe their own body parts. If, God forbid, someone tried to touch them or someone in their own family did something to them, we would know that someone would have taught them how to say no and how to speak up. I say to the Minister, please let us not wait another 30 years for another generation of adults to appear who have been told that somehow being gay is wrong. Being gay is part of who they are. There are factual faith-based ways of having the conversations, and there are such great benefits to ensuring that every child has them. I say to the Minister: do not let them get educated in the playground or by the internet.
If the problems we now see as a result of the lack of support for my generation tell us anything, it is that in the 1980s we let a generation down. Let us put the rights of the child first, ensuring that parents are a key part of that but not missing the opportunity to get it right for every child, wherever and in whichever school they may be
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Moon, and to contribute to this debate on the incredibly important right to remove children from relationships and sex education. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Shabana Mahmood) made an incredibly powerful speech, capturing brilliantly so many of the feelings that my constituents and I have, and the concerns that many constituents have written to me about.
It is incredibly important that parents’ rights are respected. However, conversations I have had with headteachers since I was selected as an MP in 2015 have reinforced the concern that there is an imbalance of rights and responsibilities; and that there is a massive emphasis on the rights and responsibilities of schools, which undermines expectations of what parents ought to contribute. That manifests in a number of ways. I will not go on for any greater length than to say that if we give more and more rights and power to schools, and parents are unable to challenge schools’ decisions and the rights that they, or the state in one form or another, have accrued, the rights and authority of parents are undermined. A concern in civil society more broadly is that individual responsibility, whether that of school- children, their parents, or families as a whole, has been undermined, which then reduces people’s willingness to participate as full members of society.
The former Minister and former Member of Parliament for Crewe and Nantwich, Ed Timpson, said:
“We have committed to retain a right to withdraw from sex education in RSE, because parents should have the right, if they wish, to teach sex education themselves in a way that is consistent with their values.”—[Official Report, 7 March 2017; Vol. 622, c. 705.]
I believe that that is wholly right. It is a very good principle and approach. Religious schools have the right to teach RSE in accordance with their values and their guidance but children of the same religious or ethical perspective in a local authority school are not respected in the same way. It is incredibly important that that respect is universal and is not reserved for selective schools. It ought to be there for all schools.
The Government’s response to the petition clearly states that primary schools are not required to teach sex education but that, where they do, they must consult parents and include that in their policy. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that that gives parents an automatic right to withdraw their kids from sex education in primary schools?
There is huge concern about what that consultation means and what impact it has. Can a school still make an overriding decision regardless of the contribution produced by a consultation? That is key to this debate.
The hon. Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones) rightly highlighted that there is, especially in Catholic schools, a very low number of children being withdrawn from classes—that one in 7,800 figure—but if trust and confidence broke down more widely, would we see an increase in that number? One of the aids in ensuring that that confidence is there is parents’ right of withdrawal, and taking that away would enable schools to make decisions with less influence and guidance from the wider school community. That is fundamentally important.
That leads to a concern about increased parent-sanctioned truancy. If parents felt unable to withdraw their child for just that lesson, they would perhaps withdraw them for the whole school day, which would undermine the child’s education more widely. The approach is not a respectful one. In so many other areas we hear about diversity and respect, and celebration of that diversity, and it is curious that in this area those things do not exist; rather, what the state or the agencies of the state believe to be right is imposed.
I urge the Minister to treat relationships and sex education as an integrated subject and to respect parents’ rights to remove their children, because that is the best way to ensure that more children engage with the classes. The classes make an important contribution not only to children but to parents, who are often informed and educated by their children. What assessment has the Minister made of the likelihood of an increase in children being home-schooled? A number of concerns are related to that.
It is a pleasure and a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Moon. I concur with the comments made by the hon. Member for Bolton West (Chris Green) about the passionate speech made by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Shabana Mahmood) and the points that she raised.
I enter this debate as a representative of thousands of constituents who have been in contact with me, either directly or indirectly. Strong opinions—varying, contrasting opinions—have been expressed, all drawing equally on our tradition of respect for human rights. In grappling with the subject of this debate, I want to respect and have sensitivity for that divergence and be clear about the need to protect the vulnerable from harm while ensuring that the state fulfils its duty and individual citizens are given their freedom. The connection between the collective and the individual has been discussed many times in this House. It is my firm belief that the empowered individual is the bedrock of a collective that upholds the rights of the vulnerable and protects them from those who are more powerful. Otherwise, minorities will be abused in the name of the freedom of the majority.
On occasions throughout history, coercive religious states have mandated that their worldview should be indoctrinated through all the structures of their societies, disregarding the rights of minorities or of anyone who wishes to pursue non-religious worldviews. It was in that context that philosophers, ideologues and revolutionaries from the Scottish coffee houses to the streets of Europe dedicated their words and their lives, sacrificing everything to build on the renaissance and give birth to modern liberal democracies such as the one we stand in today. Although liberal democracies such as ours often challenged authoritarian regimes that neglected minority rights, it took centuries for modern systems to include the rights and freedoms of working-class people, women, black and minority ethnic communities, and—more recently—people from LGBTQ communities. In all those regards, we have serious ground to make up if we are to have fairness and justice for all, it is fair to say that we have come on leaps and bounds from where we once were.
When arguments are made in favour of mandatory relationships and sex education in schools to provide LGBTQ communities with further equality or protection from bullying, I can categorically understand and appreciate those arguments. When the argument is about protecting young children from sexual predators, or the dire need to protect our young children from the adverse effects of social media in particular, it is a no-brainer. We need to address all those issues in a way that is congruent with our need to respect the rights and freedoms of all components of our society.
Although there was clearly some debate about cultural and religious elements when the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013 was passed, that Act did not apply to religious institutions: it merely aimed to provide everyone in our democracy with equal rights. The Act provided the right of marriage to those who were previously denied it; those with religious beliefs were unaffected by that change and were allowed to maintain their religious rights. We would not claim, nor should we claim, that by protecting the right to religious belief in that Act we were denying the rights of anyone else. This measure, however, is mandatory for everyone, without the right of exemption on the basis of belief. Many of my constituents, especially parents, have expressed concerns. They are not seeking a false right to be bigoted or to promote or incite bigotry, but they are concerned that the legislation engages with deeply personal matters that go beyond our purview as state legislators.
My call today is simple: the fundamental principle of a true liberal democracy is to ensure that a society can exist in which all people’s rights are intact. In that spirit, I ask that the concerns of my constituents, and many of the signatories of the petition that led to today’s debate, not be completely ignored. I have seen many of the draft guidelines published by the Government, and I welcome much of what is in them, as they signal a collaboration between parents and schools on the syllabuses that will be taught. Nevertheless, for many people, the guidelines are still built along unclear lines, and with the legislation not having been put into practice, parents across my constituency have significant concerns. Some of those parents have indicated that the legislation coerces them into giving up their parental rights, and that although they may not have a right to opt their children out of lessons taught in schools, they do have a right to take their children out of school and teach their principles through home schooling. I do not want that to happen, as it will be hugely detrimental to society as a whole.
Minorities and majorities change according to time and place, but we must stay true to our principles and not allow any minority to be ignored. I therefore call on the Minister to reach out to concerned parents, and I invite him to my constituency of Bradford West to consult further with parents there. Many organisations have suggested that the consultation period went silently by, and that not enough time was given for the parents to fully understand the issues involved. Those organisations also want to be part of further discussions to gain reassurance about many things, including clarity about how faith and cultural factors will be considered. It is in line with our fundamental principles that people should not be ignored, nor should they feel coerced. Let us win hearts and minds through debate and discussions. Even if getting this right means delaying the process, it would be a positive step forward. It is better that we win with freedom than lose with the perception of a denial of rights.
It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Mrs Moon, in this debate about parental opt-out rights. There is no disputing that it is a parent’s right to teach their child about sex and relationships, but at the same time schools have an important responsibility to teach RSE to all children, in collaboration and partnership with parents. Those two responsibilities are not mutually exclusive. I know from the expert lessons I have observed in Brighton that teaching RSE is a skilled job for which teachers need high-quality training. For that reason, the vast majority of parents work with schools, and are grateful for and support the provision of RSE lessons.
Having said that, it is vital that we do not forget that some children will not get RSE at home. We cannot guarantee that they will, and we do not know which ones will not. The very small number of children who are withdrawn from the classes may well be among those who would benefit the most. As Barnardo’s and the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children have stated:
“To have a child opt out of sex education is tantamount to offering no sex education as it cannot be assured that the child will receive this information at home.”
