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Relationship Education in Schools

Volume 663: debated on Tuesday 16 July 2019

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Education if he will make a statement on what steps he is taking to counter misinformation about the content of relationship education in schools.

This spring, Parliament passed the relationships, sex and health education regulations with overwhelming support. We know that many parents agree that these subjects should be taught by schools. We also know that for some parents, this raises concerns. Parents have a right to understand what we are requiring schools to teach and how their child’s school is intending to go about it. That is why we will be requiring schools to consult parents on their relationship education or RSE policy. Open and constructive dialogue can only work, however, if the facts of the situation are known to all.

We are aware that misinformation is circulating about what schools currently teach about relationships and what they will teach when the new subjects are introduced. The Department for Education has undertaken a number of activities in response. In April this year, we published frequently asked questions designed to bust myths on the subjects. They have been translated into three languages. In June, we published the final version of the relationships, sex and health education guidance, as well as guides for parents on the subjects. Alongside that, we produced infographics that can be easily shared on social media—including WhatsApp, where we know much of the misinformation is shared—setting out the facts. We also sent an email to almost 40,000 teachers, providing them with factual information and links to various documents.

The Department has also been working on the ground with Birmingham City Council, Parkfield School, parents and other interested parties to convey the facts of the policy and dispel myths, to support a resolution to the protests in that school and nearby Anderton Park School. Nationally, we have worked with the National Association of Head Teachers to understand where there might be parent concerns in other parts of the country and to offer support. We will continue those efforts to support the introduction of the new subjects, which we strongly believe are hugely important for children growing up in modern Britain.

I am sure that Members from across the whole House will join me in affirming the importance of accepting that people have different family relationships and that it is not the shape or set-up of your family that matters, but only that you are loved and cared for.

Passing the Equality Act 2010 was rightly a proud moment for our country, but these rights remain only for as long as we fight to keep them. Respect and equality are the true British values. There is no reason to treat sexuality any differently from the way that we discuss any other part of the Equality Act, or families that may have a difference in age or even a disability. The misinformation is vast and in danger of spreading. With respect to the Minister, whatever efforts the Department has been making to counter that misinformation have clearly not worked.

It is clear from last night’s “Panorama” programme that protests against relationship education are growing across the country. Over 70 schools are now experiencing pressure and intimidation because school leaders are fulfilling their legal duty under the Equality Act. It would also appear, from last night’s “Panorama” programme, that pressure was applied from the Department to Parkfield School to suspend its equality programme to get the school out of the national news. This has led to copycat protests elsewhere, as protesters believe that if they make enough noise, and turn up with loudhailers and hurl abuse at headteachers, other schools will back down, too. There is a desperate need for clear, firm leadership from the Department.

Will the Minister assure the House that Department officials did not pressure the Parkfield leadership team into suspending its equality programme? Will he confirm that he will launch an investigation into such claims? Does the Minister agree with the Government’s lead commissioner for countering extremism, Sara Khan, that the Department has been slow to respond to the growing protests? What lessons have the Department learnt from that? Will the Minister update guidance to schools from “if” to “when”, to ensure that schools have a clear message about the need to teach LGBT-inclusive sex and relationship education? Will the Minister send a clear message to school protesters that LGBT-inclusive sex and relationship education is mandated by the Government, that compliance will be checked by Ofsted and that attempts to intimidate individual headteachers will not change that?

I agree with the hon. Lady about the importance of the equality of relationships and families, and that is spelt out in the guidance. This is a historic document. Relationships, sex and health education will cover everything from healthy eating to the importance of self-respect and to consent, the pitfalls of social media, recognising the signs of an unhealthy friendship, online safety and first aid. What is learnt in relationships and health education in primary school will provide the building blocks for a child to develop positive relationships as they grow up and into their adult life, and it will teach children to respect those who might be different.

This is a well-crafted document that has received widespread support. We consulted widely on it and it was drafted by experts. We wanted to make sure that the relationships and sex education guidance applied to all schools in this country, including private schools and faith schools, and that is why it has been crafted as it has.

