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Relationships, Sex and Health Education: Statutory Guidance

Volume 750: debated on Thursday 16 May 2024

With your permission, Madam Deputy Speaker, I will make a statement to the House setting out the Government’s proposals for updating the 2019 statutory guidance on relationships, sex and health education, which my Department has published today for consultation. I thank my Department’s staff for their hard work in getting us to this point.

This Government have a plan to deliver a brighter future for Britain, one where families are supported and given peace of mind that their children are safe, and are being equipped with the skills that they need to succeed. Good relationships, sex and health education—RSHE, as it is known—plays a key role in that. However, following disturbing reports from parents of pupils being taught inappropriate content in schools, and requests from schools that wanted more clarity about when to teach certain topics, the Prime Minister and I decided to bring forward the review of RSHE. We have listened to colleagues from across Government and the House, gathered evidence from stakeholders, and considered advice from an independent panel of experts who generously gave their time, experience and knowledge to support the review last year. I put on record my personal thanks to each individual panel member.

We need to make sure that the content of lessons is factual and appropriate, and that children have the capacity to fully understand everything that they are being taught. We need to make sure that our children are prepared for the world in which they live, but not in a way that takes away the innocence of childhood. In short, we need to allow our children to be children. That is a fine line to tread, and schools need clarity on how to approach the issue. Overall, this guidance is underpinned by three core values: first, that parents have a right to know what their children are being taught; secondly, that teachers are there to teach children facts, not push the agendas of campaign groups; and thirdly, that schools should not teach about the contested issue of gender identity, including that gender is a spectrum.

There are five major policy changes that I would like to set out, the first of which is the introduction of age limits for teaching sensitive subjects. The purpose of the new age limits is to make sure children are not taught things before they are ready to understand them. Informed by the advice of the independent panel and others, the guidance places specific age limits on the teaching of certain subjects. In primary schools, children learn about the importance of boundaries and privacy and that they have rights over their own bodies, but no 10-year-old should be taught about the details of intimate sexual acts, sexual harassment or sexual violence. In primary schools, sex education is not a requirement, and should only be introduced from year 5 onwards. Its content should align with the national curriculum’s science teachings on conception and birth, ensuring that it is rooted in fact. It should absolutely not be preparing primary-age children for sexual activity.

The second flagship change is complete openness with parents. Parents are their children’s first teachers, and they must know what they are being taught. The guidance contains a new section that makes the need for transparency with parents crystal clear and clarifies the scope within the law to share materials. The bottom line is that curriculum providers should not be seeking to hide their materials from parents. That practice is completely unacceptable: parents have a fundamental right to know what their children are being taught about healthy relationships, sex and development.

The third area is teaching about gender reassignment. Many schools have told us that they need clear guidance to help them teach about this highly sensitive and complex issue in a way that is factual and safe. We are making it absolutely clear that the contested topic of gender identity should not be taught in schools at any age. Schools should not be providing classroom materials that, for example, include the view that gender is a spectrum. While protected characteristics such as gender reassignment should be taught about, that must be done on a factual basis at an appropriate age and must not be based on contested ideology. That reflects the cautious, common-sense approach that we have taken in our guidance on children questioning their gender, and also reflects the recommendations of the Cass review.

There is also a dedicated section on sexual harassment and sexual violence. The growth of malign influencers online who pose a risk to children and young people has been significant. It is one of the key ways in which the world has changed for young people since the guidance was originally published—and, indeed, since all of us Members were in school. That new section covers some specific types of abusive behaviour that were not previously discussed, such as stalking, as well as advice for teachers about how to address dangerous, misogynistic online influencers.

I would now like to consider the sensitive, but important, issue of suicide prevention. Ministers and I have met bereaved families, experts and teachers to explore how suicide prevention could be taught as part of RSHE, and I pay tribute to the incredible work of 3 Dads Walking, who have used the unimaginable tragedies in their lives to campaign for important change. The current RSHE guidance already includes content about teaching pupils to look after their mental wellbeing and support themselves and their friends. We have now made clearer how that content on mental wellbeing relates to suicide prevention. Of course, the topic of suicide itself needs to be handled sensitively and skilfully, and not before pupils are ready to understand it. Obviously, children’s maturity varies, but our engagement suggested that children typically develop the necessary understanding from when they are in year 8. We have made sure that the updated guidance acknowledges that it can be important to discuss this topic with pupils, and have added advice to set out how schools could address suicide prevention in their teaching.