There is also the serious question of how to ensure that children who may be at particular risk of harm or abuse are not withdrawn from sex education by a parent who is party to that risk. As I mentioned in an intervention, I have not yet heard a good answer to that concern. For example, guidelines for health workers and schools on female genital mutilation already include withdrawal from sex education as an indicator of risk.
Of course, only a tiny minority of parents withdraw their children from sex education, but at secondary level—the level at which RSE will become compulsory—I am deeply concerned that the Government have retained the right of parents to withdraw children until three terms before the child turns 16. Those who are withdrawn will, for example, miss out on vital lessons about sexual health at a time when sexually transmitted infections are rising among young people. Data from Public Health England reveal that a young person is diagnosed with either chlamydia or gonorrhoea every four minutes in England. In recent years, police and crime commissioners across the country have reported a dramatic escalation of child sexual exploitation, with sexting and sexual bullying both on the rise.
I met police last Friday to look at the issue of safeguarding, and they were urging that all children should be able to attend classes. Children who are excluded from school or off-rolled are at the most risk. Is it not really important that schools make education inclusive for everybody?
I agree. As the hon. Lady says, this is about a basic right to education that should be available to all children.
Alarming numbers of children are watching online pornography, as other hon. Members have said, and shocking numbers of teenaged boys and girls think that aggression by boyfriends is normal and okay. Teaching RSE in schools on a compulsory basis is the only way to ensure that all children get the information they need to stay safe and to report abuse if they need to.
The petition that is before us says:
“We have grave concerns about the physical, psychological and spiritual implications of teaching children about certain sexual and relational concepts proposed in RSE and believe that they have no place within a mandatory school curriculum.”
I do not know whether any hon. Members in this House or in this Chamber today support the petition, but I am left wondering what exactly those “sexual and relational concepts” are. I wonder why what they mean has not been spelled out. Given the kind of homophobic communications and leaflets I have received ahead of today’s debate, I am left with the strong impression that the message is one of intolerance and prejudice against LGBT+ children, families and teachers. Despite that, I remain confident that such views are not widely held and that the majority of parents want to work in close partnership with schools to provide the vital RSE that all children need.
Providing welcome clarity and calm ahead of today’s debate, last week the Ofsted chief inspector Amanda Spielman made it clear that all children must learn about same-sex couples, regardless of their religious background. She said that the lessons are
“about making sure they know just enough to know that some people prefer not to get married to somebody of the opposite sex and that sometimes there are families that have two mummies or two daddies… It’s about making sure that children who do happen to realise that they themselves may not fit a conventional pattern know that they’re not bad or ill.”
As we move forward, it is important to keep talking with parents about what RSE teaches. It is not about promoting any particular lifestyle, which I think might be a misunderstanding at the core of the petition. At its heart, RSE is about giving children clear, honest, accurate and age-appropriate information. It is about reflecting real lives, keeping children safe and tackling bullying.
Will the hon. Lady join me in welcoming the Chief Rabbi’s clarity in saying that all Jewish schools, including orthodox schools, must make it clear that there is zero tolerance of any bullying or discrimination against LGBT+ students? That moral clarity from religious leaders, especially orthodox religious leaders, is incredibly important in sending the right messages to schools. The hon. Lady is making an excellent speech, but what weight does she give religious freedom in the context of this debate?
I very much welcome the statement from the Chief Rabbi about stamping out bullying on any ground, including LGBT. That is an incredibly strong call, and it is very important. In terms of weighing religious freedoms with the rights of the child, I still do not see a contradiction. We are talking about keeping children safe and ensuring they have the confidence they need to be able to raise concerns. I do not see why there has to be a contradiction in terms of religious belief. I hope we can find a way through. I think there are a number of misconceptions about what RSE is about. It absolutely is not about any kind of preferred lifestyle or indoctrination. At its best, hopefully, it is about a shared exploration with parents and teachers to keep our children safe.
Perhaps it might help the hon. Lady if I gave an example. The Catholic Church does not support same-sex marriage. That does not prevent Catholic schools from teaching that same-sex marriage is allowable in this country; nor does it prevent them from teaching about gay rights.
That teaching is allowable and legal, and the legal arrangement is as acceptable as any other in this country. That is an incredibly important clarification, and I am grateful to the hon. Lady for stating it.
As we know, bullying does exist. Huge evidence has been gathered by Stonewall that nearly half of lesbian, gay, bi and trans pupils are bullied for being LGBT at school. To quote Kieran, aged 18:
“I have been bullied since Year 2 for being gay. People called me names like ‘gay’ and ‘faggot’ before I even knew what they really meant.”
There have been recent reports that teachers in Birmingham have faced protests, threats and email abuse over relationships education. I was very sad to read that, and I very much hope that Ministers will use the power they have over the regulations and guidance to show calm and confident leadership. The Minister will know from what I have said so far that I do not support the opt-out, grateful though I am that we are finally moving forward with compulsory RSE. In my final words, I echo the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy), who was calling for, at the very least, monitoring of what happens with the opt-out. I am deeply concerned that it could be those young people who need and could benefit the most from this kind of education who will not get it, and that is a cause of real concern.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Moon. I commend Members on an excellent debate. There have been some outstanding speeches, particularly that of my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones), who opened the debate.
When we are seeing growing intolerance and even hatred across our country, the importance of good-quality relationships and sex education cannot be overstated. I came into politics because I want a fairer, more equal and just society, and good-quality education, including RSE, is vital to achieving that. We have already mentioned the importance of the Human Rights Act 1998 and the Equality Act 2010 in enshrining in law that, as human beings, we are all equal. We have the same rights and freedoms, whether we are female, male, non-binary or trans. Whatever our race or colour, whether we are disabled or non-disabled, whether we are of faith or none, however old we are, whatever our sexual orientation, our marital status or whether we are pregnant, our laws demand that we behave in line with them. However, they cannot dictate our attitudes, beliefs or values. That comes from formal and informal education.
The reality is that hate crime, including against Jews, Muslims, disabled people, gay people and other minorities, is on the rise. There is evidence from Stonewall that nearly half of LGBT pupils are bullied at school for being LGBT. That has a dreadful effect on their mental health, which includes one in eight attempting to take their own life. We have seen some horrendous videos of Muslim schoolgirls having their hijabs pulled off by baying mobs of their peers. I have been told about adults shouting abuse at Jewish children as they make their way to school.
The horror of child sexual exploitation and abuse has unfolded across all our communities. One in 20 children is sexually abused and one in three of those children did not tell an adult. It is vital that all children learn the difference between what is a healthy relationship and what is not. RSE has a key role in teaching our children and young people to treat each other with kindness, respect and integrity so that they can grow into happy, confident and caring adults. As a former public health professional, there is overwhelming evidence about the importance of providing high-quality, age-appropriate RSE in preventing sexually transmitted infections and unplanned teenage pregnancies. While I respect the views of those parents who believe they should be the ones who teach their children RSE, according to the PSHE Association more than nine out of 10 parents want schools to teach RSE, whether that is because they feel they do not have the necessary skills or knowledge or they are too embarrassed. We should not forget the 400,000 or so children in care, too.
RSE should be taught at school in partnership with children’s parents or guardians. RSE should be high-quality, age-appropriate and taught by well-trained staff following consultation and agreement between parents and schools. As has been so well enunciated today, where there is difficulty, we need a resolution process to ensure that we can agree something. Where we have not been clear as parliamentarians, we need a process to enable that clarity. Parents need to have confidence in what their children are being taught. That will also allow key messages to be reinforced at home and at school.
For those reasons, I do not believe an opt-out from RSE at school would be helpful. If that policy goes ahead, opt-outs should be the exception rather than the rule. My hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) made an excellent point about ensuring that we monitor the level of opt-out. I want to mention my gratitude to the faith leaders in Oldham who have been in touch and have shown great leadership. They share my concern about the intolerant tone and misleading information of some of the campaigns expressing a counter view. There is strong evidence to show that babies are not born hating people who may be different from themselves. They learn those attitudes, and sometimes those attitudes manifest into intolerant, hateful and even unlawful behaviour. Good-quality RSE at home and at school can help to prevent that.
Sir David Amess in the Chair
It is a pleasure to see you presiding in the Chair for this debate, Sir David. I am pleased to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) after another one of her trademark thoughtful contributions. I thank Tower Hamlets Council, the Terrence Higgins Trust, Women’s Aid, the Sex Education Forum, Humanists UK, the National Secular Society, and Tower Hamlets police for providing briefings in support of today’s debate. I also thank Jenny Symmons in my office for making sense of it all and drafting this contribution, which I have managed to file down to comply with Mrs Moon’s suggestions on time limits.