The DFE has been involved from the first minute that we understood that there were problems at Parkfield School. We have had senior officials on a daily basis liaising with the schools, Birmingham City Council and groups of parents. We wanted to resolve this issue on the ground and to try to dispel the myths, so that parents were reassured about what is actually being taught in the No Outsiders programme at Parkfield School.

The hon. Lady says that the Department was slow to respond, but I do not believe that we were. As I said, we responded as soon as we heard that there were issues at the school. We—including senior officials—have been working very closely with the school. As far as the No Outsiders programme is concerned, my understanding is that it had reached its natural end and that, in the following term, the school would move on to religious education—that was part of the cycle. This is my understanding of the situation in the school.

The hon. Lady should understand that we want to achieve maximum consensus with this relationship education. That is why there is the requirement, in regulations, to publish the policy on the school’s website and, in the statutory guidance, to consult parents, but ultimately, it is matter for the school itself to decide on the curriculum—[Interruption.] Hang on. When the school has decided on what it wants to teach and when, it will have the full support and backing of the Department for Education and Ministers.

In terms of “when” versus “if”, paragraph 37 of the guidance says:

“Schools should ensure that all of their teaching is sensitive and age appropriate… 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.”

What is important and required is that children will be taught about LGBT at some point during their education. Both the Secretary of State and I have frequently been on the record saying that we strongly encourage primary schools to teach LGBT relationships. [Interruption.] The hon. Lady says from a sedentary position, “You must tell them.” If we had done that, the guidance would not have achieved the consensus that it has right across the country and right across different types of schools. A large number of schools would not have adopted the guidance. It has been very successfully landed, because of the careful way that we have done this.

Will the Minister confirm that much of the debate about this issue, including the protests in Birmingham, are about the current curriculum and not the new curriculum, which becomes statutory in September 2020? That new and updated guidance gives people an opportunity to be respectful of faith-based views—for example, on marriage, family and relationships—when the teaching occurs. It fundamentally states that the education should be “appropriate”, having regard to “the age” and “religious background” of pupils. Does the Minister agree that the updated guidance probably has the most comprehensive section ever on respect for religious belief?

Yes, my hon. Friend is right. The current controversy is about a curriculum that is in place now. Of course, we still support the school in wanting to teach LGBT issues. She is right that the guidance states, in paragraph 20:

“In all schools, when teaching these subjects, the religious background of all pupils must be taken into account when planning teaching, so that the topics that are included in the core content in this guidance are appropriately handled.”

Most schools will want to do that. My understanding and belief is that when parents are consulted and when they see the materials, the policy and the curriculum that the schools intend to teach, the vast majority of them will support the school in delivering that curriculum.

I thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this important urgent question, and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy) for asking it with such passion.

I commend the Department for Education and Ministers for their work—we have made great progress—but I urge them to go further and support the school. If they did, they would have the support of this House and the other place. This is not about consultation—I do not believe that the issues that have arisen are about consultation; they are about LGBT rights, the misinformation being put out and the bigotry being displayed by some minorities on our streets. We have to hit back.

I saw it myself only a few weeks ago after marching with the Terrence Higgins Trust at London Pride. I was trolled for supporting the LGBT+ community, but the support I have received from hon. Members across the House is evidence to all that we will not opt out of equality in this place. It is time for Ministers to provide the right guidance, resource and support to face down the protests and prejudice. Many parents will not be watching this debate. In addition to the measures the Minister has already outlined, what will his Department do to combat the misinformation and to allay parents’ fears?

In addition to the information for parents, training is meant to be available for teachers, but there is only £6 million to fund it, which averages at just £254 per school. Will the Minister confirm that his Department’s estimate of the amount needed was actually over £30 million and will he share details of how that funding is being allocated? The early adopters will be starting in September—just weeks away. Will that funding be available only for early-adopter schools? If so, what resource is available for others wishing to take up the programme?

We must provide the most comprehensive support for the teachers on the frontline, and this must continue under the new Prime Minister. Inclusive education must be a right for every single child. We will not go back to the days of section 28. Every child is a gift. I hope that the Minister will ensure that his team and the Government take every step over the summer to reinforce this.