Finally, the guidance also includes the new topic of personal safety, which covers additional content on understanding the laws on carrying knives and knife crime, and on the dangers of fire, roads, railways and water.

Together, I am confident that this guidance will give teachers and headteachers clarity about what should and should not be taught. It will provide parents with the peace of mind that their children are being taught in a safe and factual manner, and it will reassure everyone across society that pupils are being taught what they need to know at the right age and time in their lives. A copy of the guidance has been deposited in the Libraries of both Houses. I commend this statement to the House.

I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of her statement.

Labour’s approach starts from the belief that education should prepare our children for the world in which they live and the future that they, together, will shape. To achieve that, and to give each and every child the opportunity and the future they deserve, relationships, sex and health education must be an integral part of every child’s education. The content of such education must be both age-appropriate and taught in a respectful manner, as well as tailored to the realities of children’s lives. The Secretary of State has set out that the Government intend to achieve this through the introduction of age limits on certain aspects of this curriculum.

Today’s statement has been long in the making. Alongside school leaders, we have consistently pushed for clearer guidance on these issues to be introduced so school leaders and teachers can feel confident and supported in what they are teaching. While we are pleased that the guidance has at last been published, there is deep concern about the lack of consultation with school leaders in developing the guidance so far. If the Government are serious about ensuring that RSHE is taught in a dignified and respectful manner, and in a way that schoolteachers and school leaders feel they can confidently deliver, they must ensure that the voices of school leaders and teachers are heard.

I want to ask the Secretary of State to address a couple of concerns in particular. The first concern arises from the reality that education is one of our strongest levers for preventing child abuse. It is crucial at a time of rising levels of sexual offences against children, especially our youngest children, that children are empowered to recognise when something is not right. The Secretary of State will know that sometimes such issues arise urgently, in a class or a wider school community, outside the timeline that a teacher may have in mind, and perhaps even before the age limits she is proposing. So will she say something about the ability of teachers to respond to and reflect such concerns in future in the context of age limits, especially when they arise among younger children?

The second concern is about the importance of children learning not just about their own relationships tomorrow, but about their own and other people’s families today. The Opposition believe that what matters about families is not the shape they have, but the love they give. Teaching children about the facts of the world in which they grow up must include an understanding that there are people who are transgender, that people can go through a process to change their gender and that the law provides for that. The Secretary of State outlined a little of her thinking in her statement and on Radio 4 this morning, but could she set it out in more detail for the House?

On some of the other issues raised by this guidance, Labour very much welcomes the intention of the guidance to remove the barriers that some parents face when asking what is being taught to their children. Of course parents should know what their children are being taught. While providers are already required to do this, it is acknowledged that there have been issues with interpretations of copyright legislation, and it is absolutely right that Ministers seek to clarify this issue.

We also welcome the fact that there will be additional content on suicide prevention in the secondary curriculum, as well as on the risks of self-harm and suicide content on social media. However, it needs to be backed up with support in schools to adequately address the challenges that far too many children and young people face with their mental health. Labour has a funded plan to ensure that every young person will have access to a specialist mental health professional at secondary school, and a plan for mental health hubs in every community. While we await the next Labour Government, this Government must urgently set out how they will get down the waiting lists for child and adolescent mental health services, and deliver support to the children and young people who need it most.

We also welcome the inclusion of content on sexual harassment and sexual violence. Yesterday, I joined the leader of Redbridge Council and teachers to hear about the innovative Step In programme that they are delivering in schools to tackle sexist harassment and misogyny. It was really inspiring to see the students so confidently addressing the issues with their peers and changing attitudes. I hope that, as part of the review, the Government will look at some of the fantastic resources local authorities have developed while waiting for the Government to act.

We will now need to look at the exact detail of the draft guidance, as will schools. It is really important that stakeholders from across education are able to feed back their views on this, and I hope the Government will reflect on them when finalising this guidance, and listen to the voices of schools, parents and young people in doing so.

