[Peter Dowd in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered relationship and sex education materials in schools.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Jackie Doyle-Price) and the hon. Member for Canterbury (Rosie Duffield) who have co-sponsored this debate, and the Backbench Business Committee, which has been so generous with the time allowed—we will try not to take it all up.
Let me start with a health warning: my speech is not suitable for children. That is sadly ironic, given that all of the extreme and inappropriate material I am about to share has already been shared with children in our schools. As a former biology teacher, I have delivered my fair share of sex education. Teaching the facts of life often comes with more than a little embarrassment for teachers and pupils alike. I remember teaching about reproduction when I was about 30 weeks pregnant with my first baby. One child asked me if my husband knew I was pregnant. Another, having watched a video on labour and birth, commented, “Miss, that’s really gonna hurt, you know.”
Just as children do not know about photosynthesis or the digestive system without being taught, neither do they know the facts of reproduction. Thus, it is important that children are taught clearly and truthfully about sex. Of course, there is a lot more to sexual relationships than just anatomy. Many people believe that parents should take the leading role in teaching children about relationships, since one of the main duties of parenting is to pass on wisdom and values to children. Nevertheless, in some families parents cannot or do not teach children about relationships, and it is also sadly the case that the internet now presents children with a vast array of false and damaging information about sex.
There is widespread consensus that schools do have a role to play in relationships and sex education. That is why the Government chose to make the teaching of relationships and sex education compulsory in all secondary schools from September 2020. According to the guidance, the aim was to help children
“manage their academic, personal and social lives in a positive way.”
Less than two years later, my right hon. Friend the Education Secretary has written to the Children’s Commissioner asking her for help in supporting schools to teach RSE because we know that the quality of RSE is inconsistent.
The Education Secretary is right that the teaching of sex education is inconsistent. Unlike maths, science or history, there are no widely adopted schemes of work or examinations, so the subject matter and materials vary widely between schools. However, inconsistency should be the least of the Education Secretary’s concerns when we look at the reality of what is being taught. Despite its good intentions, the new RSE framework has opened the floodgates to a whole host of external providers who offer sex education materials to schools. Now, children across the country are being exposed to a plethora of deeply inappropriate, wildly inaccurate, sexually explicit and damaging materials in the name of sex education. That is extremely concerning for a number of reasons.
First, if we fail to teach children clearly and factually about relationships, sex and the law they will be exposed to all sorts of risks. For example, if sex is defined as, “anything that makes you horny or aroused”—the definition offered by the sex education provider, School of Sexuality Education—how does a child understand the link between sex and pregnancy? Sex Education Forum tells children they fall into one of two groups: menstruators or non-menstruators. If a teenage girl’s periods do not start, what will she think? How does she know that is not normal? How does she know to consult a doctor? How will she know she is not pregnant? Will she just assume she is one of the non-menstruators?
The book for teachers, “Great Relationships and Sex Education”, suggests an activity for 15-year-olds in which children are given prompt cards and have to say whether they think certain types of sexual acts are good or bad. How do the children know what acts come with health risks, or the risk of pregnancy or sexually transmitted infections? If we tell children that, “love has no age”—the slogan used in a Diversity Role Models resource—do we undermine their understanding of the legal age of consent? Sex education provider Bish Training informs children that:
“Most people would say that they had a penis and testicles or a clitoris and vagina, however many people are in the middle of this spectrum with how their bodies are configured.”
As a former biology teacher, I do not even know where to start with that one.
As adults, we often fail to remember what it is like to be a child and we make the mistake of assuming that children know more than they do. Children have all sorts of misconceptions. That is why it is our responsibility to teach them factually, truthfully and in age-appropriate ways, so that they can make informed decisions.
Another concern relates to the teaching of consent. Of course it is vital to teach about consent. The Everyone’s Invited revelations make that abundantly clear. But we must remember that, under the law, children cannot consent to sex. Sex education classes conducted by the group It Happens Education told boys of 13 and 14 that the law
“is not there to…punish young people for having consensual sex”
“It’s just two 14 year olds who want to have sex with each other who are consensually having sex.”
It is not hard to see the risks of this approach, which normalises and legitimises under-age sex. Not only are children legally not able to consent; they also do not have the developmental maturity or capacity to consent to sexual activity—that is the point of the age of consent.
The introduction of graphic or extreme sexual material in sex education lessons also reinforces the porn culture that is damaging our children in such a devastating way. Of course it is not the fault of schools that half of all 14-year-olds have seen pornography online—much of it violent and degrading—but some RSE lessons are actively contributing to the sexualisation and adultification of children. The Proud Trust has produced a dice game encouraging children to discuss explicit sexual acts, based on the roll of a dice. The six sides of the dice name different body parts—such as anus, vulva, penis and mouth—and objects. Two dice are thrown and children must name a pleasurable sexual act that can take place between the two body parts. The game is aimed at children of 13 and over.
Sexwise is a website run and funded by the Department of Health and Social Care and recommended in the Department for Education’s RSE guidance. The website is promoted in schools and contains the following advice:
“Maybe you read a really hot bit of erotica while looking up Dominance and Submission…Remember, sharing is caring”.
Sex education materials produced by Bish Training involve discussion of a wide range of sexual practices—some of them violent. This includes rough sex, spanking, choking, BDSM and kink. Bish is aimed at young people of 14 and over and provides training materials for teachers.
Even when materials are not extreme, we must still be careful not to sexualise children prematurely. I spoke to a mother who told me how her 11-year-old son had been shown a PowerPoint presentation in a lesson on sexuality. It was setting out characteristics and behaviours and asking children to read through the lists and decide whether they were straight, gay or bisexual. Pre-pubescent 11-year-olds are not straight, gay or bisexual—they are children.
Even School Diversity Week, a celebration of LGBTQIA+ promoted by the Just Like Us group, leads to the sexualisation of children. Of course schools should celebrate diversity and promote tolerance, but why are we doing that by asking pre-sexual children to align themselves with adult sexual liberation campaigns? Let us not forget that the + includes kink, BDSM and fetish.
My hon. Friend is giving a very illuminating speech. The material that she is talking about talks about the detailed practice of sexual acts. She is a former biology teacher herself. Are there not proper boundaries that teachers have to respect in teaching sex education, so that it does not get into talk about behaviours that really strays into a relationship that teachers and children should not have?
I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention. There is guidance, which I will come on to, but the problem is that the guidance is often very vague and open to interpretation. I will absolutely come on to that in my remarks.
Even primary schools are not immune from using inappropriate materials. An “All About Me” programme developed by Warwickshire County Council’s Respect Yourself team introduces six and seven-year-olds to “rules about touching yourself”. I recently spoke to a mother in my constituency who was distraught that her six-year-old had been taught in school about masturbation. Sexualising children and encouraging them to talk about intimate details with adults breaks down important boundaries and makes them more susceptible and available to sexual predators, both on and offline.
Another significant concern is the use of RSE to push extreme gender ideology. Gender ideology is a belief system that claims that we all have an innate gender, which may or may not align with our biological sex. Gender ideology claims that, rather than sex being determined at conception and observed at birth, it is assigned at birth, and that doctors sometimes get it wrong.
Gender theory sadly has sexist and homophobic undertones, pushing outdated gender stereotypes and suggesting to same-sex-attracted adolescents that, instead of being gay or lesbian, they may in fact be the opposite sex. Gender theory says that if someone feels like a woman, they are a woman, regardless of their chromosomes, their genitals, or, in fact, reality.