Today I want to explain why I support compulsory relationships education and why it is not only useful but essential for the welfare of children in Poplar and Limehouse, despite 100 emails and 1,200-plus signatures from constituents supporting the petition. It is my stance that comprehensive relationships and sex education is a powerful tool for countering some of the biggest social problems—mainly misogyny, homophobia, and the resulting violence against women and the LGBT community. Society has a responsibility to ensure our young people have the confidence to live full lives without embarrassment, confusion or worse. As it stands now, parents have the right to withdraw their children from sex education up until three terms before they turn 16.
We know that some young people start having sex much younger than 16. They need to be educated properly about how to look after their bodies and avoid contracting diseases. My own borough of Tower Hamlets has one of the highest chlamydia rates in all of the UK, and the council is keen to address it through comprehensive sex education. The Sex Education Forum quotes research that states that young people who receive high quality RSE are more likely to start having sex at an older age and use protection when they do. Contrary to some parents’ fears that being taught RSE may encourage young people to engage in premature, unsafe sexual activity, research shows the opposite.
There is nothing to prohibit parents from giving their children further information. However, it must be covered in school to ensure that all children know the basics about puberty and adolescence. Consent is also an important thing to learn at a young age. Young women and girls need to understand as early as possible how to express consent in an intimate relationship and to know that it is okay to say no. Young men and boys especially need to learn the importance of “no” and how to respect that. RSE lessons can also be opportunities to recognise any abuse that pupils might be experiencing. Lessons could help pupils to learn about healthy and safe relationships and recognise signs of sexual, physical or emotional abuse in themselves and others.
One in six children in Tower Hamlets have special educational needs, making them more vulnerable to abuse. Our council recognises the importance of RSE in supporting those children and young people, increasing their knowledge about sexual abuse and improving their skills in refusing activities with which they are not comfortable. Relationships education will also provide an important space for children and young people to learn about how to get on with each other and about gender dynamics. We know that sexist and misogynistic attitudes can be picked up in childhood, and if left uncorrected can develop into abuse towards women. Violence against women is a particular problem in my borough, much of it happening within the home. Tower Hamlets police told me that in the past 12 months there have been more than 3,400 offences relating to domestic abuse: 100 caused moderate or severe injury and four led to death. Four deaths caused by domestic abuse is four too many.
Tower Hamlets Council holds that a comprehensive education in gender equality and respect is essential to reducing violence against women, and it recommends working to counter it not only in schools, but in the wider community. I note that Women’s Aid welcomes the Government’s declaration, which is a sure sign the proposals for RSE are in the interests of women’s safety. Covering such topics is essential to help young women and girls recognise signs of abuse and unhealthy relationships.
This debate is also an important opportunity to emphasise how valuable RSE is in raising awareness of LGBT people and increasing understanding. In 2019 many of our families look different; children in our classrooms may be raised by grandparents, single parents or same-sex parents. They may also grow to identify themselves as LGBT. Our children should not just learn about diversity in our society, but should celebrate it.
I want to commend the faith schools in my constituency that already provide RSE to a high standard, making sure it is inclusive as well as culturally sensitive. When it comes to sensitivity towards different communities, there are services available that can help schools deal with the challenges. In my constituency, Tower Hamlets Council offers their healthy lives team to advise schools on how to be in tune with the cultural attitudes of parents while ensuring that children and young people do not receive a lower-quality of RSE.
Many of the organisations who briefed me expressed concerns at the proposed rights for parents to withdraw their children from RSE. For some young people, school might be the only place they can learn the facts and the law on issues around consent, sexual health, abuse and exploitation, and understand that attitudes in their homes or communities towards women may be unjust. The Government proposal states that headteachers will grant requests for parents to withdraw children up to three terms before 16, other than under “exceptional circumstances”. The parameters around exceptional circumstances need to be more clearly defined to give heads the leeway to deny requests from parents if they judge them to be against the best interests of the child. Will the Minister comment on that?
It is worth keeping in mind that parents withdrawing their children and teenagers from classes will not ensure they learn about the issues only from their parents. It simply means their other sources of information will be the internet; representations of relationships from TV and films; ideas about body image from Instagram; and sexual education from online sources that are easily available. We need to make sure our children and young people receive the best quality information from reliable, trained professionals, and that it is ingrained in them before they are susceptible to dangerous messaging online.
In conclusion, I have made it clear today that l am fully in favour of all children and young people being taught RSE and am against increasing parental rights to withdraw their children from the lessons that will ensure the safety, mentally and physically, of the children in my constituency, and hopefully break cycles of violence against women and the LGBT community. With such vital education the next generation should grow up to be more tolerant and knowledgeable than previous generations.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones) for leading this important debate today.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Shabana Mahmood) and applaud the powerful contribution she made. She set out clearly and articulately very sensitive and difficult issues. Like her, I have a Muslim background, and the way in which she set out the issues is really worth applauding, and I am grateful to her. The only downside is that she made many of the points that I wanted to make in my speech. However, I am conscious that there are others yet to speak, so I will shorten my speech accordingly and not repeat too much of what my hon. Friend said.
Like my hon. Friend, in recent weeks I have been contacted by many of my constituents who have expressed concerns about the proposals, and I want to put their concerns on the record today. They are absolutely clear, as am I, that the need to teach our children respect for others and tolerance, as well as how to be safe, particularly in the modern era with all the safeguarding challenges that technology and social media now bring, must remain a key consideration. However, their concerns are understandable because, as has been mentioned by hon. Members from across the Chamber, the policy has been poorly communicated to parents and schools.
Despite running for several months, the consultation process was not made known to many parents, and even schools were unaware it was running. Only now, with the implementation of the policy rapidly approaching, have parents and schools been made aware of its existence. They are deeply upset that they did not have a chance to get involved in and contribute to the consultation.
As we have heard from today’s speakers, everybody agrees that this is a sensitive issue. Much better engagement with parents is warranted, and that needs to be handled carefully, with a proper, meaningful consultation, carried out in a well informed manner. Sadly, that did not happen, and parents have concerns that they feel have been left unanswered.
Parents have also expressed concerns to me regarding the age-appropriateness of what will be taught in schools. They tell me that they are apprehensive that the content, which we do not know the details of, will not be suitable for primary school children.
Will my hon. Friend give way?
Not at the moment, because we are on the clock and I have a number of points that I want to get on the record. I may give way later.
Throughout the existing education system, the age-appropriateness of the curriculum is woven in alongside the maturity, understanding and preparedness of the children in question. To some degree, that question of preparedness and maturity is why primary school children do not sit GCSEs or A-levels. That is just one example; hon. Members have given a number of others that demonstrate that point. Age-appropriateness and preparedness must be central, yet right now there is no indication or absolute guarantee that content will be age-appropriate and suitable for primary school children.
Will my hon. Friend give way?
I will not.
Parents are also concerned about the faith-appropriateness of the content that will be taught. Importantly, parents of all faith backgrounds are high- lighting those concerns. It is not an issue for a single faith community, but one for the religious community as a collective. Again, my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Ladywood made some pertinent points about certain sections of faith communities feeling polarised and perhaps isolated in some contexts. Let us be clear: faith is, and should be, a protected characteristic that must be respected and considered whenever policy changes are made in any walk of life, including education.
I cannot emphasise enough the value of the involvement and inclusion of parents in any education policy—another point that many Members have touched on. If children are to be successful in life and to do well at school, they need not only good schools, but involved parents. We cannot leave out parents or neglect them. Parents are the final custodians of their children, making decisions on their behalf until they can responsibly make their own. That is backed up by article 14 of the United Nations convention on the rights of the child, which states:
“Governments must respect the rights and responsibilities of parents to guide their child as they grow up.”
Ultimately, any education policy must have parental oversight and include parents, complementing the work that they do at home, with their involvement and consent. I urge the Minister, after hearing the concerns of parents in my constituency and in those of other hon. Members, to consider carefully all the concerns that I have raised on their behalf, and to ensure that the involvement and consent of parents in the education of children is upheld and maintained as vital and fundamental.
Initially, the regulations will not apply to Northern Ireland, although I suspect that eventually they will. However, even though they will not apply in my constituency, I nevertheless believe that there is a fundamental issue here that Members of Parliament, regardless of where they come from, need to address.
Many arguments have been made about the importance of relationships and sex education, and the benefits of it. One thing that strikes me is that the catalogue of increased domestic violence, sexually transmitted infections, domestic abuse and so on that we have faced has come against a background of increasing sex and relationships education in schools over the years. If anyone thinks that the regulations will be a panacea, we must disabuse them of that thought.
Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?
No, I will not take any interventions, because other people wish to speak.