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her support for what is a landmark piece of legislation and statutory guidance. We should not allow this debate to overshadow the importance of what has been achieved. Thousands of schools do wish to adopt this policy early—in September—and we are producing an implementation guide for those early adopters on how to plan and develop the curriculum and to engage parents. We are also producing a guide on parental engagement planned for the early autumn about what the consultation means, what good practice is and where schools can get more support when they encounter the kind of problems we have seen in Birmingham.

The hon. Lady is right: we need to tackle misinformation. That is why we have produced these myth busters, which have been widely disseminated and are having an impact. On training, we are spending £6 million a year to develop online portals and material that we can spread to teachers who require that training. There should be a consensus in the House about the importance of updated guidance. It is 20 years since the last set of guidance on how to teach sex and relationships education in our schools, and she will know how much her party has helped achieve equality for LGBT people in this country in those 20 years and how the Conservative party, under the last Prime Minister, introduced the right of gay people to marry—a right that I am personally extremely grateful for. We have had to ensure that our guidance reflects modern society. I am convinced that when this guidance and the curriculum are rolled out nationally we will be helping people better to prepare for life in modern Britain.

If the Minister’s instructions had been more prescriptive, as some hon. Members appear to be demanding, would it have been easier for teachers to implement?

We were keen to obtain as wide support as possible from all the major faith groups, including the Association of Muslim Schools, the Board of Deputies, the Catholic Education Service and the Church of England. We wanted a widespread consensus for the statutory guidance, and we wanted it to apply to private schools as well as schools in the state sector. To do that and to land it successfully, I believe we have the wording absolutely right in that important paragraph 37.

If the Minister thinks the guidance is right, he might want to come and live where I live for a while, because it clearly is not working. All that is needed in the guidance is something that says that in every school every child has to learn about every equality characteristic—simple as that—and that there is no option. We go round the houses talking about consulting and speaking to parents, but the fundamental point is completely missed. For the reasonable, consultation will help, but what we are up against here is racists and homophobes trying to impose what they think on the children where I live. There needs to be clarity. Will he promise that? The headteachers in Birmingham and across the country who are getting in touch with me want that clarity.

I pay tribute to the hon. Lady for her work locally to counter the kind of views expressed in those protests. Those protests, which intimidate children going to school and the teachers in those schools, are unacceptable, which is why we supported Birmingham City Council in taking out an interim injunction against the protests. Of course people have a right to protest, but they do not have a right to intimidate young children going to school.

The hon. Lady suggests, “If only we had changed the wording of the guidance to make it more of a requirement,” but I do not believe it would have prevented the protests at the Birmingham school. There is a segment of opinion at either end of this debate that will not be persuaded of the appropriateness of the guidance. Some people will never agree to LGBT issues being taught in schools. As such, I do not believe that requiring it in guidance to be taught at a specific age in primary schools would have prevented the protests.

We have been clear that we support primary schools and headteachers who wish to teach LGBT relationships and local authorities that take legal action against protests that have turned into intimidation of young people, but if we had taken the hon. Lady’s advice, we would not have had a consensus for the statutory guidance, there would have been opponents of the regulations as we took it through the House and another place, and we would not have achieved its acceptance by a raft of independent private schools that we wanted to be subject to the statutory guidance.

The Church of England, the largest provider of primary education, fully supports this updating of the guidance. As the Minister says, it has not been updated for the past 20 years, and childhood has changed greatly during that time. Does the Minister agree that one of the imperatives for this change must be to protect pupils and keep them safe in the complex online world that they inhabit? My heart goes out to the children caught up in all this.

My right hon. Friend is right that the guidance needed to be updated. It includes teaching children how to tackle the pitfalls of social media, how to recognise the signs of things such as an unhealthy relationship and how to stay safe online. These are important additions in the relationships guidance. It is an important document. People are focusing on one or two paragraphs, but we should not underestimate its importance to schools in helping children to navigate what she correctly says is an increasingly complicated and at times dangerous world for young people.