Gender ideology is highly contested. It does not have a basis in science, and no one had heard of it in this country just 10 years ago. Yet, it is being pushed on children in some schools under the guise of RSE, with what can only be described as a religious fervour. Department for Education guidance states that schools should
“not reinforce harmful stereotypes, for instance by suggesting that children might be a different gender”,
“Resources used in teaching about this topic must…be…evidence based.”
Yet a video produced by AMAZE and used in schools suggests that boys who wear nail varnish or girls who like weight lifting might actually be the opposite sex. Resources by Brook claim:
“‘man’ and ‘woman’ are genders. They are social ideas about how people who have vulvas and vaginas, and people who have penises and testicles should behave”.
Split Banana offers workshops to schools where children learn ideas of how gender is socially constructed and explore links between the gender binary and colonialism. A Gendered Intelligence workshop tells children that:
“A woman is still a woman, even if she enjoys getting blow jobs.”
Just Like Us tells children that their biological sex can be changed. PSHE Association resources inform children that people whose gender matches the sex they were assigned at birth are described as cisgender.
Gender theory is even being taught to our very youngest children. Pop’n’Olly tells children that gender is male, female, both or neither. The Introducing Teddy book, aimed at primary school children, tells the story of Teddy, who changes sex, illustrated by the transformation of his bow tie into a hair bow. The Diversity Role Models primary training workshop uses the “Gender Unicorn”, a cartoon unicorn who explains that there is an additional biological sex category called “other”.
Numerous resources from numerous sex education providers present gender theory as fact, contrary to DFE guidance. However, it is not just factually incorrect resources that are making their ways into schools; visitors from external agencies are invited in to talk to children about sex and relationships, sometimes even without a teacher present in the room.
Guidance says that, when using external agencies, schools should check their material in advance and
“conduct a basic online search”.
However, a social media search of organisations such as Diversity Role Models reveals links to drag queens with highly sexualised, porn-inspired names, or in the case of Mermaids, the promotion of political activism, which breaches political impartiality guidelines.
In some cases, children are disadvantaged when they show signs of dissent from gender ideology, as we saw in the recent case, reported in the press, of a girl who was bullied out of school for questioning gender theory. I have spoken to parents of children who have been threatened with detention if they misgender a trans-identifying child or complain about a child of the opposite sex in their changing rooms. I have heard from parents whose child’s RSE homework was marked down for not adhering to this new creed.
Children believe what adults tell them. They are biologically programmed to do so; how else does a child learn the knowledge and skills they need to grow, develop and be prepared for adult life? It is therefore the duty of those responsible for raising children—particularly parents and teachers—to tell them the truth. Those who teach a child that there are 64 different genders, that they may actually be a different gender to their birth sex, or that they may have been born in the wrong body, are not telling the truth. It is a tragedy that the RSE curriculum, which should help children to develop confidence and self-respect, is instead being used to undermine reality and ultimately put children in danger.
Some may ask what harm is being done by presenting those ideas to children, and, of course, it is right to teach children to be tolerant, kind and accepting of others. However, it is not compassionate, wise, or legal to teach children that contested ideologies are facts. That is indoctrination, and it is becoming evident that that has some concerning consequences.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way, and for the progress she is making on this. I was intrigued, but another question is that in contested areas like this, it actually leads further than that. It is not just a sense of indoctrination; there are also physical consequences, because children will end up going through medical processes that lead them to almost irreversible problems later on, should it turn out to be something that is a problem for them. Does the hon. Lady think that is also a potential consequence of what has been going on?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. The problem is that these ideas do not just stay as ideas; they have serious physical consequences. There has been a more than 4,000% rise in the referrals of girls to gender services over the last decade, and a recent poll of teachers suggests that at least 79% of schools now have trans-identifying children. That is not a biological phenomenon. It is social contagion, driven by the internet and reinforced in schools.
The Bayswater Support Group, which provides advice and support for parents of trans-identifying children, reports a surge of parents contacting them after their children are exposed to gender content in RSE lessons and in assemblies. A large proportion of parents say their child showed no sign of gender distress until either a school assembly or RSE lessons on those topics. Children who are autistic, who are same-sex attracted, who do not conform to traditional gender stereotypes, or who have mental health conditions are disproportionately likely to identify as trans or non-binary.
I have heard evidence from the Bayswater Support Group as well. Parents who had questioned children who came home from school after the school had supported their wanting to transition were contacted by social services because that could be construed in some way as harm towards the child, which is frightening given that they still have parental responsibility.
My hon. Friend mentioned physical aspects. Is there not also a mental health aspect? Teenagers and young children have so much to cope with these days—much more so than when we were going through puberty and growing up. They have all the pressures of social media. Almost to be forced to question their sex—if they do not, there is something wrong with them—puts extraordinary pressures on children, adding to all that they have to go through as teenagers already.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It does nothing but add to the anxiety and difficulty that many teenagers already face. That is why it is more important than ever that parents and schools tell children the truth about sex and relationships and gender.
When we think about the vulnerability of children with autism or same-sex attracted children to some of these ideas, we can look at resources from the Chameleon sex education group, which tells Tom’s testimony. Tom, a female, says:
“I guess I always felt different. Even on my first day of school I remember not feeling like other kids...I didn’t realise at the time it was because of my gender identity.”
When autistic and vulnerable children who are already struggling to fit in and feel accepted are presented with an explanation for their difficulties, it is not surprising that they are attracted to it.
Katie Alcock, senior lecturer in developmental psychology at the University of Lancaster, told me that children with autism right through the primary and secondary years struggle with the idea that other people think differently to them, and that something can have an underlying essence that is different to its reality. So teaching autistic children that their feelings of awkwardness might stem from being born in the wrong body is a failure of safeguarding.
In fact, children who tell a teacher at school that they are suffering from gender distress are then often excluded from normal safeguarding procedures. Instead of involving parents and considering wider causes for what the child is feeling and the best course of action, some schools actively hide the information from parents, secretly changing a child’s name and pronouns in school, but using birth names and pronouns in communications with parents.
One parent of a 15-year-old with a diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome said she discovered that without her knowledge, her daughter’s school had started the process of socially transitioning her child, and has continued to do so despite the mother’s objections. Another mother said:
“It’s all happened very quickly and very unexpectedly after teaching at school during year seven and eight. As far as I can understand the children were encouraged to question the boundaries of their sexual identity as well as their gender identity. Her friendship group of eight girls all adopted some form of LGBTQ identity—either sexual identity or gender identity. My daughter’s mental health has deteriorated so quickly, to the point of self harm and some of the blame is put on me for not being encouraging enough of my daughter’s desire to flatten her breasts and for puberty blockers.”
As my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) said, some parents have been referred to social services when they have questioned the wisdom of treating their son as a girl or their daughter as a boy.
Socially transitioning a child—changing their name and pronouns, and treating them in public as a member of the opposite sex—is not a neutral act. In her interim report on gender services for children, paediatrician Dr Hilary Cass remarks that although social transition
“may not be thought of as an intervention or treatment,”
“an active intervention because it may have significant effects on a child or young person’s psychological functioning.”
The majority of adolescents who suffer from gender dysphoria grow out of it, but instead of safeguarding vulnerable children, schools are actively leading children down a path of transition. If a child presented with anorexia and a teacher’s response was to hide that from parents, celebrate the body dysmorphia and encourage the child to stop eating, that would be a gross safeguarding failure. For a non-medical professional to make a diagnosis of gender dysphoria, exclude the child’s parents and encourage the child to transition is just such a failure.