The core issue is the freedom of individuals and families to make decisions about what the appropriate teaching for their youngsters is. There is an irony that, on the one hand, parents can withdraw their youngster from education totally and teach them at home, but when it comes to this one particular aspect of education the right to opt out is severely curtailed. That strikes me as very odd, especially for something so sensitive.
Many parents have written to me expressing concerns, and have expressed them in briefings that I have been given, that the state is taking away from them the responsibility that they believe ultimately rests with them. Parents may well decide that the relationships education that their children are receiving in school is appropriate; however, if they decide that it is not something that they want their youngster to be taught, the right to withdraw has been taken away from them.
It is also significant that most of the publicity surrounding this matter has been about lesbian, bisexual and gay relationships; when interviewed on Radio 4, the Ofsted chief inspector zoned in on that aspect. For some parents, those are not the kind of relationships that they want their children to be taught about by a stranger. If they are going to talk about those things, parents want the ability to teach their youngsters about that themselves. At least they would have control over what was taught in that instance.
Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?
No, I will not.
It is important that the state should not have a monopoly on such issues when it comes to the teaching of youngsters. I thought it significant that many Members who have talked about the importance of the regulations and expressed opposition to opt-outs are the very people who would, in many other instances, continually quote human rights obligations.
In a whole range of international rulings, including some by the European Court of Human Rights, and in international human rights law—I do not want to quote specific legislation or rulings—time and again the emphasis is that parents should ultimately have the right to know and decide what is taught to their youngsters, and should be able, where it is contrary to their beliefs, to exercise their right not to have their youngsters subjected to that kind of teaching. They should be the people who ultimately decide what values and beliefs are instilled in their children. It is significant that that aspect seems to have been missing from most of the speeches in this debate.
My final point is that the current rules either place a big burden on teachers or give far too many rights to headteachers. Nowhere are “exceptional circumstances” defined, so headteachers who particularly want their schools to push certain lifestyles in relationships education could refuse to allow parents to opt their children out. They may regard such parents as bigots, as people with funny views, as fundamentalists or as orthodox, which they do not like.
We have to remember that the secular trend in education can be quite aggressive at times: it gives headteachers who want to push an agenda a huge ability to say, “No, you cannot remove your children, whether you like it or not, because I want them to hear this.” On the other hand, the rules may place a burden on teachers and headteachers, because they will be left to make judgments without any specific guidelines or criteria. If headteachers are given no guidance, schools will inevitably make different decisions. I believe that that will put pressure on headteachers.
For all those reasons—individual freedom, the right for families to decide what they want their youngsters to be taught, and the ability for parents rather than teachers to make the final decision in the absence of clear guidelines—I believe that the only answer is to give parents the right to opt out in all circumstances where they decide, “This is not the kind of education that I want for my children.” I do not believe that children will be disadvantaged by that.
There are plenty of other, probably more effective ways for schools to deal with issues such as domestic violence or homophobic bullying. Having pastoral care, making sure that teachers know what is happening in the classroom and the playground—those are the ways to deal with it. I do not believe that the regulations will be a panacea or that they will deal with many of the issues that hon. Members have raised today.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Sir David. I think that more of my constituents than anyone else’s have signed the petition, but my speech will be based on the particular experience of Parkfield Community School in my constituency over the past three weeks. The debate has come to a head there much earlier than elsewhere, and I have had to step in and try to broker very difficult meetings between school leaders and local parents.
The Minister will know, because I have told the Secretary of State for Education so, that I feel that parents and teachers at Parkfield have both been let down by the Department. The situation has been allowed to grow unattended for much too long and the Department’s approach has been much too ponderous. I am grateful for the hard work of certain departmental officials, but I know that if Parkfield were a local authority school, I would have had the two cabinet members responsible outside the school gates defusing the tension that has been allowed to grow and grow.
Parkfield is an outstanding school with outstanding school leaders, but we now confront a breakdown of trust between parents and the school leadership that has created unacceptable tensions. On the one hand, parents are very angry; on the other, teachers are feeling intimidated—and there was a graffiti attack on the school this morning. Both of those are absolutely unacceptable.
The tragedy is that school leaders and parents both want the same thing. Parents in my constituency are passionate about the Equality Act and are as determined to tackle homophobia as Islamophobia, but in this situation what they want is what I will fight for: the right for their voice to be heard, their role to be respected and their choice to be protected. We know that relationships education is vital to raising children in the realities of modern Britain and the modern world; it is helpful that that has been acknowledged by Members across the parties today. However, if we do not pay regard to those three basic rights of parents, we will fail in our duty as legislators.
I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Shabana Mahmood) that it is deeply disappointing that the guidance was discussed on the Floor of the House today, yet we are debating it here in the Westminster Hall Chamber. The consultation was finished months ago; obviously, it is important that Ministers strive to get the guidance right, but we have been left in the unfortunate situation where we cannot debate its detail today, nor can the Minister reflect on this debate in perfecting the guidance for the years ahead.
I will touch briefly on the three rights of parents that need to be given sharp focus in the guidance, which obviously I have not had the chance to read. First, we need to ensure that parents’ right of choice is respected. Our experience in Parkfield relates to the teaching of the Equality Act, particularly the protected characteristics in it. Although that is a different piece of legislation from the Children and Social Work Act 2017, which enables the proposed regulations, it is difficult to unpick relationships education from education that relates to a protected characteristic. All parents ask is simply that the teaching of relationships education and protected characteristics education be absolutely balanced and give equal regard to each of the characteristics, including the background of faith.
As it happens, there are many ways of teaching the Equality Act. Birmingham City Council has one toolkit, Stonewall has another—I put on the record my thanks to Ruth Hunt, former chief executive of Stonewall, for her counsel over the past week—and there are also programmes such as “No Outsiders”, developed by the school. The challenge that we have is that parents were under the impression that “No Outsiders” was the only way in which the Act could be taught. That is simply not the case, but it has meant that parents’ right of choice over the delivery of education has not been delivered in the way that we should aspire to.
Secondly, we have to respect the right of parents to be the principal educators of their children with respect to relationships education. Decisions about the age-appropriateness of material have to be made in the open, not behind closed doors. Where their relationships guidance is in collision with Equality Act education, I hope that the Secretary of State and the Minister will clarify what is what—and, crucially, which matters do and do not enjoy the right to withdrawal. At the moment, I am afraid, there is wholesale confusion among parents and among teachers.
Thirdly, we have to ensure that parents’ voices are heard all the way through the process. “No Outsiders” may well have been a path-breaking process, and there were lots of workshops when it was first undertaken, but those workshops were four years ago. Consultation must not be a one-off; it must be a constant golden thread running through the delivery of Equality Act education and relationships education.
In light of the new guidance published today, I am afraid that “No Outsiders” will have to be comprehensively overhauled and refreshed because of the substantial overlap between the two kinds of teaching. I hope that today the Minister will guarantee that the three basic rights of parents—the right to have their voice heard, the right to have their role respected and, crucially, their right of choice—will be protected as the school reworks its teaching over the months ahead.
My final point is the same as that made with such brilliance and eloquence by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Ladywood. I understand that the guidance will create particular guidelines for how relationships education is taught in primary schools. I understand that it will be down to the school to choose whether some kind of sexual component will be included in that teaching, but it is not clear whether there will be a right to withdraw from relationships education, because we were given to understand that there is no such right.
If a school chooses to take a particular path, what is the accountability mechanism for parents to disagree and bend the course of that decision? We simply cannot have a two-class system in which the parents of a pupil at a local education authority school can go to councillors in order to make their argument heard, whereas it appears the parents of a pupil at an academy would have to go through their Member of Parliament up to the Secretary of State and try to influence the situation that way. I am afraid that that will lead to our having more and more parents who simply withdraw their children or, as is the case at Parkfield, organise demonstrations outside the school gates. What kind of atmosphere is that creating? We know that there will be some gay children at Parkfield. How on earth do they feel when graffiti is daubed on the building and protests are held outside the school gate? That is not the sign of an accountability mechanism that is working satisfactorily; it is the sign of one that is failing.
I hope the Minister will reflect on the experience we have had in my constituency. I hope that he will be able to continue to work with Parkfield at speed as it works through the new way its curriculum will need to be developed and delivered in the light of the guidance issued this afternoon. I hope that he will reflect on some fundamental points. The first is to clear up the overlap between Equalities Act education and relationships education—clear up what will and will not come with the right to withdrawal. Crucially, if rights to withdrawal are to be withdrawn, the Government need to set out more clearly the mechanisms by which parents can influence and change a decision taken by academies, which to many of us seem impervious to local opinion.