I would like to address the hon. Lady’s points; I think I made a note of all of them. First, on this being long in the making, I just want us all to be aware of the timeline. This guidance was issued in 2019, and it was made statutory in 2020. Ofsted conducted some work to see how it was bedding in, which gave us some feedback and comment about how more clarity was needed. That was in the second half of 2021. Obviously, we have taken leadership on this issue—leadership on which I think Labour-run Wales could take a leaf out of our book—and worked with a broad range of organisations. I have mentioned the expert panel, but we have worked with 86 other organisations as well. Of course, this step is out for consultation, so we do expect that everybody who has a view—parents, teachers, local authorities and everybody—will be able to fully engage with the consultation.

On the question about when an urgent issue comes up, or a child wants to ask questions or deal with something specific that they have seen or that has occurred to them, we of course expect that children can always ask questions. We build safe and trusting environments in schools, and there is a difference between a pupil asking a teacher a question or trying to discuss something with a teacher and a teacher standing up in front of a whole class and teaching on a particular subject.

On the question about knowing about transgender—that gender reassignment exists, a law provides for it, it is a protected characteristic and it is something adults can do when they are older—and understanding those facts, we have of course made it clear that that is the case.

On mental health support teams, the Labour party seems to have missed what we have been doing on mental health. In every school in our country, we have given a grant to train a mental health support leader, and most of that work has been done. Our schools have been engaged on that for a long time, and 4.2 million pupils, up from 3.4 million pupils last year, now have access to the mental health support teams that we are rolling out in all of our schools. That is rather different from the Labour policy in that we do not have to completely raid any other sector such as support for special educational needs and disabilities or private schools to do that. We are also doing that for primary and secondary, because we think that is very important.

The hon. Lady mentioned materials, and I just want to update the House that Oak materials will be available in RSHE in the autumn.

I thank the Secretary of State for putting forward proposals that children need and that teachers, parents and school leaders have wanted. It seems to me that a lot of people are now saying, “Of course, what she’s doing is right”, and a year or two ago they were not saying that.

I would just say in passing that some people who have been providing sex education lessons and gender lessons in primary schools boast that they have presented to 100,000 children and trained over 4,000 staff, and I think that kind of infiltration has to end.

Can I also say to the Secretary of State that I hope her permanent secretary and others are listening to their SEENs—sex equality and equity networks—when they raise, or try to raise, the point with their Departments that when Departments ask questions about gender, they should be asking questions about sex?

I thank the Father of the House, who, as usual, shows true leadership in this area, as in many others. He is absolutely right that there are examples of organisations with material on their websites that we think is inappropriate, because it is teaching contested views as facts, boasting about how many schools they have worked with. Some organisations—I will not name them—have been teaching children about gender, gender expression, gender roles and different kinds of gender identities, and they claim to have worked with over 500 schools. There are many examples of that. That is why we had to show leadership on this. This is important: we have showed leadership in the area of gender questioning, and we have been clear about biological sex and how to teach that in schools. In Labour-run Wales, I believe they have removed all reference to “man” and “woman” in the curriculum, and they recommend that sex is not just about male or female. I want to look into whether those reports are true, but I would be happy to support the Welsh Cabinet Secretary for Education with that, because it needs to be taken seriously. People have very much changed their views on this issue.

The Children’s Commissioner has found that exposure to pornography is affecting children as young as eight— I am sure none of us would want that to be the case, but we have to deal with the world as it is, not as we might wish it to be. How will the Secretary of State support schools to manage pupils’ reactions to what they are seeing online—we know they are being exposed to things online that we wish they were not seeing—if those issues cannot be addressed in RSHE?

Part of leadership and showing leadership is also dealing with those things we are not happy with. We are not happy that young children are having access to porn, which is why other measures are also being put in place through the Department for Science, Innovation and Technology. Of course, it is always possible that children get access to things that they should not see, and they might raise questions as a result of that. Usually, parents are the first educators of their children. Parents would be the first people to get that question, and they would certainly expect to help their child through those things. As I said, if a child raises a question with a teacher, the teacher will deal with that, but that is different from teaching and showing anything that is sexually explicit in a classroom. We want to ensure that children are not exposed to such things in the first place, because this is something that has changed, and we must show leadership to address that.