In some schools, children are not only taught about the concept of gender theory but signposted to information about physical interventions. Last year, sixth-formers at a grammar school sent a newsletter to girls as young as 11, detailing how to bind their breasts to “look more masculine” and outlining how surgery can remove tissue if it hurts too much. Also, schools have played a major role in referrals to gender identity clinics, where children are sometimes set on a path to medical and surgical transition.
I was really pleased to see the Health Secretary announce today that he is commissioning a more robust study of whether treatment at such clinics improves children’s lives or leads to later problems or regret, because schools may think that they are being kind, but the consequences of full transition—permanent infertility, loss of sexual function and lifelong health problems—are devastating, as has become clear following the case of Keira Bell.
Anyone hearing for the first time what is going on in schools might reasonably ask, “How can this be allowed?” The answer is that it is not allowed. DFE guidance tells schools:
“Resources used in teaching about this topic must always be age-appropriate and evidence-based. Materials which suggest that non-conformity to gender stereotypes should be seen as synonymous with having a different gender identity should not be used and you should not work with external agencies or organisations that produce such material.”
However, many teachers just do not have the time to look into the background of every group that provides sex education resources, and when faced with teaching such difficult and sensitive topics, they understandably reach for ready-made materials, without investigating their source.
Furthermore, those teachers who are aware of the harms are sometimes afraid to share their concerns. A lot of teachers have written to me about this situation, with one writing:
“I left my job in a Primary School after we were asked to be complicit in the ‘social transitioning’ of a 7 year old boy. This was after Gendered Intelligence came into the school and delivered training.”
Relationship and sex education in this country has become a wild west. Anyone can set themselves up as a sex education provider and offer resources and advice to schools. Imagine if someone with no qualifications could set themselves up as a geography resource provider, insert their own political beliefs on to a map of the world—perhaps they would put Ukraine inside the Russian border—and then sell those materials for use in schools. I do not believe that some of these sex education groups should have any place in our educational system.
Indeed, the guidance says that schools should exercise extreme caution when working with external agencies:
“Schools should not under any circumstances work with external agencies that take or promote extreme political positions or use materials produced by such agencies.”
Yet all the organisations that I have mentioned today, and many others, fall foul of the guidance. What is more, the Government are actually funding some of these organisations with taxpayers’ money. For example, The Proud Trust received money from the tampon tax, and EqualiTeach and Diversity Role Models have received money from the DFE as part of anti-bullying schemes. We have created the perfect conditions for a safeguarding disaster, whereby anyone can set up as an RSE provider and be given access to children, either through lesson materials or through direct access to classrooms.
Yet parents—those who love a child most and who are most invested in their welfare—are being cut out. In many cases, parents are refused access to the teaching materials being used by their children in school. This was highlighted by the case of Clare Page, which was reported at the weekend. She complained about sex education lessons that were being taught in her child’s school by an organisation called the School of Sexuality Education. Until this year, that organisation’s website linked to a commercial website that promoted pornography. Mrs Page’s daughter’s school refused to allow the family to have a copy of the material provided in lessons, saying it was commercially sensitive.
Schools are in loco parentis. Their authority to teach children comes not from the state and not from the teaching unions, but from parents. Parents should have full access to the RSE materials being used by their children. We have created this safeguarding disaster and we will have to find the courage to deal with it for the sake of our children.
My hon. Friend is making a compelling argument. She must have talked to the Department for Education about the matter before the debate. What I find difficult is everything else—she talked about geography and biology—is heavily inspected, and a school that departs from clear facts and teaches something different would immediately get a bad report and probably be put in special measures, yet when it comes to this subject, there seems to be no controls. Is that the case or is it just that the Department thinks this is something that only schools can judge?
I hope that the Minister will answer those questions, but my right hon. Friend is right. That is the source of the problem: the regulation and inspection criteria is not the same for these subjects, but it is even more of a problem for them because they are contested. As a science teacher, if I were to google a video of sodium being put in water, I will not find anything that anyone disagrees with or that departs from the truth. The trouble with some of these topics is there is such a wide range of contested views that we need a set of regulations and an accepted curriculum even more so, but I will come on to that.
The Health Secretary rightly compared the fear of causing offence, which may happen, with fears of being called racist when discussing the Rotherham grooming gangs. Exposing children to extreme sexual practices and ideology, telling them it is all about choice, connecting them with adults they do not know, cutting out parents, labelling parents as harmful or even referring them to social services, hiding information about a child from those who love them most—there are strong parallels here with grooming practices, and I have no doubt that children will be more susceptible to being groomed as a result of the materials they are being exposed to.
How have we gone so wrong? We seem to have abandoned childhood. Just as in the covid pandemic when we sacrificed young for old, our approach to sex education is sacrificing the welfare and innocence of children in the interests of adults’ sexual liberation. In 2022, our children are physically overprotected. They have too little opportunity to play unsupervised, to take responsibility and to mature and grow wise, yet at the same time they are being exposed to adult ideologies, being used as pawns in adults’ political agendas and at risk of permanent harm. What kind of society have we created where teachers need to undertake a risk assessment to take pupils to a local park, but a drag queen wearing a dildo is invited into a library to teach pre-school children?
Parents do not know where to turn, and many I have spoken to tell me how they complain to schools and get nowhere. Even the response from the DFE comes back the same every time telling parents that, “Where an individual has concerns, the quickest and most effective route to take is to raise the issue directly with the school.” The complaints system is circular and schools are left to mark their own homework.
Ofsted does not seem willing or able to uphold the DFE’s guidance. Indeed, it may be contributing to the problem. It was reported last week that Ofsted cites lack of gender identity teaching in primary schools as a factor in whether schools are downgraded. There is a statutory duty on the Department to review the RSE curriculum every three years, so the first review is due next year. I urge the Minister to bring forward that review and conduct it urgently. I understand that the Department is in the process of producing guidance for schools on sex and gender, so will Minister tell us when that will be available?
While much of the RSE guidance is sensible, terms such as “age appropriate” are too woolly and difficult to interpret. The guidance produced on political neutrality has been helpful, but this is not fundamentally a political issue. It is a matter of taking an evidence-based approach to what knowledge and ideas a child is able to process at different stages of their development. We do not try to teach babies to read or teach quantum mechanics to six-year-olds, because they are not developmentally ready, and neither should we teach about sexual pleasure or gender fluidity to pre-pubescent children or about extreme sex acts to adolescents. The RSE guidance and framework must be rewritten with oversight by experts in child development and put on a statutory footing to determine what should be taught, when and by whom. The DFE should consider creating a set of accredited resources, with regulatory oversight by Ofqual, and mandating that RSE be taught only by subject specialists. The Department has previously said in correspondence that it is
“investing in a central package to help all schools to increase the confidence and quality of their teaching practice in these subjects, including guidance and training resources to provide comprehensive teaching in these areas in an age-appropriate way.”
Can the Minister say when that package will be ready?
In the light of the Cass review interim report, the Department must write to schools with clear guidance about socially transitioning children, the law on single-sex facilities and the imperative to include parents in issues of safeguarding. The Department should also conduct a deep dive into the materials being used in schools, the groups that provide such materials and their funding sources.
My hon. Friend is making a fantastic speech. There is an awful lot of work that needs doing on this subject. There is an old saying: “Give me a child until he is seven and I will show you the man.” While the Department is working on this issue, children are unfortunately being exposed to this material. The damage could be being done as we speak. We could do with action to withdraw some of this material with immediate effect while we do those deep dive studies. I think it is so important. It is happening now—as we sit here, children are being exposed to things in their school that they should not be. We need to do something immediately.
I completely agree. That is why I am calling on the Department to conduct this review urgently. It is incumbent on parents and teachers to speak out when they see those resources and express their concerns. Unfortunately, at the moment, many teachers and parents are powerless, which is why we very much need the help of the Department.