Flockton Church of England Voluntary Controlled First School and Overthorpe C of E Academy were alike privileged to benefit from the headteachership of the hon. Member for Colne Valley (Thelma Walker), from whom I think it apposite that we should now hear.

Top of the class there, Mr Speaker.

A few weeks ago, along with members of the National Association of Headteachers and my former colleagues, I signed the following pledge:

“I support education in all schools which promotes equality, enabling children to leave school prepared or life in modern Britain, understanding difference and respecting diversity.”

Does the Minister agree with the wording of the pledge, and does he agree that every parent and, indeed, every member of society should support it?

Yes, we do support that pledge, and, as I have said, we will support schools that decide to teach children to understand the importance of difference. That is a fundamental part of our statutory guidance, which was passed by this House.

I find it somewhat disappointing that most of the ire has been focused on the Government—who have updated the relationship guidance—and not solely on the people who protest outside schools, doing their best to deprive young people of their ability to make their choices, and harassing great teachers and headteachers and putting them under pressure. If the protesters do not desist, and if the Minister is not going to make the guidance prescriptive, which would render the protests fruitless, will he consider introducing exclusion zones around the schools so that those protests cannot bear any fruit?

We supported Birmingham City Council’s injunction against protests that had become very challenging for young people going to that school, and we will support similar action in future when protests become intimidatory for pupils. However, I disagree with my hon. Friend’s view, and that of Opposition Members, that if we had made the guidance more prescriptive, it would have prevented the protests from occurring. There is an element of society that simply does not agree with what the Government are seeking to do when it comes to LGBT relationships, and they will protest as much as they want. We were never going to be able to bring that particular section of opinion on board, although we have brought the vast majority of people on board for this curriculum, including many fundamentalist faith groups.

On Friday I drove past the protests, which have been moved just up the road from the school in Birmingham. Apart from the fact that allowing these people to get away with it has taken up precious police resources, if the Minister saw them, he would realise that putting the onus on the school to decide the content and the appropriateness will never be accepted by them. They will see it as a point of weakness, and they will agitate and intimidate until they get their way. Only the Government will be able to change that.

No Government have ever specified that level of detail in respect of sex education, let alone relationship education. It has always been—and must remain—for headteachers and schools to decide what is appropriate for their pupils, when it is age-appropriate, and so on.

We have issued clear guidance. The Secretary of State and I have said that we strongly encourage primary schools to teach children about LGBT relationships, because there will be pupils in primary schools who have two mothers and two fathers and it is important for the other children to respect that, but ultimately such matters must be for headteachers to decide. As I have said, I do not believe that had we been prescriptive—more prescriptive than the wording of paragraph 37—we would have secured consensus among major school providers in both the state and the private sector, and I do not believe that being more prescriptive would have prevented anyone from protesting against something with which they fundamentally disagree.

As a child of the section 28 generation who saw the damaging effect that it had in telling some people that their relationships and their families were not as good as other people’s, I want to speak up for the concerned parents of LGBT families who are now asking why the Government have essentially green-lighted protests against headteachers, the people who will make decisions about whether their family relationships are considered age-appropriate or “adult content”. What does the Minister have to say to the people—not just in my constituency, but around the country—who may have five or six-year-old children, but who are in same-sex relationships? When is it appropriate for those children’s peers in the playground to be taught that their families are just as full of love, just as much to be respected, and just as much to be celebrated? That is what we are really talking about: little children being taught, by omission, to hate and not to respect each other.

It was to address those very issues that we published the statutory guidance. That is why we published the regulations that were passed in the House with almost no opposition. The hon. Lady is right to suggest that when young children at a school have parents of the same sex, that should perhaps be a pointer to the headteacher to provide for children to be taught about LGBT relationships earlier than they might have been otherwise. It is important to give them that discretion. As I have said, provided that schools have consulted, and provided that their policy is on their websites as required by the regulations, we will fully support headteachers when they make decisions about the content of the curriculum and when and how it should be taught.