In answer to a question on 29 April, the Minister for Schools, my right hon. Friend Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds), strongly endorsed the importance of sections 406 and 407 of the Education Act 1996, which respectively ban the promotion of partisan political views, and require the balanced presentation of opposing views when politically contentious subjects are brought to the attention of pupils. Gender ideology is certainly politically contentious, and I was concerned to be alerted by Mrs Clare Page, the educational commentator and campaigner, to the Department’s “Political impartiality in schools” guidance 2022, which states:

“Legal duties on political impartiality do not supersede schools’ other statutory requirements. Schools should take a reasonable and proportionate approach to ensuring political impartiality, alongside their other responsibilities.”

I do not know how you would read that, Mr Deputy Speaker, but I read it as an attempt to undermine the firm guidance given in statute law that partisan political views must not be promoted in school. I hope the Secretary of State will look into that matter.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for raising that point. Political impartiality is important, and the guidance he read out is meant to cover some commonsense exceptions. For example, some people would argue against democracy, and we do not want to give them a platform; some people would argue for racism, and we do not want to give them a platform, and so on. Those are the sorts of exceptions and contentions, and I will ensure that we look at the guidance to see that it is clearly understood by everybody. It is important to be clear. This issue has developed and grown, and our understanding of this area has grown over time. That is what the guidance is meant to do; it is not to undermine political impartiality or the rule of law.

In reviewing the 2019 guidance, does the Secretary of State share my concern that not enough is being done on child safeguarding when it comes to child sexual exploitation, and in particular awareness raising, so that children and parents understand the warning signs? Across many towns a play called “Somebody’s Sister, Somebody’s Daughter” was rolled out to secondary-school age children, and that led to 150 disclosures of concern by children about family members or other pupils at the school, where they had seen those patterns of grooming potentially at play. Does the Secretary of State accept that however we want the world to be, 43% of year 3 children—seven and eight-year-olds—have access to a smartphone? If we do not teach these things in schools, they will find out information through other routes, and that will not be at all helpful for the safeguarding of children.

Another approach is obviously looking at access to smartphones at a very young age. On the point raised by the hon. Gentleman, the most appropriate guidance is “Keeping children safe in education”, which is a substantial piece of guidance and used regularly by schools. It is also regularly reviewed. Of course there is a live discussion about our concerns regarding children having access to harmful content through mobile phones at a young age. We will continue to consider that, and that is why I took a step to also ban the use of smartphones in schools.

The poet John Betjeman said:

“Childhood is measured out by sounds and smells and sights, before the dark hour of reason grows.”

Darkness falls when very young children are forced to know too much, too early, and their innocence is stolen. In warmly welcoming the Government’s approach, will the Secretary of State look again at those third-party organisations that are often invited into schools, sometimes witlessly, sometimes carelessly? For they steal children’s innocence, often in the name of diversity and inclusion, and in so doing, promote, promulgate and perpetuate every kind of horror.

Not only will I now be able to look at the materials, but so will parents, and so will Ofsted when it reviews what is happening in schools against the guidance we have issued. Transparency is important. Obviously we should ensure that materials are appropriate and the guidance is there as well, but I believe that transparency will act as a great guide to ensure the right materials are in our schools.

The Secretary of State and I grew up in the same part of the world, a few hundred yards away from each other, albeit at different times. In my time, there was no way in which children could discuss these issues with their parents, who did not feel that it was at all appropriate. They were certainly never discussed in my school, just as I am sure that in the Secretary of State’s later time they were not discussed. The most I can remember is being shown a second world war film by a PE teacher about sexually transmitted diseases, which frankly terrified me. I am sure the Secretary of State will agree that it is time that teachers got the guidance they need so that they can have sensible conversations with young people and—for that matter—parents as well. Does she agree that we need to have this conversation respectfully, and create not dividing lines but common ground? In that respect, will she urge some of her Government colleagues to stop using the issue to create dividing lines?