What is the Minister’s view on the amendment to the Schools Bill introduced in the House of Lords that would require schools to allow parents to view the materials being used in RSE? Another solution might be for the DFE to create a statutory obligation that schools can only use resources published online. That would put the onus on third-party providers to produce responsible, high-quality material and make it available for public and academic scrutiny. Does the Minister not agree that sunlight is the best disinfectant, and that parents have the right to know what their children are being taught, especially in matters of sex and relationships?
RSE in schools is not fit for purpose. I have no doubt that there are many schools and many teachers doing an excellent job of delivering RSE in a way that helps to prepare children for adult life, as was intended. However, from the sheer volume of evidence I have seen—I have spoken for 32 minutes, but I honestly could speak for two hours with the materials I have been given; however, I will allow other hon. Members to come in shortly—and the number of parents who have contacted me from all over the country and from all different types of schools, it seems clear that RSE is exposing far too many children to adult sexuality and adult ideology and is doing them harm.
Most teachers and headteachers mean well, but they are overwhelmed by political pressure, too busy to investigate the source of teaching materials and too confused by guidance that is at times weak and contradictory. At the moment, it is left to dedicated parents groups such as the Bayswater Support Group, Transgender Trend, the Safe Schools Alliance, Parents for Education and the Family Education Trust to support parents, guide them to complaints procedures and help them to engage with schools. However, it is the Department for Education that imposed the mandatory requirement for schools to deliver RSE, so it is fundamentally the responsibility of the Department to ensure that schools are equipped and held accountable to deliver it well.
I look forward to hearing from the Minister how the Department plans to clean up this mess and give our children the protection they deserve.
Order. Before I call Lloyd Russell-Moyle, I want to indicate that I will call the Opposition spokesperson at 4.08 pm; he and the Minister will have 10 minutes each. There will be a couple of minutes for Miriam Cates to respond at the end. Informally, that is about six minutes a speech. However, if we have too many interventions or the interventions are too long, we will have to cut that back.
I want to start with some things that I agreed with in what I have just heard. I agree that education materials in our schools should be made public. I agree with that for all subjects, actually, and not just in schools. I think of the scandal in universities, where academic journals are behind paywalls, so we cannot look to see what academics on public money are researching in this country without paying huge amounts. I totally agree on that point.
I totally agree we needed better guidance from the Government on the issue. In fact, when we introduced RSE or RSHE, one of the big problems was that the Government guidelines were late and delayed, and some of the problems we saw in places such as Birmingham, where parents were protesting outside schools, were because the guidelines were not clear enough, often putting too much on teachers having to negotiate with parents, rather than the Department protecting teachers by saying “These are exactly the things that should be covered.”
I totally agree that we need to have an education facilitated in schools with subject specialists. It is an ongoing scandal that we have biology teachers teaching this wide area when, as the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Miriam Cates) has said, this is so much more than the metaphorical condom on the banana that students have in the last year of secondary school. It is about the relationship, the emotional aspect and mental health, so I totally agree.
Actually, the inclusion of this in a wider citizenship and RSHE portfolio, by which we developed an education pathway for trainee teachers during the last Labour Government, was important. The destruction of citizenship education over the last 10 years and, therefore, the training of teachers specialised in such areas has been a great failure. I know there has been some reversal of that, but I am afraid that that is the situation we are in now. We have fewer subject specialists in citizenship and RSHE because of the choices made in 2010. I agree on the principle that we need to reverse that.
Where I disagree, I am afraid, is on some of the hon. Member’s examples. I did not plan to say this, but during the pandemic, my second cousin—a 15-year-old boy—died in a tragic accident of auto-asphyxiation. It devastated the family, as can be imagined, and happened in the pandemic when we were only allowed six people at the funeral. If he had been taught about risky sex acts—he was 15, not a pre-pubescent child—and how to make sure he did things safely, rather than just learning something from the internet that then led to the end of his life, he might still be around and his family might not be devastated. So, actually, because of that personal experience I do have a problem with saying that we should not teach any of this to our children.
The hon. Member picks out examples of the dice or whatever that might sound frivolous, and I cannot judge how exactly things played out in those schools—she might well be right that it was played out by some teachers incorrectly—but the principle of learning about things before people are legally able to do them but when they are physically able to engage in them, which 15-year-olds are, I am afraid, could have been lifesaving.
My sister, who is a teacher in Essex, has worked hard to try and incorporate some of those teaching methods into the school’s RSHE, focused on an age-specific approach and on stories of people such as my cousin and others, so we can talk about the dangers of some of these things. We cannot know about the dangers of things if we do not talk about them, or if we say that they are just things that families need to talk about. I am afraid most families will not do that because those kinds of things are darn embarrassing to talk about—but also because you never think your child will do something like that. I disagree with that element of what we heard today. I do agree that there needs to be oversight and I do agree that there need to be checks to make sure that we are not just promoting risky activities; we need to be talking about the risks of risky activities. Then, when people are of age, they can make their own choices.
I want to reflect on the things I was planning to say in this debate in the last few seconds I have. The UK Youth Parliament ran a campaign for years to try to get RSHE better taught. Elements of the campaign were about emotions and relationships, and it was also about LGBT inclusive education—and that does include T. We have seen the Fédération Internationale de Natation ruling that competitors will not be able to swim unless they transitioned before they were 12, so we are in a difficult and complex world that we have to navigate. Broad-brush bans from the Department are unhelpful; we need to be content specific and school specific. The Department needs to show more leadership, but we cannot exclude talking about trans people or these complex issues in schools because that, I am afraid, would be very dangerous.
I thank the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Lloyd Russell-Moyle) for his speech, which I know was deeply personal and very difficult to give. It really illuminated what we are talking about and showed that our overall approach has to be to prevent harm. I think we are all addressing the subject in that spirit, but we are now in a deeply unsatisfactory position in executing the delivery of this content and we need to do better.
One of the reasons I championed the importance of relationships and sex education in schools was that I had become concerned about the increasingly sexualised environment in our society, which sees young people exposed to sexuality and sexual practices before they are sufficiently mature to handle them. As my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Miriam Cates) said, social media and the internet mean that we are all just one click away from pornography. The content of some of that material is of a much more exploitative nature than perhaps was available pre-internet, which is why we need to equip all our children with the tools to protect themselves.
We need to be able to teach young people about sex in a way that emphasises emotion and intimacy, and all the issues around consent and enjoyment. Their introduction to it can be about the purely physical aspects, which can be harmful and mean that behaviours can be normalised before children are able to properly understand what a healthy sexuality is based on: intimacy and consent. We have an environment that is difficult for both girls and boys, and we need to ensure that we address the emotional needs of both sexes, which are different.
For me, the importance of RSE is all about emphasising the primacy of consent and respect. I want boys to feel that they are able to call out sexually abusive behaviour by their peers when they witness it, because we know from recent campaigns that being a victim of sexually aggressive behaviour starts in schools.
I heard a horrendous example when I visited a local school on International Women’s Day. I was with a group of 13-year-old girls. Sometimes such visits go really well and there are loads of questions, but this was one of those really difficult ones, so I just lobbed it out there and asked, “How many of you have been harassed?” The answer was every single one of them, and for most it had happened in school. That abuse is exactly what we are talking about. I want to make sure that girls feel empowered to call that out and not just have to accept it.