We will always respect religious and cultural values and differences, but there are also fundamental values of human rights. We will never retreat back down the path to a painful past in which the love of two men for one another, or two women for one another, was demonised. Does the Minister not recognise that by using the words “It is for the school to decide”, the Government will this autumn expose dozens—potentially hundreds—of schools to the same kind of shameful treatment that we have seen in recent weeks?

No, I am afraid I do not agree with that. The guidance makes it very clear that pupils must be taught about LGBT relationships at some point in their school careers, and that that requirement will apply to private schools and faith schools, including orthodox faith schools. That is the important achievement of the guidance.

The Secretary of State and I have said on many occasions that we strongly encourage primary schools to start teaching children in primary schools about LGBT relationships, and we will support those that do so. I believe that when schools start to produce their policies and start to consult on what is being taught and the materials that will be used in teaching children about LGBT relationships, they will have widespread support from parents throughout the country.

These changes could of course have been introduced in 2010, when the Minister was the shadow Minister, Labour was in power, and we had a plan to introduce relationship and sex education which he voted against. I am very pleased that, nearly 10 years on, relationship and sex education are to be taught in our schools, but I think that now is the time for the Minister to step up and show some real political leadership, and to say what the vast majority of people in this House and the other place agree with: “This has to be mandatory, it has to be taught, and it cannot be just left to the schools.”

As I have said, we have had widespread support—from the Catholic Education Service, the Church of England, the Office of the Chief Rabbi and the Association of Muslim Schools—and we believe that the guidance strikes the right balance between a wide range of views. That is why we have achieved consensus in this House and in the other place. Had we not taken this approach, I do not believe that we would be where we are today in terms of the widespread acceptance of the need to teach children about LGBT relationships in 23,000 schools up and down the country.

Of course I welcome this guidance and have done all along, but I find myself frustrated by the answers from the Minister. I have met the head of Parkfield, who came to speak to a cross-party delegation just the other day, and she was very clear: the chink in the guidance—the word “encouraged” rather than “expected”—has essentially put her and her colleagues in the firing line of these parents. To state that changing the guidance would not make a difference contradicts what that head was saying. Has the Minister been to the school and spoken to the head, and if he hasn’t, will he?

The issue in that particular school is not to do with the relationship and sex education guidance—that comes into force in September 2020—and we are making very clear in the supplementary guidance the processes that are needed in terms of consultation. Consultation with parents is hugely important, not so that parents have a veto over the curriculum—they will not have a veto over the curriculum—but because it helps to dispel myths, and it helps to deal with the very misinformation that the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy) has raised this urgent question to discuss. That consultation is hugely important, and I believe that as and when schools do consult up and down the country, this new policy will attract widespread support from parents.

I appreciate what the Minister has done on this issue in many respects, but does he not understand that while prescription will not necessarily stop the protests, it will make it clear to the protestors that it is no use bullying the schools and the heads into trying to change the policy because the requirement lies elsewhere? He says that the parents do not have a veto on this, but if a school sits down and consults with parents, and those parents who want to stop same-sex education being taught know that the head has the ultimate decision, then there is enormous pressure on that head, and parents will believe that they have a veto regardless of whether they do or do not?

I can make it clear from this Dispatch Box that parents do not have a veto over the content of the curriculum. That has been absolutely clear: it is clear from the guidance; it is clear from what I have said; it is clear from what the Secretary of State has said. In addition to that, we strongly encourage schools to start teaching about LGBT issues in primary school.

Will the Minister make sure that his Department takes responsibility for ensuring that every piece of information that is made available to parents, including consultation materials, is available in community languages, in easy-read format and in other accessible formats?

The implementation guide will set out very clearly how to plan the curriculum, how to engage parents and the processes that schools need to go through to plan and develop the policy. As I mentioned in my opening comments, we have published the information in three separate languages to try to dispel myths, but the key message that I hope comes from this debate is that we will fully support and back headteachers who decide to teach LGBT issues in their school. As long as they have been through the process of consultation and they publish their policy on the school website, they will have our full backing.