On Friday, I wrote to the leader of Birmingham City Council and to the former chief executive of Stonewall to suggest that we create a proper consultation mechanism locally, in which we can take the brilliant work that has been undertaken in the education equalities toolkit but also bring to the table the views of faith leaders and the expertise of organisations such as Stonewall. I hope that will allow us to create a process that gives parents confidence that their views on age appropriateness are being taken into account, that faith background is being respected, and that consultation is being undertaken. The truth is that although the accountability mechanism might well be able to steer LEA schools, it will be a pretty voluntarist approach for academies. That is a recipe for problems in the future.
I hope that all of this will have been taken into account in the guidance, with great clairvoyance by the Minister. If it has not, I urge him to bring that guidance back to the House and reflect seriously on the concerns we have heard from Members of all parties this afternoon.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David, as I often do in this place. I thank the hon. Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones) for bringing the petition before the House and setting the scene—she took many interventions.
There has been a divergence of opinion among contributors so far, and I want to make it quite clear that my contribution will be along the lines of parental rights. I want to maintain that in my speech and am clear in what I am saying. In the past I have made my concerns known in the House about the proposals to limit the right of withdrawal from sex education. It is a shame that the Government have not listened to my views or to those of many esteemed colleagues, and that we have to debate this issue again.
This morning I spoke to the Secretary of State for Education, who I knew would be making a statement in the Chamber today. We talked about this matter at some length. To be honest, at the end of the discussion I gently and kindly said to him, “Minister, unfortunately you and I will have to agree to disagree.” We have a very clear difference of opinion on what the Government are trying achieve and where they are going on parental rights.
Prior to the draft regulations and the guidance published in July 2018, I was quite hopeful that the Government would uphold the parental role and responsibility in relationships and sex education. When we discussed the Children and Social Work Bill on Report, the Minister’s approach seemed to be pretty balanced, and I thought we were moving in the right direction. Parents are of course the primary educators and guides of their children, which we should not forget. They play a central role both in helping their children to grow up into successful adults and in protecting them from harm—that is the responsibility of the parent. However, parents are telling us that they want schools to help them to deal with complex and fast-moving issues to ensure that their children grow up equipped with the knowledge and the skills they need to be safe and successful.
The Government have set their scene very clearly. However, the draft regulations and the guidance were sadly lacking in the help they have provided parents as the primary educators and guides of their children. Parental responsibility has been taken away, and the final decision of whether children at secondary school undertake sex education might soon be in the hands of headteachers rather than parents.
I asked for a legal opinion on what has been put forward. It seems to me that the regulations as published have not changed the parental right of withdrawal, which remains with the headteacher. The legal opinion that I have sought states:
“If any parent or any pupil in attendance at a maintained school requests that the pupil may be wholly or partly excused from sex education provided as part of statutory relationships and sex education, the pupil must be so excused until the request is withdrawn unless, or to the extent, that the head teacher considers that the pupil should not be so excused.”
It is clear that the headteacher takes over the role and does not allow the parent to provide the type of input into the process that I would like to see. During the passage of the Children and Social Work Act 2017, there was no indication from the Government that they were moving in this direction. There was no mention at all of headteachers assuming a responsibility that has always been with parents. It is one thing for parents to ask for help from schools, but quite another for them to ask for their authority to be supplanted—it is entirely different. Would those same parents who ask for help deem what the Government have proposed to be a help or an incursion and overreach? My guess is that it would be latter.
Much of the debate comes down to an understanding of the boundary between the family and the state. Government seem to have decided that headteachers—not parents—now know best for children, which should not be the case. They seem simply not to trust parents, and it is a profoundly dangerous precedent to set. There is certainly an interesting comparison to be made with the right of parents to withdraw children from religious education and worship at school. Section 71 of the School Standards and Framework Act 1998 states:
“If the parent of a pupil at a community, foundation or voluntary school requests that he may be wholly or partly excused—
(a) from receiving religious education given in the school in accordance with the school’s basic curriculum,
(b) from attendance at religious worship in the school, or
(c) both from receiving such education and from such attendance,
the pupil shall be so excused until the request is withdrawn.”
The right of withdrawal from religious education and worship has remained uncontested since 1998. I imagine that if the Government were proposing to remove that right from parents, colleagues of different parties—both those with or without a religious background—would be rightly outraged, yet the Government have deemed it appropriate to undercut the authority and the responsibility of parents on relationships and sex education. RSE includes some of the most contentious topics taught in school, and it is a perfect example of where parents will want to exercise their rights, as outlined in article 2 of the first protocol of the European convention on human rights, which the hon. Member for Bradford East (Imran Hussain) spoke about. It states:
“In the exercise of any functions which it assumes in relation to education and to teaching, the State shall respect the right of parents to ensure such education and teaching is in conformity with their own religious and philosophical convictions.”
That is what I believe the Government should be doing. These are issues of a personal nature—matters of morality, and it is best left for parents to decide how to raise their children. It is not for the state to decide the morality and standards of each family in the United Kingdom. It is for those families and parents to decide, and it should not be otherwise. Someone might not agree with how I bring up my children and I might not agree with how they bring up theirs, but fundamental to the values of a democratic society is our respect of the privacy of each other’s family life at home and our upholding of the freedom of conscience, thought and religion. That is what I believe and, although I suspect many hon. Members present believe that too, others may have a slightly different opinion.
I understand that it is right that we do not press our faith or religion on others. That is why parents have the right to withdraw their children from religious education—I understand, respect and accept that. I implore colleagues—particularly the Minister, whose responsibility it is to respond to our remarks—to understand that it is not right for headteachers or the state to press their values and morality on parents by not allowing them to withdraw their children from relationships and sex education.
Sadly, as colleagues have also noted, it is fairly impossible to understand how a right of withdrawal would actually work in practice, given the blurry line between relationships education and sex education. In reality, sex does not take place in a relationship vacuum, so we should not teach it in such a way—we must be careful about how it is taught. I understand that the Government’s draft guidance to schools addresses that point, which is another example of something that the Government have said that is correct. The end result, however, seems to leave a void.
It is nonsensical to stress that relationships and sex education should be taught in an integrated way, as one subject, and then to allow parents to withdraw their children from sex education. That will present overwhelming challenges both to schools as they draw up their curriculum and to parents as they try to figure out when and how they can make the request for their child to be excused in the light of the interlinked nature of the subject. As I see it, the Government have an easy solution to those problems: put back into the regulations a right for parents to withdraw their children, and extend that right to both relationships education and sex education. That is a simple fix that is entirely in the Government’s power to implement, given that they have not yet laid the regulations before the House. That can easily be done now with a consultation process before the potential legislation.
As you were very clear on the time limits, Sir David, I will conclude my remarks. I ask the Minister to listen to my concerns and those of my esteemed colleagues and not to push forward with the radical change that will diminish and undermine parents and parental control. I implore him to uphold families and parental responsibility and authority.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Sir David, and to have sat through the wide range of contributions to the debate—that is probably the only way I can describe them. Although I appreciate that this is a contentious issue, it is not a difficult one. The petition is about potential rights, but at the heart of the issue are children’s rights and, unfortunately, some of the speakers have forgotten that.
As far as I am aware, I am the only member of the LGBT community to speak in the debate. I am a lesbian, and I started primary school in Scotland during the year that section 28 came into force. This year, my four-and-a-half-year-old niece will start school in Scotland, during the first year that inclusive education is introduced. That is a source of great pride for me. However, as the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) mentioned —unfortunately she is no longer in her place—the kind of bullying that I and some of my friends and colleagues experienced, and that is still experienced in schools, happens because of a fundamental lack of education, understanding and tolerance. I absolutely respect the rights of religious communities and of parents, but if they want an inclusive society—each religious group wants to be not just tolerated, but accepted— surely the best way to do that is for our children to be properly educated in their schools about the range of families, religions and people in our society.
The issue is of course devolved and I take on board the points made by a number of hon. Members about the implementation and the stress and concern that that has caused in some communities. That is regrettable. None of us is perfect—no Government or party—but from a Scottish perspective, the majority of parents in Scotland want schools to teach RSE: 92% in 2016 according to an independent poll for the PSHE Association. I want to highlight that Scottish perspective.
As has been said, nearly half of LGBT pupils—45%—are bullied for being LGBT. I am sure that some hon. Members will be aware of the work of Laura Bates, the founder of the Everyday Sexism Project, and writer of many an excellent column and book, most recently “Misogynation”, which I would suggest all hon. Members add to their reading lists. In her work, she recalls how young women described it as normal to be groped or sexually assaulted while wearing their school uniforms, and the shock that she experienced about the level of misconception and myth surrounding ideas about sexual relationships among young people.