The girls told me that they are pressurised into sharing intimate pictures, which are then shared by phone. One girl said to me, “If you make a stand, you just attract more attention to yourself and end up getting more harassment, and if you comply you’re easy. What are we supposed to do in those circumstances?” One difficulty with making sure that we start to tackle these issues at an age-appropriate time is, when is that time? The exposure to this content is unregulated and children can be exposed to it at a very young age.
I had high hopes that RSE would empower our girls and be an important tool in the war against sexual violence, but I have been horrified by some of the content highlighted by my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge that is being delivered in schools. As she said, anyone can be a provider. The DFE needs to get a hold on that if it is going to protect our children from harm. My hon. Friend highlighted the dice game, which I was utterly appalled to see. It reduces sex to just being about penetrative acts. Forgive me, but at the risk of being romantic and sentimental, a healthy sexual relationship is about fulfilment for both parties—it is not just about physicality.
As the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown said, this is about safety and safe sex. A dice that displays objects and where they can be inserted is not a healthy approach to teaching people about safe sex. We hear that young girls now think that the way to avoid getting pregnant is to have anal sex—that that is safe sex—but that is not without other risks. We can teach people to have a healthier approach to their sexual relationships without sex being reduced to physical interaction.
I have more to say, but at the risk of crowding other Members out, I will stop there. If we are to churn out healthy children with a healthy respect for each other, and a safer environment for both girls and boys, the Department for Education needs to get a proper hold on making sure that good content in this field is circulated, and bad content is exterminated.
I thank the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Miriam Cates) for bringing forward this debate. It is not an easy subject to talk about, to be truthful. It is not one I feel at ease with, but I wanted to come here to support the hon. Lady, because I realise what she is trying to do.
Relationships and sex education is an essential issue, and a crucial topic for young people to understand. We must all realise that there is a time and a place for relationships and sex education in schools. However, underpinning that is the right of a family to pass on their morals and values, and not to be undermined by teachers who do not know individual children and cannot understand the family dynamic.
I am clear about what I want to see when it comes to sex education: no young person should be unaware of how their body works, but similarly, no teacher nor programme should seek to circumnavigate the right of a family to sow into their child’s life what they see is needed. That is especially the case in primary school children—I think of innocence lost. The Government’s relationship and sex education paper states that,
“Regulations 2019 have made Relationships Education compulsory in all primary schools. Sex education is not compulsory in primary schools and the content set out in this guidance therefore focuses on Relationships Education.”
Despite that, a worrying number of schools across the United Kingdom have felt it necessary to teach children not only about sex, but about gender identity and trans issues. Conservatives for Women has said that children are being encouraged from as young as primary school to consider whether they have gender identity issues that differ from their biology—being male or female—as the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge outlined. That leaves children confused for no other reason than the misunderstanding, and it makes them believe that they should be looking at their own gender issues. My humble opinion—I am putting it clearly on the record—is that children in primary schools are too young to be taught sex education at that level.
It may have already been mentioned by the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Miriam Cates), but there was a poster put out in primary schools by Educate & Celebrate, stating:
“Age is only a number. Everyone can do what they feel they are able to do, no matter what age they are”.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that that is pretty alarming?
I share the hon. Lady’s concerns, as does the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge, who set the scene very well.
How can we expect our children to understand such complexities, and why should we force them to at an early age? It was clear to me that the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge was saying that this age is too young. As grandfather of five—soon to be six—I look to my grandchildren, who are of primary school age. I can say that the last thing that their parents, or indeed their grandparents, want is someone else teaching them about these sensitive issues. It should be for a family to decide the correct time and what approach they take.
I appreciate that the health and education systems are devolved, that the Minister here has no responsibility for Northern Ireland—I always mention Northern Ireland in these debates, because it is important that we hear perspective on how we do things in our own regions across this great United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland—and that the extremity of what is being in schools does not currently apply to some devolved Assemblies, but there is no doubt that this could evolve. I want to reinforce with the utmost passion the importance of the family unit, which is exactly what some of the curriculum is destroying. I know that my concerns about that are shared by the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Sir Iain Duncan Smith), the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), and others in the House.
Nobody knows a child better than their parent, and I for one do not understand why the decision to teach children about sex and relationships has been taken out of the hands of families—parents and grandparents—wholly without their consent. The hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge gave examples; I am concerned about similar examples back home in Northern Ireland.
I believe that sex education in high schools should be taught within the parameters of biology—that is the way it should be—and that pupils should be taught the value of understanding themselves emotionally. However, the problems arise when the curriculum allows teachers to seek to mould minds, rather than allowing children to formulate their ideas and feelings. We must bear in mind that there is a line between what a child should be taught in school and what a parent chooses to teach their children at home.
The Northern Ireland framework for sex education states that it should be taught:
“in harmony with the ethos of the school or college and in conformity with the moral and religious principles held by parents and school management authorities.”
That is what we do in Northern Ireland, and I think we can all hold to that statement as being not too far away from what we should be doing—but those moral and religious principles held by parents and school management have become somewhat ignored.
It is crucial that we do not unduly influence young people or pupils’ innocent minds by teaching extreme sex and gender legislation. I have seen some material taught in Northern Ireland, such an English book that refers to glory holes, sexual abuse of animals and oral sex. That book was taught to a 13-year-old boy, whose parents were mortified whenever they saw it, and the young boy had little to no understanding of what was going on. I wrote to the Education Minister in Northern Ireland, asking how that book could ever be on a curriculum and what possible literary benefit—there is none—could ever outweigh the introduction of such concepts.
There needs to be a greater emphasis on the line between what is appropriate to be taught at school and at home, and a greater respect for parents and what they want their children to be taught. Family values should be at the core of a child’s adolescence education, as it is of a sensitive nature and needs to be treated carefully, with respect and compassion.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dowd. I congratulate my hon. Friends the Members for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Miriam Cates) and for Thurrock (Jackie Doyle-Price), and the hon. Member for Canterbury (Rosie Duffield), on securing this important and timely debate. I also thank the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Lloyd Russell-Moyle) for sharing his experiences. I acknowledge the pain in his contribution; there is a lesson in there, I am sure.
I approach this debate not as an academic, although I have taken care to speak at length with educationalists and professionals over the last year about some of these matters. I also do not bring lived experience or trauma; I was fortunate with my own upbringing and introduction to sex through education, and in my life, but I recognise that that is not everybody’s experience. I seek to approach the issue as a parliamentarian, as we all do, representing those who have brought concerns to us—concerns for the safety of those who speak to us, about misunderstanding, and for the safety and wellbeing of others.
I have spoken to teachers who have been put on the spot when it comes to making decisions in school about the materials they are being asked to use. Reference has already been made to the Cass review and the dangers of putting teachers in a position where they must make a clinical decision although they are not clinicians. I have spoken to parents who are desperate and feel disarmed, without the tools to reach and help their own children, who they see are confused on matters of identity, sexuality, sex and gender. My hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge made an important point: we must not lose sight of the fact that teachers are in loco parentis. Sending a child to school and conveying them into the care of another person involves a special level of trust, so to see that damaged in this way is compelling for me as a parliamentarian.
We want our schools to be safe places with trusted teachers, where learners can flourish and grow. One expert told me that good sex education includes helping learners to understand the sexed body; to make decisions about health, contraception and their own boundaries; and to understand the law, so that they can keep safe, seek help when needed and respect the boundaries of others. The expert also told me that it is important to help learners to understand how to critique messages.
I cannot add to the case laid out by my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge that children and learners are being systematically exposed to inappropriate materials that confound and frustrate those three objectives. I support her belief in the principle of sunlight as disinfectant, and I welcome the support of the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown in recognising the importance of visibility of materials to parents, governors and those who have an interest in the issue. I also fully support the urgent review of guidelines with the appropriate tightening that my hon. Friend called for.