I am in awe of teachers like Gillian Marshall at Red Hall primary school in my constituency who has been providing an inclusive education for many years now. She has worked tirelessly and sensitively with the parents of the children in her care and were this guidance to have a stronger, firmer legal footing, that would not stop: she would still seek to work alongside and with the parents in her community. The Minister does not need to worry that schools will abandon working alongside parents if he gives more power to the school and makes that clearer to the parents.

Yes, and I pay tribute to that headteacher. There are teachers in thousands of schools up and down the country that are teaching these issues with no protests from any group outside their school gates. The hon. Lady should realise that this is the first time that we are requiring schools to teach about LGBT issues. That will not affect the school she referred to, but it will affect many thousands of schools up and down the country that will for the first time be teaching their pupils about the need to respect difference and to understand that families come in different types, including single parents or parents of the same sex. So this is a very important piece of legislation—a very important piece of statutory guidance. We should all be doing more to support and welcome it, as the hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Angela Rayner), who speaks for the Opposition, did in her response to this urgent question.

In Bristol on Saturday the Pride event was a magnificent celebration of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender equality. I was there; it was wonderful. Many of the people in the parade and at the event afterwards were probably pupils at schools where they felt excluded or misunderstood. Most of the people marching either were parents or one day will be parents, and they, too, want to know that their children will have the security of having an educational experience that is better than theirs, where they feel included and wanted, and for them the word “encouraged” is not enough. I respect the Minister, but will he please reconsider that little word “encouraged”? Can he not see that the fear of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender parents in my constituency that their children will be left out of education about positive role models and positive relationships is real, not imaginary?

This is a transforming piece of legislation and statutory guidance. It will mean that in thousands of schools up and down the country—in fact, in every school up and down the country—there will be a change in the approach to teaching about relationships and teaching about RSE. And it will mean that in schools that have not been teaching about LGBT issues, those issues will be taught at some point during their pupils’ education. I also believe strongly that it will be taught in the vast majority of primary schools, because the Secretary of State and I have made it clear that we strongly encourage LGBT issues to be taught in primary schools and not to wait until children reach secondary school. However, had we taken the hon. Lady’s advice, this guidance would not be applying to the hundreds of faith schools in the private sector, and we took the view that pupils in those schools were equally deserving of being taught about LGBT issues and about modern life and respect for difference, which they would not be taught about had it not been for this guidance and the way that we have constructed it.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I seek your advice about potentially correcting the record on something that has been said during this urgent question. The Minister stated that the no Outsiders programme had come to a natural conclusion and had not been shut down because of pressure from the Department. I and a number of other Members of Parliament—some present today and some not—from across parties heard a very different story from the leaders of that school last week in a meeting in this House. I wonder how I can seek clarity on that, because I am certain, as a local Member of Parliament, that had that action not been taken, the subsequent protest outside Anderton Park school would not have emerged. I have also been told by Members of Parliament from Yorkshire, Nottinghamshire and Lancashire this week that they are expecting protests at their schools this week, next week and in September, and I wish to push back against the suggestions I feel we have heard today that this is just a Birmingham problem.

I am grateful to the hon. Lady and will offer some thoughts in a moment, but the Minister is signalling a willingness to respond and I think we should hear him.

As I said in response to the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle, that was my understanding from a briefing I received from officials, some of whom had been involved in the day-to-day discussions with the school. Given that the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) has raised this point of order, I will go back to those officials and ask them to check again whether the briefing I was given was correct, and if it turns out that I inadvertently misled the House on that particular point I will ensure that the record is corrected.

That is a most helpful and gracious response from the Minister of State which has, I think, for now satisfied the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley. I just want to say that the House collectively and the House service alike are very proud of our record on LGBT equality. In thanking the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle for raising this urgent question, and all colleagues for participating in the exchanges, I am going to permit myself two observations. First, in my experience as a Member of Parliament for more than 20 years, I often find that when people say, “We haven’t been properly consulted”, what they really mean is “You haven’t done what I told you to do.” Secondly, again on the strength of experience, we cannot appease bigots and homophobes; we have to confront them and defeat them. My strong sense is that there is unity across the House in that conviction.