A number of hon. Members have made the point about tracking the number of children in each school who are being taken out of RSE, and having discussions with their parents about how and what they are teaching their children is a sensible idea. I understand that some parents will have concerns about that, but surely a responsible parent with nothing to hide who has taken their child out of RSE should have no concerns about whether or not a school wants to support them in that decision. So many vulnerable children are being taken out of RSE. Are they not the ones who need that education and support? That goes to the heart of the matter.
Laura Bates also highlights the phenomenon of online harm, which I am conscious of as the SNP spokesperson on the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee. Although I only managed to catch part of the Secretary of State’s speech before I came to this debate, Laura Bates points out how drastically outdated the UK Government’s current guidelines are: it is 19 years since they were last updated. In Scotland, we updated ours in 2014 and they are about to be updated again. One in 25 primary-aged children are sent a naked image by an adult according to research by the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.
Educators have the responsibility to teach young people not only about sex and relationships, but about related issues, such as consent, conducting respectful relationships and the nature of unsafe relationships and abuse. I appreciate that in some quarters my view may not be popular, but it can only be damaging for a parent to take a child out of that vital education if they are not trained to an appropriate level and have the appropriate knowledge to prepare their child for what they will face. The hon. Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones), who spoke so powerfully in her speech, rightly said that although parents may be able to control what their children have on their phones or on the home computer—that is debateable and today there was a concerning article in The Times about the app TikTok, which asks children to strip—they have no control over what other children will show and put in front of their children.
It is only right and sensible, therefore, that any Government put the duty of care and safety of children first, and ensure that that education is holistic and informative. If children are not provided with that education, they will clearly be left exposed. As for the existing guidance for teaching relationships education or RSE, I think it is fair to say that repeal of a piece of legislation, or changing it, does not take away the problem. When we repealed section 28, we put nothing in its place. Children are still subjected to bullying, and not just to that.
LGBT young people, in particular in the trans community, have staggering rates of self-harm—80% or 90%. At the moment, a difficult and damaging debate is raging about trans rights. In reality—I think the hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Shabana Mahmood) made reference to this and gave her views—while the adults all argue about definitions and rights, children are much further ahead of them. When I talk to my local LGBT group, the Glitter Cannons, I find that some of those young people are much better informed than most of the adults I know. The reality is that those discussions and that education are taking place outside schools.
In Scotland, our LGBT education will be world leading. I pay tribute to the Time for Inclusive Education campaign, Stonewall, LGBT Youth Scotland and my colleagues in the Scottish Government, in particular John Swinney and Christina McKelvie, who were bold and brave and brought that policy forward. They consulted widely, although I know that people still have concerns, which we must work constructively on, as I hope and know the Minister will on the concerns expressed by Members about the legislation in England and Wales. In Scotland, however, our world-leading LGBT education policy will have no exemptions or opt-outs. It will embed LGBTI-inclusive education across the curriculum and subjects, which the Scottish Government believe to be a world first.
We talk about religious tolerance and freedom, but every religion has a spectrum. I am always minded to mention Vicky Beeching, who is a champion of inclusion and diversity in the Christian faith. She is a lesbian but also identifies as an evangelical Christian. When she came out a few years ago, before I came out, I had a discussion with her at an event about her experience. She faced a huge backlash and huge persecution, but she pressed on. Vicky’s book, “Undivided”, is absolutely worth the read—another one for Members to add to their reading list—and in it she talked about the reading and interpretation of the Bible and religious texts, and how certain communities can, for their own ends, interpret texts in a certain way. As we move on, as society progresses and evolves, people read those texts in different ways. I am not about to preach to any religion about how to look at its texts, but it is interesting that someone such as Vicky from the Christian community can talk from a scholarly and theological perspective about the Christian faith and how some in that faith have interpreted what the Bible says about LGBT people. It is vital to ensure that in our schools and societies, we recognise how society has moved on.
Pornography has become a huge issue, as many Members said, affecting young people’s sense of self and issues that they will come up against regarding consent. Not only in pornography but in advertising in general how our bodies are portrayed—how we should look, how women should look—is hugely damaging. If we do not teach our children how to interpret that and how to have meaningful, consensual and well-developed relationships, we are setting them up for spectacular failure. Some might argue that it is not for us legislators to interfere, but I absolutely take very seriously my responsibilities as an elected parliamentarian to ensure that children, wherever they are, are properly educated and prepared.
I am sure that the Minister will respond to the concerns expressed by some, and I take on board some concerns expressed by my own constituents, but I am also conscious of what the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) said: that there seems to be quite a lot of misinformation. The petition states:
“We have grave concerns about…about certain sexual and relational concepts”,
but it does not go into specifics. A lot of misinformation has seeped out into the public domain, and it is important that we counter it.
An incredible wealth of literature is out there to counter some of the narratives about sex, relationships and consent. I pay tribute to Lucy-Anne Holmes, the founder of the No More Page 3 campaign—it is a shame that the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion is no longer present, because she famously wore that T-shirt in the Chamber. Lucy-Anne Holmes did a huge amount for feminism, not only when she and her feminist colleagues managed to get rid of topless women on page 3, but in her work since then. She has just brought out a book, “Don’t Hold My Head Down”, which is a memoir about sex—another one for Members to add to their reading list. It talks about her journey into self-love and empowerment through sex, and about what healthy sex and relationships should and could look like.
When I read that book, it was almost like going on a journey through my own experiences. The reality is that so many of our young people are growing up in abusive relationships because they experience them at home or see them on television and in other media, and they do not understand what should be respectful and consensual. We must absolutely give them the best start in life by having inclusive education and doing everything we can to ensure that they are supported, can have fulfilling lives and, above all, are safe and protected.
It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David, but especially in this critical debate. I thank all Members who have taken part: the hon. Members for Henley (John Howell), for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), for Bolton West (Chris Green), for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas), for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson), for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for Livingston (Hannah Bardell), my hon. Friends the Members for Birmingham, Ladywood (Shabana Mahmood), for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy), for Bradford West (Naz Shah), for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) and for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick), and my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Liam Byrne). Everyone made excellent speeches.
The Government are right to be doing what they are doing. The common good is the maximum utility for the most number of people, but always with a preferential option for those who cannot go along with the decisions. My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Ladywood whetted my appetite regarding the culture wars today, but we must be careful not to engage in them. Government should and have a right to govern and bring forward guidance on this matter.
I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones), a woman with stunning oratory. She has absolutely brought due diligence to her work on the Petitions Committee and to introducing the debate today. She made powerful points that opened the debate up. I look forward to her soaring oratory when she winds up.
I just mentioned the common good; interestingly, the same concept exists in Judaism—tikkun olam—and in Islamic social thought, but we need to think about what that is. The hon. Member for East Antrim was right—I agreed with him—about one thing. As a school teacher myself, I used to rail against politicians in this place who thought that the answer to every social problem in our country was to get it on the school curriculum. It is not. Parents are the primary educators and we should remember that. The hon. Members for East Antrim and for Strangford might be on one side and the hon. Member for Livingston and my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse slightly on the other side, but I think there was a great degree of consensus in the debate.
A champion of RSE was my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion), who got it included in the Children and Social Work Act 2017. Deciding what is in the national curriculum in social work Acts or amendments to them is not the proper way forward, or what I would want if I was in government, but she championed it, she won and here we are today. It is a shame that we did not have the guidance that would have informed this debate, and that the Secretary of State was on his feet in the main Chamber at the same time, but these are the circumstances in which we find ourselves. Proposals made by the Secretary of State at the time, the right hon. Member for Putney (Justine Greening), included making elements of PHSE mandatory in all schools and making new subjects—relationships education and relationships and sex education—mandatory at primary and secondary level respectively.
In the past, RSE was seen as an add-on, taught for an hour every fortnight by someone whose job it was not, or by an outside agency brought in to tick a particular box. That was backed up by the evidence of the Department for Education’s own data, which showed that time spent teaching PHSE fell 32% between 2011 and 2015. As a former PHSE co-ordinator I attribute some of that fall to my coming to Parliament.
High-quality relationships and sex education helps to create safe school communities where pupils can grow, learn and develop positive, healthy behaviour for life. Inadequate RSE leaves pupils vulnerable to abuse or exploitation, without an understanding of how to negotiate risky situations or where to go to for help. Statutory RSE needs to be part of the overall teacher training programme, and any qualified teachers whose role includes teaching it must be appropriately equipped and resourced. It needs to be done sensitively.