As we have heard, this is a contested area. It is not a settled matter, which is the reason we are having the debate. I want to mention gender and gender identity, because the materials cited and delivered often use or reflect a certainty that simply is not there. I want to make one key observation about this in the couple of minutes I have left. In the debates that I have heard, we all agree on three things: we want children to be true to themselves; we want them to be accepted; and we want them to be respected and valued as individuals. There is no question about that, but it starts to be problematic when I hear phrases such as “my truth” and “moral relativism”, creeping into the materials that we see, because this is existentialism—anyone can look that up.
We can go back a long time to see the weaknesses in existentialism and the risks associated with it. It was Søren Kierkegaard who outlined some of the risks and conclusions of this form of thinking. He pointed out that existentialism ends in three things. The first is inauthenticity, yet we have said that one of our objectives is to be authentic. Secondly, he said that alienation is another consequence of existentialism and moral relativism, yet we have said that we want children to be accepted, not outcast. Thirdly, he warned against the degradation of individuals into objects or things, and we heard my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock talk about how sex is more than just gratification and the use of another person to satisfy our desires. It cannot be that we use a philosophy to deliver something that confounds its very purpose. If we seek true-to-self acceptance, respect and value as individuals, we cannot us a morally relativist approach that promises exactly the opposite of those things: inauthenticity, alienation and the degradation of the individual as an object.
I will conclude by saying that we are talking about materials, which are the tip of the iceberg. The process of how they came about, and the thinking behind them, needs the Minister’s urgent review.
I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Miriam Cates) for securing this really important debate, although there is clearly a separate legislative process in Scotland, as the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) just said. I recognise the support and assistance that she has offered me during my time in this place, and the support from other Members present.
While this debate is England and Wales-focused, it is important to highlight the Scottish perspective. This is not a matter of moral outrage or social conservatism, which is a label that is often used. This, for me, is essentially, fundamentally, about safeguarding. Safeguarding has been a constant in my professional life, from my early days in mental health care and looking after vulnerable people through that lens, right up to working with children and young people in cancer care. The principles are about engendering a broad awareness in an organisation of the kinds of issues that may be faced and the kind of red flags that may be seen. It is a shared responsibility and one, I believe, that everyone in society should participate in. It is not something that we should in any way put at risk.
Awareness has increased in recent years because of misdeeds in religious circles, among sports coaches and teaching staff, and indeed, from my experience, in healthcare, where people have used their position of influence and authority for nefarious purposes. Those who will abuse will find a way, and that is just a matter of fact. Predators will go to great lengths to access those they prey upon.
How have we responded as a society? We have had “stranger danger” education, public awareness, and the introduction of safeguarding legislation and policies. We have dealt with concerns in an open and non-judgmental way. We have set up multi-disciplinary practices through child protection teams and vulnerable adult teams. We have not jumped to conclusions and ascribed labels to individuals, but we have taken the necessary steps to explore any circumstance to ensure that, if there is harm, it is limited and is stopped where that is the case. We have the disclosure and barring service down here and Disclosure Scotland in Scotland to ensure that those with a criminal history of a predatory nature are identified and prevented from entering certain spheres of life.
In my professional life, I have had enhanced disclosure in every single job that I have had. It has never been a particular issue, but there are implications of the use of deed poll to change one’s identity, along with growing concerns about GRC identity changes. On the DBS in particular, I met with an organisation this morning that told me of privacy concerns whereby people who use that method, or indeed deed poll, may be able to circumvent the disclosure of prior history. I suggest that the national insurance number could be used as a constant identifier to deal with that.
But there are other ways that we find out about these nefarious practices: disclosure from the child or the young person themselves, witnesses, evidence and indeed criminal investigation. In that vein, a teacher in Scotland was recently sent to jail for three years for molesting two young boys, one aged 11 and one aged 12. That investigation was peppered with the sexualised language that that teacher used with those young men. Like all predatory behaviour, this was about power, control and manipulation, and it included that sexualised use of language.
In terms of parents and safeguarding, we must look out for changes in the behaviour of the young person—whether they become withdrawn or start to use overly sexualised language. Those are the red flags that are normally identified by professionals working with young people, whether social workers, teachers or indeed healthcare workers. If we introduce the type of language and knowledge that the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge mentioned in her opening remarks—the dice game is utterly shocking; it is dehumanising and reduces sex to the penetrative act—
Does this not boil down to the very simple point that knowledge without context or consequence is dangerous? Children at these ages, who are often in doubt about who they are, where they are and what they do, and who are sometimes shy and retiring, are very vulnerable to that knowledge leading them down a road, without the understanding of the context and consequences that will come from the decisions that are made, which they may be too young to judge. If that principle were applied, a lot of what my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Miriam Cates) has said would disappear from the curriculum because it would be inappropriate.
The right hon. Gentleman makes a very important point about capacity. It is simply impossible for someone who is seven to have the ability to comprehend their adult sexual being. It is simply unattainable.
Introducing such sexualised language will camouflage or mask the red flags and that is dangerous. There is no place for adult sexualised language in pre-puberty education.
I will try to keep my comments brief, as I can see the time racing by. I will make reference to Wales, but the issues are pertinent to all of us. This year, the Welsh Government are introducing a new curriculum that will have fully inclusive LGBT education for all pupils, with no right to withdraw. That is so important. We have all stressed that status is important, as is proper timetabling and training for teachers. We have the protected characteristics of the Equality Act; all of those in the LGBT community should be given respect. It is particularly important for children to learn how to relate and how to cope with peer-group pressure and bullying, particularly homophobic and transphobic bullying.
It is important that materials that present society as it is are part of the curriculum, so that children who come from same-sex couple homes do not feel that they are different or odd, and that means not just in the relationship curriculum but in materials across all subjects. Age appropriateness is important, and governors have the opportunity to look at materials, which is commonly done, and should be practised across the board. Parents should do the same, so that they can see exactly what is being presented. It is really important to remember that we do not live in a vacuum. In our day, it was just whispers in the playground and nasty bullying; now, it is a whole range of stuff on the internet, including pornography, plus massive bullying via the internet, through social media.
I am an ex-secondary school teacher. Children are going to bring things into school that we might not even know the words for, frankly, so teachers need to be prepared. They need to be prepared on how to combat that and how to discuss the issues. We need materials that are positive, down to earth, factual and not sensational.
I will not, as I am so short of time—normally I would. We need to gradually increase the degree of explicitness, as is age appropriate. However, it is absolutely essential that the information is taught in context and that, if children raise issues about violent behaviour and different types of sexual behaviour, teachers can talk through the dangers and consequences. That is a valid discussion. Talking about a particular piece of material on its own is not necessarily the context in which it might be taught.
I would like to move on to the issue of trans individuals. Young people will know of or will have encountered trans individuals—they will certainly have heard about them. They need clarity, because there is so much transphobia out there. They need to have the topic talked about. It is perfectly valid to do that in a school context.
The idea that any young person even begins to think about themselves as trans on a whim is fanciful. It is a very long way from beginning to think like that to telling somebody, never mind going any further. Obviously, a teacher needs to know their limitations and be able to access professional help, counselling and interventions. It is not for a school to make any decisions about a young person in that way.
Children are exposed all the time to all sorts of materials and it is absolutely right and proper that, in a responsible way, those in schools listen, take things seriously and present down-to-earth, factual alternatives to some of the stuff they are being shown.