Let me reassure the right hon. Gentleman. Although we were a couple of years apart in Knowsley, sex education did not change an awful lot. We had two lessons—one where girls and boys were apart, and one where they were together, where we were shown a film about childbirth. I think part of the class collapsed at that point, and a couple fainted, and that was it. Times have moved on a lot. Even education in Knowsley has moved on a lot. I am delighted that we now have some good schools. Indeed, 90% of our schools are now good or outstanding, and that includes Knowsley, which I am sure the right hon. Gentleman and I are delighted about. It is important to show leadership on these issues, but it is also important to do so respectfully. That is something I have always sought to do, to answer and respond to a problem, and these concerns have been raised by parents and by teachers, requesting more clarity. I have tried to respond to that with the gender questioning guidance, and with the guidance under discussion. It is important that we respectfully discuss these matters.

Today is a very good day. From what I have read and from what I have heard the Secretary of State say at the Dispatch Box, this guidance is what we have been waiting for. I thank the Prime Minister, the Secretary of State and the Minister for Schools, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Hampshire (Damian Hinds), who is sat to her side, for listening to me and many other colleagues. Some of those debates have been extremely heated, but I feel so passionately about this, as does my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Miriam Cates) and the hon. Member for Canterbury (Rosie Duffield).

It is a very good day. I will be studying the guidance over the weekend, and I hope we can have further meetings about it over the coming weeks. Parents do not want their children being taught by Stonewall and Brook. They do not want them teaching an ideology not based in anything. Children need teaching the facts by all accounts, but they have to be facts of truth—that is where we need to be. Age appropriateness is also extremely important, and I welcome that measure, too. Children are children, and they should be kept as children as long as possible. It is a precious time that we all wish we could go back to. We do not want to be putting our children into adulthood far too soon. I welcome this guidance.

I have three issues that I would like to raise quickly, if that is okay. There is literature within the school system that we need to ensure is removed. There is an awful lot, and one of the biggest problems we have had is the denial of that literature being in schools. It is in these schools, it is online, it is in paper, it is all over the place and it needs to come out. [Interruption.] Very quickly, we need to enforce this guidance, once it is done, because we have schools that still do not want to enforce it. Finally, I still believe we need a public inquiry into how we got to this point and how we put 9,000 children on a damaging health path. We need to address that. The guidance is very good news; I welcome it.

I thank all Members of the House who have discussed this matter respectfully, as well as contributing to and developing our understanding of what is going on in schools. On what is there in schools— I welcome my hon. Friend’s welcoming of this guidance—materials will now have to be shown to parents, no ifs, no buts, and we have made that crystal clear. The materials will need to be in line with the guidance. On enforcement, Ofsted will, as part of what it usually does, go round and look at schools. It will also look at the guidance and what is being taught against it, so there is an enforcement process, too. It has not been easy to put this guidance together, and I thank all the members of the teams and Members of the House who have helped us in that.

I welcome the Secretary of State’s statement today, although I fear it is a bit overdue. Will she concede that this debacle originated at least in part from the World Health Organisation’s “International technical guidance on sexuality education”? It is happening across the world, not just in this country, and that has led to a deeply damaging situation, where unscientific gender ideology has been pushed to our children in our schools. Will she explain to the House how many children she believes have been exposed to this abuse? What steps will she take to correct the mistakes that have already been made? What assurance is there for parents that nothing like this can ever happen again and that it is being stopped today?

I take responsibility for England, and I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s welcoming of the guidance. I think we have shown leadership. We issued gender questioning guidance in December last year. We have updated the relationships, sex and health education guidance. Within the United Kingdom, there have been different views on this, and I reiterate my offer to Wales and Scotland, if they want to work with us, because the evidence has been emerging on this. I can only show leadership in the areas for which I am responsible.

I welcome this guidance. It goes further than I thought, and it is unambiguous. It is not about creating dividing lines. I was quite late to this debate, until I realised it was an actual issue. I came across evidence of some worrying practices that were going on, and then I became involved in the issue. It is so important that the statutory guidance has teeth. Even after this unambiguous guidance, if a school repeatedly breaches it, what mechanism is in place to hold that school to account? On transparency, parents need to know what their children are being taught. If there are examples of schools being evasive, even after this guidance, what powers are in parents’ hands to ensure that they can find out the facts?

The guidance is very clear. It is unusual to have guidance that is largely aimed at schools, but that has some parts for parents, too. We will put more communication for parents on the education hub so that they know what their rights are as a result of this guidance. When taking these positions, we can always think, “What does the counterfactual look like?” It would be ridiculous to suggest that parents should not see the materials that their children are being taught from in schools. On enforcement, as I have mentioned, the guidance will become part of the usual school enforcement. Ofsted will look at this guidance and at what is happening in schools, and use that as part of its inspections.