I taught year 5, including the sex education programme, for a number of years. There was a really well-developed policy through the Standing Advisory Council for Religious Education, local religious organisations and the local education authority. There was a sense of subsidiarity in how it was done in local areas. We lose that slightly through the multi-academy trust system, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill, pointed out. The policy was overseen by the headteacher, we held consultation meetings with all the parents of that class, we did one-to-ones, and we had an accelerated learning programme where objectives were clearly marked out and outcomes noted. It was done late into the term, when I had established good relationships with each child. It was overseen by a parent governor—Mrs Rocca in my case, who was also the school’s secretary—who would sit in on some of the lessons if the headteacher did not.
I would present myself at the school gates at the end of every day of those lessons, to ensure parents could interact with me. At the end of the lesson, when we had reached the objectives, the children could place a question into the pot and we would have an open, honest and constructive conversation about the questions they had. It was done really well at my school; I taught it well, but it was down to really strong leadership from the headteacher.
The Minister needs to outline what budget and resources his Department has identified to support schools, such as the school where I taught, so that teachers can deliver RSE effectively. The Government’s draft guidance clearly sets out the rights of parents and carers to withdraw pupils from sex education, but not relationships education. It also notes that the role of parents in the development of their children’s understanding of relationships is vital—they are the primary educators—and that all schools should work closely with parents when planning and delivering these subjects, to ensure all children and young people receive age-appropriate RSE. The Minister will probably touch upon whether it will be the same for LEA schools as for free schools and academies. We know there are differences in how the national curriculum is delivered.
For primary schools, the draft guidance states that headteachers will automatically grant a request to withdraw a pupil from any sex education that is not part of the science curriculum. For secondary schools, parents will still have a right to request to withdraw children from all sex education delivered as part of statutory RSE, and the request will be granted in all but exceptional circumstances. That will apply up until three terms before a child turns 16, at which point a child will be able to opt in to sex education if they so choose. The guidance is also clear that as primary educators, parents must be consulted on their school’s curriculum for relationships and relationships and sex education.
Children need to be taught what a coercive relationship is, whether violent or sexual. The Government have done remarkable work and I commend the Prime Minister —I rarely say that—on her work to combat human trafficking and the problems it creates. Children need to be taught what is appropriate and what is not when they meet people.
There is a danger that without a clearer steer from Government there will be big variations in what schools deem consultation with parents to be. That was the key message of the eloquent speech from my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill, about the issues at Parkfield. Will the Minister indicate what guidance and support will be available for primary schools to engage with parents on the RSE curriculum?
Views expressed through the consultation are helping to shape the final regulations and guidance, and the Department for Education expects to lay the regulations in spring 2019, alongside final draft guidance. We are expecting schools to be ready to deliver the statutory RSE curriculum in September, so there is not much time for consultation with parents and appropriate training and resources for teachers. Will the Minister outline the consideration he has given to the ability of schools to deliver within those timescales?
RSE is sensitive and can be emotive. Our priority has to be to keep our children healthy and safe. Like many in this Chamber, I believe that age-appropriate RSE should be a statutory subject in schools in order to teach children about mutual respect and the importance of healthy relationships. Its role does not end there. Greater Manchester Police are increasingly worried about child exploitation, but they are more worried about criminal child exploitation. Last year, just short of 10,000 children were off-rolled in years 9 and 10. The state had no idea where those children were. I have criticised the Minister about that, because it makes our young people hugely vulnerable.
The hon. Gentleman makes a particularly pertinent point. The rise in the development of apps and threats to children online are so quick that many parents cannot keep up. Parents who take their children out of school will not have the information to give them the help and support they will need.
I am sympathetic to that argument, but schools are increasingly off-rolling children and they are not being taught. The key vulnerability is in the home, but there are children outside who are not in school, which is a breeding ground for criminals who want to exploit children. I congratulate the hon. Lady on her powerful personal testimony.
Children must know their rights if they are to exercise them throughout their lives. Relationships and sex education is most effective when it sits as part of a whole-school approach embedded across the curriculum with well-trained staff, with an option for those with religious beliefs to have an input in that system. The Government must ensure schools have the resources to deliver that.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship yet again, Sir David. I welcome today’s debate on the right to withdraw from relationships and sex education, and the opportunity to set out clearly the rationale for the very significant reforms and to support all pupils’ social, personal and academic development. I congratulate the hon. Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones) on her excellent introduction to the debate, and I thank her for her support for the draft guidance and the regulation.
It has been a debate of powerful speeches that reflect the wide range of views on what can be a controversial subject. The array of views in the Chamber reflects the array of views in society more widely. The Government have sought to distil those views in the statutory guidance to reflect those disparate viewpoints. It has been carefully crafted and has received widespread support.
The hon. Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East (Mike Kane) asked whether the subject will be compulsory in all schools. The answer is yes, both in local authority maintained schools and in academies and free schools. It has not been introduced through the national curriculum but through the basic curriculum, which means it applies to all schools. We are committed to supporting schools through training and further advice, to share best practice. We are allocating £6 million in 2019-20 to develop a support programme for schools. It will be compulsory from September 2020, which gives time for schools to prepare, although we are encouraging early adopters to introduce it from this September.
The Children and Social Work Act 2017 placed a duty on the Secretary of State for Education to make relationships education compulsory for all primary schools, and relationships and sex education compulsory for all secondary schools. It also provided a power to carefully consider the status of personal, social, health and economic education, or elements thereof. Following a call for evidence, and having listened to concerns about equipping children for life in modern Britain—particularly concerns about safeguarding, mental health and online safety—we decided to make health education compulsory in all state-funded schools.
The focus of health education in primary schools is on teaching the characteristics of good physical health and mental wellbeing. That starts with pupils being taught about the benefits of daily exercise, good nutrition and sufficient sleep. It includes teaching about simple self-care techniques, about personal hygiene, bacteria and viruses, about good dental health and flossing, and about basic first aid. Emphasis is given to the positive relationship between good physical health and mental wellbeing, and to the benefits of spending time outdoors.
It was clear from responses to the call for evidence that many people wanted pupils to be better equipped to manage the online world. That has been reflected in the debate, including in the last couple of speeches. Pupils therefore will be taught about the benefits of rationing time online and the risks of excessive use of electronic devices. Schools should also consider how these subjects collectively can support the development of important attributes in pupils, such as honesty and truthfulness, kindness, consideration and respect, permission seeking and giving, and the concept of personal privacy.
I hope hon. Members will acknowledge the very clear and carefully crafted guidance we are providing to teachers for these subjects, including how we determined the required content for relationships education in primary schools and for relationships and sex education in secondary schools. We have listened to the breadth of views that have been expressed and ensured that any developments, including on the right to withdraw, remain consistent with the guiding principles for these subjects, which Parliament endorsed during the passage of the Children and Social Work Act.
Our guiding principle, therefore, is that these subjects should help keep children safe, which includes knowing the law on relationships, sex and health. Of course, that includes age-appropriate teaching about relationships that primary-age pupils need to understand—about building caring friendships and dealing with the ups and downs of friendships, for example. We have set out how schools can acknowledge respectfully that some pupils sitting in their classrooms may have same-sex parents or, indeed, a different family model. That is why the guidance states that pupils should be taught that
“others’ families, either in school or in the wider world, sometimes look different from their family, but that they should respect those differences and know that other children’s families are also characterised by love and care.”
We worked closely with a wide range of stakeholders to carefully craft the guidance in a way that is sensitive. The guidance states:
“In teaching Relationships Education and RSE, schools should ensure that the needs of all pupils are appropriately met, and that all pupils understand the importance of equality and respect. Schools must ensure that they comply with the relevant provisions of the Equality Act 2010…under which sexual orientation and gender reassignment are amongst the protected characteristics.”
“Schools should ensure that all of their teaching is…age appropriate in approach and content. At the point at which schools consider it appropriate to teach their pupils about LGBT, they should ensure that this content is fully integrated into their programmes of study for this area of the curriculum rather than delivered as a standalone unit or lesson. Schools are free to determine how they do this, and we expect all pupils to have been taught LGBT content at a timely point as part of this area of the curriculum.”
That guidance was carefully crafted to create a coalition of the widest support, and I have been pleased to see a range of stakeholders acknowledge that today.
I am listening to the Minister very carefully. What will be the mechanism for resolving disputes where parents disagree with the judgment a school has come to?
I will come to that in a moment.
The Church of England’s chief education officer, Rev. Nigel Genders, said:
“If adopted, these guidelines will equip schools and teachers to help children and young people gain the skills and knowledge to understand and value one another within a pluralistic society.”
We have had similar support from the Catholic Education Service.
All schools, whether religious or not, will be required to take the religious beliefs of their pupils into account when they decide to deliver certain content, to ensure that topics are appropriately handled. However, it is of course vital that, by the time they become adults and participate in British society, pupils understand, respect and value all the protected characteristics in the Equality Act 2010. The Department trusts schools to make the right decisions about what and when they teach their pupils about topics, including equalities.
