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Sex and Relationships Education

Volume 776: debated on Thursday 24 November 2016


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they plan to make sex and relationship education part of the national curriculum.

My Lords, there are currently no plans to review the national curriculum. This Government want to provide all young people with a curriculum that prepares them to succeed in modern Britain, and that includes sex and relationships education that is age-appropriate and fit for the world they live in today. The case for further action on PSHE and SRE delivery is actively under review, with particular consideration being given to improving quality and accessibility.

I thank the Minister for his reply. He will be aware that 5,500 sexual offences were reported to the police by UK schools over a three-year period up to 2015, including 600 reports of rape. That is probably just the tip of the iceberg. With many boys learning about sex from online pornography and some schools failing in their legal obligation to keep girls safe, does the Minister agree that there must be a whole-school approach on a statutory basis, with Ofsted including this subject in its inspections?

I agree entirely with the noble Baroness that it is completely unacceptable for pupils to learn about sex from pornography rather than from an age-appropriate programme of SRE in schools, and that a whole-school approach is appropriate. Of course, Ofsted has a vital role to play and takes an interest in all school provision, and in particular how schools provide spiritual, moral, social and cultural development for their pupils. The inspection handbook was updated in August. It now says that inspectors will look at records and analysis of: bullying; discriminatory and prejudicial behaviour, either direct or indirect, including racist, sexist, disability and homophobic bullying, use of derogatory language, and racist incidents.

My Lords, I am delighted that the Minister used the term “actively under review” because he himself, and indeed the Leader of the House on many occasions, have said they wished that PSHE and sex and relationships education were taught in our schools. He may be aware that in Scotland sex and relationships education is part of the curriculum; every young person receives that entitlement. Indeed, there is a syllabus from key stage 2 right through. Perhaps in his active review, the Minister might look at lessons that can be learned from Scotland.

The noble Lord makes a good point. We are very open-minded about this and will certainly do that.

Does my noble friend feel that in this area HIV should feature prominently, not only because it is so important in itself but also because the Government have set a target date for the elimination of this scourge?

My Lords, I declare an interest as somebody who leads the outreach programme in schools from Imperial College. We do a tremendous amount of work with teenagers around the age of 16. What is absolutely shocking is the very low number of girls who even know when ovulation occurs. The ignorance of the menstrual cycle and basic biology is striking. Is this not another example of the narrowness of the curriculum in schools that prevents a wider education generally and is very important in these matters?

I am fully aware of the programme that the noble Lord referred to at Imperial College, and I know that it is very much valued by the schools that participate in it. I am a bit shocked to hear what he said. Of course, these matters should be taught in science but clearly the issue he has raised is unacceptable and we need to look at it further.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that it is important for such education to be about not just sex and sexuality but sex and relationships? Should such education therefore include wholesome friendships and relationships between the sexes, the importance—as already discussed—of guarding against abuse, and the vital need for young people to have a healthy self-identity? On the last point, I commend the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Gloucester on her work with children on body image. What steps will the Government take to incorporate such broader issues and concerns into any sex and relationships curriculum?

I agree entirely with the right reverend Prelate. I know that the Church of England has a very good record on these matters. Of course, self-identity is very important. Public Health England has a Rise Above campaign that is intended to build the resilience of young people by providing online information and tackling issues, including the forming of body image.

My Lords, given the clear importance of this issue, is the Minister satisfied that school governors play a strong enough role in overseeing this whole situation?

As the noble Baroness will know, in the past few years we have tried to strengthen the role of school governors to make sure that they have the right skills. It is certainly true to say that many governors coming through now are fully aware of the role that schools should play in providing a much wider education and being aware of the issues facing young people being brought up in modern Britain.

That is certainly true. My noble friend makes a very good point about parents. We have done a lot of work with parents in relation to online security and access to things such as pornographic material. Of course, schools engage with parents increasingly well, but the sad fact is that too many of our young people are brought up in homes where, frankly, the only brick in life is their school—and it is schools that have to take an increasing responsibility.

My Lords, everyone in this House would wish us to tackle FGM, but for the past five years it has been impossible to get it into the curriculum. We are negligent in our duty if we do not enable young girls, who have no idea what is about to happen to them, to know what is going to happen, who to signpost and who to go to for help. Our front-line workers need the support of the Government to act against FGM.

I agree entirely with the noble Baroness. Of course, we have left it to schools to decide on appropriate training on SRE and PSHE, considering the particular populations that they have. I know that many schools take this very seriously, but I will look particularly at how much this is included in our thinking. I certainly hope and am sure it is, but I will check.

My Lords, I am very pleased to hear the Minister say that he is rolling out PSHE; that is great. He referred to a review on SRE. Perhaps he could tell us who is participating in the review, what the timing is, and whether it will take into account that all the evidence shows that at least 70% of parents, 70% of school governors and 70% of teachers believe that SRE should be a statutory subject on the curriculum.

As I said, we are actively considering what our next steps should be. It may well be that such a review will be one of them.

My Lords, the last time noble Lords had the opportunity to consider this question was in February this year on a Question from my noble friend Lady Massey. On that occasion, the Minister replied:

“We have now asked leading head teachers and practitioners to produce an action plan for improving PSHE. We shall continue to keep the status of the subject under review and work with these experts to identify further steps that we can take to ensure that all pupils receive high-quality, age-appropriate PSHE and sex and relationship education”.—[Official Report, 10/2/16; col. 2233.]

I emphasise the word “ensure”. The Minister who gave that reply has since moved on—indeed, she is now Leader of your Lordships’ House—but the question of PSHE has not. Can the Minister say, first, what happened to the action plan, and, secondly, how he plans to ensure that all schools inform their pupils of the crucial issues involved in this subject so that they are adequately prepared for adult life?

As I think I said, our thinking has moved on somewhat further, which may please some noble Lords, and I hope that we will be able to say more about this shortly.