Seven years ago, before I came to this House, I spent 20 years teaching, some of the time in the north-west of England and some of it in Wales. I knew, as a modern foreign languages teacher, that relationships and sex education was something that I had to deliver. The majority of teachers who have to deliver RSE are not trained, and that still concerns me. I saw at first hand how lobby groups have easily been able to permeate this area in England and Wales.

While the guidance is welcome, it is very late. I appreciate the comments that the Secretary of State has made about the devolved nations. That shows why it is important that we take politics out of this debate. We must present facts, and we must work together. Will she share the expert panel’s findings with the new Education Minister in Wales and have a grown-up conversation? Let us take the politics out of this, because these are people’s lives.

Absolutely. I hope the hon. Lady will have seen that that is just not my style. I try to see problems and fix them in a reasonable and respectful way. Quality materials are important. The hon. Lady may have had that training, but not every teacher will have. The quality of materials is vital, and it is clear, as we have heard from others, that there have been some poor-quality materials and some materials that were spouting nonsense, let us be honest. That is why we will be producing our own materials, which the Oak National Academy will produce in the autumn.

I would very much welcome a meeting with the Education Minister in Wales, who as the hon. Lady says is new and may not yet have looked at this matter in detail. To remove references to “man” and “woman” in the curriculum sounds ridiculous, and recommending teaching that sex is not just about male or female sounds ridiculous. Some of those materials may have made their way into the curriculum, and I would welcome the opportunity to work with any of the devolved nations to get those materials out of our schools.

That the statement has been so necessary today is a measure of the fact that some members of the teaching profession have taken leave of their senses. In that light, will the Secretary of State consider to what extent the remedy is guidance or statutory requirement?

It is statutory guidance. It will also be transparent, as the materials will now be available to parents. It is not only statutory guidance, but this area will be under the scrutiny of every parent in the school. It is clear that we need to support our teachers and headteachers to ensure that they get this right. The vast majority will be getting it right, but it is an area that not everybody is specifically trained to teach, so it is important that we provide the materials and the guidance and make sure that Ofsted enforces it.

In 2023, more than 400 young people were diagnosed with a sexually transmitted infection every day. Earlier this year, the Women and Equalities Committee found

“compelling evidence that Relationships and Sex Education…in schools is inadequate, including in relation to contraception and…STIs”.

The Children’s Commissioner has similarly attributed that shocking increase to the fact that we are not teaching our kids what they need to hear. Will the Secretary of State explain to the House how she thinks the new guidance, which seems to suggest that STIs will not be taught about before year 9—age 13 or 14—will address those shocking rates?

The new guidance will be supplemented with materials that will be available from Oak National Academy, which we will ensure address any of the concerns raised. I look forward to working with the Children’s Commissioner and others to make sure of that.

I welcome the focus on tackling misogyny online and the influencers who peddle it, but I worry that year 5 will be a little too late to stop that influence taking hold. I want to ask the Secretary of State about providing positive male role models for young boys, which is a really important part of this. Will she address that in the consultation?

Yes. Indeed, many Members of this House are positive male role models—there are many positive male role models—and we want to ensure that we celebrate and support positive male role models, not misogynistic online influencers. We need to teach children about the dangers of those people and ensure that their influence is countered by people who are real role models for children.

I commend the Secretary of State for her statement and the wisdom she has shown. The Democratic Unionist party welcomes the guidance issued to let kids be kids and to prevent sexualised content from being taught to under-nines. Indeed, the Government’s rationale is similar to that which I gave in the Chamber when I asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland not to change the RSE regime for Northern Ireland. Will the Secretary of State speak to her Cabinet colleagues to ensure that the innocence of our children is protected in all regions of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and that parents who are genuinely seeking to safeguard their children are afforded respect in terms of the classroom syllabus and have their rights to reasonably held views protected?

I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. Of course, what makes this subject difficult is the need to tread that fine line carefully—letting kids be kids while making sure that they are equipped in a world that is increasingly more complex than the world that we grew up in. We have sought very much to ensure that we get that balance right.