I thank the Minister for giving way. He is one of the Ministers that I think many of us in the Chamber massively respect due to the way he tries to do his job. I warmly welcome what he said about health education in our schools. We have had two tragedies involving young people in my constituency recently, and there is a growing awareness of how vital it is to teach mental wellbeing, particularly among young people, given the challenges they face.
However, who in the Government is responsible for assessing the cumulative impact on religious freedom of relationships and sex education, the regulation of private schools, and Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government guidance on schools’ integration duties? Religious freedom is cast aside all too often in our society. That question is particularly important in circumstances where Ofsted takes a different view from a school. The guidance states that schools should be able to teach these things in a way that is consistent with their religious ethos, but who does a school consult when making decisions about what it is able to do in a way that is consistent with its religious ethos, without Ofsted intervening and making—certainly in some cases—inappropriate decisions?
The hon. Gentleman raises some very good points. We take these issues extremely seriously. We continually meet religious groups from right across the spectrum to discuss these very sensitive issues. He raised the issue of Ofsted. In common with other curriculum areas, Ofsted will not make a discrete judgment on the delivery of relationships education or RSE, but the proposed new Ofsted framework continues to set out the expectation that inspectors will consider the spiritual, moral and cultural development of pupils as well as a broad and balanced curriculum when informing the judgment of a school. We are of course in discussion with Ofsted the whole time to ensure that it enforces these rules in a sensitive way that reflects the religious background of the schools it inspects.
We have been clear that parents and carers are the primary teachers of these topics, and that these subjects are designed to complement and reinforce the role of parents by building on what children learn at home. That is why we have retained parents’ ability to request that their child be withdrawn from the sex education elements of RSE should they wish. I assure my hon. Friends the Members for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) and for Bolton West (Chris Green) that the draft guidance preserves that parental right but also reflects the rights of a young person who is competent to make their own decision.
I repeat that the guidelines indicate that, in exceptional circumstances, a headteacher may refuse such a request. I would be grateful if the Minister addressed that. The guidelines also state:
“Schools should ensure that parents know what will be taught and when”.
There is concern about how parents will be informed when relationships education becomes relationships and sex education, and the right of withdrawal becomes effective. How will that be monitored? Is that going to be left to Ofsted, or is there going to be more sensitive monitoring? In the light of the concerns that have been expressed, perhaps such monitoring would be appropriate.
I understand my hon. Friend’s point, which was also made passionately by the right hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) and the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). I reiterate and refer all hon. Members, including my hon. Friend, to paragraph 47 of the guidance, which clearly says—and I acknowledge what she quoted—that
“except in exceptional circumstances, the school should respect the parents’ request to withdraw the child.”
That is clearly set out and schools have to have regard to those requirements.
Going further, the school has to set out its policy on its website—I will come to that in my comments—and it has to consult parents. There are sections in the guidance that clearly set out that schools should be consulting and working with parents when they are developing their policies for relationships and sex education, and when the right to withdraw will apply, so that parents are aware of what their child’s school will be teaching and when. When schools are introducing the curriculum they should be consulting parents.
I reflect the point made by the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Liam Byrne). As new generations and cohorts of parents and children go through, the school will want to continue to re-consult on the same curriculum, even if they are not changing it. The school needs to consult current parents, not just the parents from five or six years ago.
The hon. Member for Bury South (Mr Lewis) is right that the Minister responds very well to comments that are put forward. I remind the Minister that, in my contribution, I referred to the regulation that states:
“If the parent of any pupil in attendance at a maintained school in England requests that the pupil may be wholly or partly excused from sex education provided as part of statutory relationships and sex education, the pupil must be so excused until the request is withdrawn, unless or to the extent that the head teacher considers that the pupil should not be so excused.”
Despite what the Minister says, it seems to me that the end result is that headmaster or the principal can overrule the parent, which I think is wrong.
I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point. We have to take into account a range of views. Headteachers will want to respect the views of parents, but there may be exceptional circumstances. I do not want to iterate them in the debate, nor do we want to set them out, but there may be exceptional circumstances with a particular child when it is necessary to refuse the right the withdraw them. They will be very exceptional circumstances.
The previous position was that parents had the right to withdraw their child from sex education until the age of 18-years-old. That cut-off point for the right to withdraw is now untenable, as it is incompatible with developments in English case law and with the European convention on human rights. Therefore, we have sought to deliver a sensible new position that suitably balances the rights of parents with the rights of young people. We believe that we have done that sensitively and effectively. Parents will be able to request that their child be withdrawn from sex education and that request should—unless there are exceptional circumstances—be granted, up until three terms before the child becomes 16-years-old, at which point the child can decide to opt in. If a child takes that decision, the school should ensure that they receive teaching in one of those three terms.
As with other aspects of the regulations and guidance, we have tested this position with expert organisations, including teaching unions, a wide range of faith groups and subject associations, including the Association of Muslim Schools, the Board of Deputies of British Jews, the United Synagogue, Parentkind, the National Police Chief's Council, the NSPCC, Barnardo’s, Mumsnet, Mencap, the Centre of expertise on child sexual abuse, the Council for Disabled Children and many others. They are listed in the response to the consultation.
We have seen huge support today for the incredible step we are taking with the new guidance and regulations. The guidance further stipulates the need for parental engagement during the development of the RSE policies. Good practice should include demonstrating to parents the type of age-appropriate resources that will be used in teaching. The regulations stipulate schools must have an up to date written statement of their policy, which must be published and available free of charge to anyone. We continue to be clear that parents should understand the content of all three subjects, and that schools should work to understand and allay parental concerns where possible. To respond to the point made by the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill, we have been working with Parkfield Community School and the council to try to resolve the issue in a supportive manner. The regional schools commissioner has been closely involved in the situation and in meetings that have happened since the problem first arose.
Will the Minister give way?
I am so sorry, but I will not as there is only five minutes to go. The hon. Lady referred to consultation with parents. The draft regulations and guidance outlining this content are the fruition of an extensive public engagement process and call for evidence that received over 23,000 submissions. That evidence was used to develop the draft regulations, statutory guidance and regulatory impact assessment, and was the subject of a public consultation that ran from July to November 2018. There were over 40,000 engagements, over 11,000 submissions and 29,000 signatures on two petitions.
I appreciate the Minister’s comments about how schools are expected to behave as a result of the new guidance, but he has still not addressed the material point about what happens when schools and parents disagree. What is the mechanism for resolving that dispute? What rights will parents have in that process? The process he outlined in relation to Parkfield was made up as he went along, and is not a process that parents can rely on as the guidance is rolled out.
Ultimately, decisions have to be taken about what the policy is for a school, but the school has to consult. If there are concerns that the school has not consulted properly, then there are a raft of complaints processes for academies and local authority schools that ultimately escalate to the school complaints unit in the Department for Education and the Secretary of State will take a decision, although that will usually be delegated to officials. There are processes for complaints—they will go through academies and the regional schools commissioner. The Department works closely with schools that are facing these challenging circumstances.
These subjects now present an incredible opportunity through updated regulations and guidance. The guidance on these issues had not been updated since 2000, since when we have had significant development in terms of the internet, and all the new risks and problems facing this generation of children. I trust that I have demonstrated the value that relationships education, as well as sex education and health education, offers children growing up in an increasingly complex and diverse world. Importantly, I hope that I have reassured that the position on the right to withdraw from sex education reflects our clear respect for the value and rights of parents.
It has been a very interesting debate, and I thank all those who contributed to it. We heard some powerful personal testimony from my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) and the hon. Member for Livingston (Hannah Bardell). We also heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Wythenshawe and Sale East (Mike Kane) exactly how such education should be conducted in schools, in partnership between the school and parents. We heard from my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Liam Byrne) and my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Shabana Mahmood) what happens when that process breaks down, although I would point out that at the moment schools are not working under the guidelines; it is a completely different set of circumstances.
We also heard from those with concerns about the policy. However, I wish that they would set out exactly what those concerns are, because I suspect—perhaps my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford East (Imran Hussain) would have been able to tell me if he had given way to me—that many of the concerns that parents have relate to what they have been told about what is happening, rather than what is happening itself. Schools are still undergoing the process of developing the curriculum and the materials that they will use. We also heard the views of the right hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson), including his view that domestic violence has not subsided. I do not know how he can make that point, because domestic violence was not even considered a crime for many years.
All in all there is great support for what the Government are doing. We hope that they will provide the resources and support for teachers to implement it properly. I look forward to seeing more of our children being kept safe and able to form healthy, good relationships in future.
Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(14)).