So let us be clear about this. The overwhelming majority of schools and staff, parents and governors, are highly responsible. If there are instances where inappropriate materials are used, those are the things that need to be dealt with. We should not take a sledgehammer to crack a nut. I would be very wary of rolling back on progressive, fully inclusive LGBT education. We can call out individual problems that have occurred in individual schools in individual types of material.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dowd. I thank the hon. Members for Thurrock (Jackie Doyle-Price), for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Miriam Cates), and my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Rosie Duffield) for securing this important debate.
We have had a range of views and insights from Members today. The hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge spoke about the quality of RHSE guidance and curricula and the age appropriate material and its importance. She went on to give a range of examples and she put a number of questions to the Minister. We all look forward to his response.
My hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Lloyd Russell-Moyle) spoke with his trademark passion about a range of relevant issues, including the importance of specialisms in schools and quality materials. I thank him for speaking from the heart about his own personal experience with his loved ones. He gave a very tragic example of why we have to get this right in our schools.
The hon. Member for Thurrock spoke about recognising the impact that the internet has on schools and children, and about the importance of teaching consent at a time when we see significant harassment of women and girls. Other Members spoke about the perspectives from Northern Ireland and Wales, which I am grateful for. The importance of engagement with parents and the visibility of materials that schools use were also mentioned.
There are a great many ways in which good quality relationships, health and sex education can and must address the challenges that our children face. Some of those challenges could define the next generation. Sadly, most of them disproportionately affect young women and girls, so I want to make sure we discuss the full breadth of issues that this debate allows.
Labour Members believe strongly that quality RHSE must be part of the curriculum for every school. The 2019 statutory guidance was an important step forward, but the evidence suggests that too many young people are not getting access to the information that is needed both in school and at home. The pandemic has undoubtedly disrupted the introduction of the 2019 statutory guidance, but there is more that the Government can and should do to prevent a looming crisis.
On the specific issue of information on gender identity for trans and non-binary people, which some Members have raised in the debate today, I would stress the importance of regularly reviewing and updating guidance and signposting by the Department for Education, and the need for training and support for all teachers and staff.
I will make progress because I am conscious of time.
I would also point out a recent Sex Education Forum survey, which said that almost 40% of students had been given no information about gender identity or any information relevant to people who are trans or non-binary, so I am very reluctant to accept the opposing argument. In fact, the bigger problem appears to be the lack of information on this issue.
In terms of how RHSE is delivered, there is obviously a balance to be struck. I accept that this is a sensitive debate. That is why guidance must be clear and regularly updated. Support and materials for those teaching in the classroom must be forthcoming. This is about being realistic, proportionate and compassionate.
As we have heard in the debate today, children increasingly face a wild west when it comes to RHSE. Too much is happening in unregulated and unsafe spaces online. Not enough is happening in controlled environments such as classrooms and in conversations with parents. This is feeding a disturbing culture in which sexual harassment is becoming normalised. The same survey by the Sex Education Forum found that a third of children had not learnt how to tell whether a relationship is healthy. More than a quarter had learnt nothing about the attitudes and behaviours of men and boys towards women and girls. One in three said they did not learn how to access local sexual health services, and four in 10 learnt nothing about FGM.
Ofsted’s 2019 report on sexual abuse in schools put it best when it said that
“Children and young people were rarely positive about the RSHE they had received. They felt that it was too little, too late and that the curriculum was not equipping them with the information and advice they needed to navigate the reality of their lives.”
I recently had the pleasure of meeting Nimue Miles, who is passionate about improving sex education to combat violence against women. She said of her own experience that sex education
“doesn’t cover coercion…They don’t cover modern day issues like social media…They also don’t cover sexist jokes, objectification and the impact of pornography.”
Of course, those are complex and delicate issues, and as Ofsted has pointed out, teachers cannot be left to handle them alone. That is why improving the guidance and materials given to teachers is so important, and we must make sure that is delivered.
I therefore have some questions for the Minister. How many of the 10 recommendations made by Ofsted’s review of sexual abuse in schools and colleges have the Government implemented? Will he commit today to provide and improve training for teachers and staff and deliver the materials they need, in one place and in a timely manner, to aid lesson planning during the academic year? What steps is he taking to help schools and colleges shape their curriculum? When does he expect to fulfil the pledge set out in the schools White Paper to
“create and continually improve packages of optional, free, adaptable digital curriculum resources for all subjects”?
How will the Minister improve the advice he is providing to parents and carers about how to support teachers’ work at home? What conversations has he had with the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport about defining categories of harmful online content on the face of the Online Safety Bill, and has he made representations that the scope of that Bill should cover all services likely to be accessed by children?
Labour strongly believes that relationship, health and sex education must be an indispensable part of any curriculum. We want to see young people leaving school ready for work and for life, and such education is an essential part of that aim. As it stands, RHSE provision is failing our children and leaving them open to a world in which sex and relationships are misunderstood, harassment is commonplace, and unhealthy and damaging behaviours are rife.
We have a responsibility to our children to ensure they can meet the world as it is now, not as we think it should be or how it was before. Most importantly, we have to give them the tools to shape the world as it will be, and to protect themselves and look after each other in a compassionate and inclusive way. At its most basic, relationship and sex education is about legislation and guidance, but in reality, it is about the information and power we give to young people to shape their world. I hope we can spend more time looking at it in that way, so that we can deliver better futures for all our young people.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Miriam Cates), along with my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Jackie Doyle-Price) and the hon. Member for Canterbury (Rosie Duffield), on securing today’s debate. I extend my thanks to everybody who has spoken in the debate; I apologise if I do not have time to respond to every single point that was made, but I think I can respond to many of the points made by the hon. Member for Portsmouth South (Stephen Morgan).
I have listened carefully to some of the examples that have been given by Conservative and Opposition Members, in particular those cited by my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge. There is no doubt that some of those things are totally unsuitable for school-age children: “age is only a number” is clearly an unsuitable phrase to be used in the context of consent, and the Department has been clear that the Proud Trust’s dice game is unacceptable for use as a school resource. I have to say that, despite a lot of coverage of that particular issue, we are unaware of any individual cases in which that game has been used in schools.
High-quality relationship and sex education is important, and—as my hon. Friend has set out, based on her own experience—can play a key role in keeping children and young people safe, equipping them to understand and resist harmful influences and expectations. It can do so only if it is taught well and appropriately, and good teachers working in good schools that engage expertly with parents can find the right balance. To support teachers to deliver in the classroom, we have run expert-led teacher training webinars that covered pornography, domestic abuse and sexual exploitation—topics that teachers told us they find difficult to teach. We also published additional guidance to schools on tackling abuse, harassment, and other sensitive topics.
It has been almost three years since the Department published statutory guidance on relationship, sex and health education, and almost two years since relationship education became a compulsory subject for all schools and relationship and sex education became a compulsory subject for all secondary schools. As has been acknowledged, primary schools can choose to teach sex education in order to meet the needs of their pupils, but if they do so, they must consult with parents on their policy and grant parents an automatic right to withdraw their child from sex education lessons.
Does the Minister agree that, given that point about parents wanting to see the material, it is disturbing that my colleagues and I have heard reports from headteachers that they are not allowed or enabled to share that material from some of the groups because it is deemed “commercially sensitive”?
It is concerning, and I want to come to that in more detail, because I think I can help provide some clarification.
At the heart of RSHE is the need to keep children healthy, happy and safe. The hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Lloyd Russell-Moyle) gave a very powerful example of where more education could make a difference in terms of safety. I sympathise with his deep hurt. My hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock also spoke passionately about safety and the centrality of consent. That includes knowing the law on relationships, sex and health, teaching about relationships from primary school onwards and ensuring that younger children understand the importance of building caring friendships and learn the concept of personal privacy, including that it is not always right to keep secrets if they relate to being safe, and that each person’s body belongs to them.
In the schools White Paper, the Government committed to keeping children safe by strengthening RSHE, as well as our statutory safeguarding guidance “Keeping children safe in education”. The hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Neale Hanvey) spoke about the centrality of safeguarding in that. That will support schools to protect children from abuse and exploitation in situations inside and outside school. The guidance is updated annually, and it is clear that schools and colleges should be aware of the importance of making it clear that there is a zero-tolerance approach to sexual violence. Sexual harassment is never acceptable. It should not be tolerated and never be passed off as banter, just having a laugh, part of growing up or boys being boys. Failure to do so could lead to an unacceptable culture of behaviour, an unsafe environment or, in the worst-case scenarios, a culture that normalises abuse, so that children accept it as normal and do not come forward to report it.
The RSHE statutory guidance advises schools to be alive to issues such as sexism, misogyny, homophobia and gender stereotypes and to take positive action to tackle those issues. As part of relationships education, all primary school pupils are taught about the importance of respect for relationships and the different types of loving, healthy relationships that exist. Pupils will also be taught about boundaries and privacy and how to recognise and report feelings of being unsafe. To support teachers to deliver those topics safely and with confidence, we have produced RSHE teacher training modules, which are freely available on gov.uk. We have also committed to developing a further package of support for teachers to deliver lessons on sensitive topics, such as abuse, pornography and consent. That package includes teacher webinars delivered from March 2022 onwards and non-statutory guidance, which offers practical suggestions for supporting children and young people to develop healthy, respectful and kind relationships. The guidance has been informed by an evidence review, stakeholder input and an expert teacher group, and we will publish it this autumn.
The Ofsted review of sexual abuse in schools and colleges found that online forms of sexual abuse are increasingly prevalent, with 88% of girls and 49% of boys reporting being sent unwanted sexual images and 80% of girls and 40% of boys pressured to provide sexual images of themselves. The review also showed that children, even in primary schools, are accessing pornography and sharing nude images. We want to make sure that children receive appropriate teaching in schools on topics that are relevant to their lived experience, rather than going online to educate themselves. Through the RSHE curriculum, pupils will be taught about online relationships, the implications of sharing private or personal data—including images—online, harmful content and contact, cyber bullying, an overreliance on social media and where to get help and support for issues that unfortunately occur online. Through the topic of internet safety and harms, pupils will be taught to become discerning customers of information and to understand how comparing oneself with others online can have an impact on one’s own body image. The Department is reviewing its guidance on teaching online safety in schools, which supports teachers to embed teaching about online safety into subjects such as computing, RSHE and citizenship. The guidance will be published in the autumn of this year. The Online Safety Bill will also ensure that children are better protected from pornographic content, wherever it appears online.
The statutory RSHE guidance sets out the content that we expect children to know before they complete each phase of education. We have, however, been clear that our guiding principles for the development of the statutory guidance were that all the compulsory subject content must be age-appropriate and developmentally appropriate. It must be taught sensitively and inclusively, with respect for the backgrounds and beliefs of pupils and parents, while always with the aim of providing pupils with the knowledge they need. Given the need for a differentiated approach and the sensitive and personal nature of many of the topics within the RSHE curriculum, it is important that schools have the flexibility to design their own curricula, so that it is relevant and appropriate to the context of their pupils. The Department’s policy, therefore, has been to trust the expertise of schools to decide the detail of the content that they teach and what resources they use.
As mentioned previously, we have made a commitment in the White Paper to strengthen our guidance in this respect. We will also review and update that guidance regularly—at least every three years. We are confident that the majority of schools are capable of doing this well and have been successful in developing a high-quality RSHE curriculum that is appropriate to the needs of their pupils, but, in the context of this debate, it is clear that that is not always the case and that there are genuine concerns about many of the materials that have been used.
I stress that allowing schools the flexibility to make their own decisions about their curricula does not mean that they should be unaccountable for what they teach. Schools are required by law to publish their RSHE policies and to consult parents on them. As their children’s primary educators, parents should be given every opportunity to understand the purpose and content of what their children are being taught. In the RSHE statutory guidance, which all schools must have regard to, we have set out a clear expectation for schools to share examples of resources with parents. Schools are also bound by other legal duties with regard to the delivery of the wider curriculum. All local authority maintained schools are required to publish the content of their school curriculum, including the details of how parents or other members of the public can find out more about the curriculum that the school is following. There is a parallel requirement in academy trust model funding agreements for each academy to publish the same information on its website. It is our intention that that should form part of the new standards for academies.
My hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge raised the point, which my hon. Friend the Member for Aberconwy (Robin Millar) echoed, that last week, in a Committee debate on the Schools Bill in another place, peers highlighted the fact that some schools believed that they were unable to share resources with parents because intellectual property legislation placed restrictions on them. We are clear that schools can show parents curriculum materials, including resources provided by external organisations, without infringing an external provider’s copyright in the resource. For example, it is perfectly possible for a school to invite parents into the school to view materials on the premises. Although of course we have to be mindful of not overburdening schools with repeated requests, we do expect schools to respond positively to all reasonable requests from parents to share curriculum material. We therefore expect schools to share RSHE content and materials with parents openly and transparently, where requested. We are clear that they should not enter into any contracts with third parties that seek to restrict them from sharing RSHE resources with parents.
The RSHE train the trainer programme, which we delivered from 2020 to 2021, brought to light several examples of good practice, including in schools that had engaged with parents effectively, but I apologise that I will not have time in this debate to address those.
Many schools draw on the expertise of external organisations, as we have heard, to enhance the delivery of RSHE, and many will use resources that are produced externally. To help schools to make the best choices, the Department published the non-statutory guidance, “Plan your relationships, sex and health curriculum”. That sets out practical advice for schools on a number of topics, including using externally produced resources. Indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge quoted from it.
Concerns have been raised today about what schools teach pupils on transgender issues. School should be a safe and welcoming place for all pupils. We believe that all children should be supported while growing up. However, we recognise that gender identity can be a complex and sensitive topic for schools to navigate and that there is sometimes tension between rights based on the two protected characteristics of sex and gender reassignment. We are working with the Equality and Human Rights Commission to ensure that we are giving the clearest possible guidance to schools on transgender issues. We will hold a full public consultation on the draft guidance later this year. Given the complexity of the subject, we need to get this right and we want to take full account of the review being conducted by Dr Hilary Cass.
I realise that my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge will need time to respond, so I conclude by saying that I hear very clearly the concerns that have been expressed. As a parent of both a girl and a boy, I know that we need to address these issues and to do so in a way that can reassure parents but continue to deliver high-quality relationships, sex and health education.
Thank you, Mr Dowd. I thank the Minister for his response. I am looking forward to seeing the consultation on the guidance. I thank everybody who contributed today. This has been a very good debate. We have had some surprising areas of agreement. I think that most of us have agreed that this is a very important topic. The key phrase that has come out is “age appropriate”. I personally do not think that it should be up to schools, teachers or, potentially, parents to have to decide that. I think that we need child development experts on the case to determine which materials are suitable for which time.
I will conclude by reflecting on the speech from my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Jackie Doyle-Price). Family is key to this, and parents’ values and parents’ choice are so important. We must never teach relationships and sex education in schools outside the context of respecting parents’ choice and parents’ values. Parents are the people who love and are most invested in children, and theirs are the views that we should most take into account.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered relationship and sex education materials in schools.