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Relationships Education, Relationships and Sex Education, and Health Education

Volume 796: debated on Monday 25 February 2019


My Lords, with the leave of the House I will repeat a Statement made in the other place earlier today by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Education. The Statement is as follows:

“With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a Statement to update the House on the Government’s proposals for the draft regulations and guidance for relationships education, relationships and sex education, and health education, following public consultation. It is 19 years since the sex and relationships guidance was last updated. The world that our children and young people face today is very different; how they build relationships, interact with their peers and manage their own mental and physical well-being has changed significantly. Along with all the positives of modern technology and new media come great risks, as children and young people are exposed to information, content and people that could and do cause harm. There is little distinction for many young people between their online and offline lives. That why I believe that, now more than ever, we need to provide young people with the knowledge they need in every context to lead safe, happy and healthy lives.

During the passage of the Children and Social Work Act 2017, with strong cross-party support, the Government brought about the introduction of compulsory relationships education for all pupils in primary schools and compulsory relationships and sex education for all pupils in secondary schools. In July I announced that in addition to this I would be making health education compulsory for all pupils in state-funded schools. Thanks and appreciation are due in particular to my right honourable friend for Putney for her leadership through these historic steps, my right honourable friend for Basingstoke and many others across the House, including the honourable Member for Rotherham. My sincere thanks also go to all the external groups and bodies that have contributed to this process, to the tens of thousands who contributed in the call for evidence and consultation and, particularly, to our education adviser, Ian Bauckham CBE. Today we have laid the regulations that, following debate, will finalise this process, as well as publishing the accompanying statutory guidance for schools.

It is clear—this was reflected in the consultation responses—that there are understandable and legitimate areas of contention. In reviewing responses and determining the final content of regulations and guidance, we have retained a focus on the core principles for the new subjects that Parliament endorsed through the Children and Social Work Act. Our guiding principles have been that these compulsory subjects should help to keep children safe; help to prepare them for the world in which they are growing up, including its laws that relate to relationships, sex and health; and to help to foster respect for others and for difference. Content must be age-appropriate and developmentally appropriate and taught in a sensitive and inclusive way, respecting the backgrounds and beliefs of pupils.

Parents and carers are of course the prime teachers for children on many of these matters, and schools complement and reinforce this role by building on what pupils learn at home. We have retained the long-standing ability of parents to request that their child be withdrawn from the sex education element of RSE. The school should respect the parents’ request to withdraw the child, except in exceptional circumstances, up to and until three terms before the child reaches the age of 16. At that point, if the child wishes to take part in sex education lessons, the head teacher should ensure that they receive it in one of those terms. In response to the consultation, we have further clarified in the guidance how and when a pupil’s special educational needs may be taken into consideration, and that head teachers should document their decision-making process on the right to withdraw.

We believe that after reviewing the consultation responses we have struck a balance between prescribing clearly the important core knowledge that all pupils should be taught while allowing flexibility for schools to design a curriculum that is relevant to their pupils. We made a small number of changes that we felt were important and would further strengthen the intent of the guidance. For example, we have made changes to the content on puberty to reflect that menstruation and menstrual well-being should be taught in all primary and secondary schools. Given the lack of distinction that young people see between online and offline contexts, we have expanded teaching about internet safety and harms to include content on the potential risks of excessive screen time and how to be a discerning and discriminating consumer of information and other content online. We have included teaching about rape, female genital mutilation and forced marriage in secondary RSE, and we have amended the content on organ and blood donation to include the science relating to stem-cell donation.

We are committed to ensuring that every school will have the support that it needs to deliver these subjects to a high and consistent quality by September 2020. We will be investing in tools that will improve schools’ practice, such as a supplementary guide to support the delivery of the guidance, targeted support on materials, and training. For the financial year about to begin, we have allocated up to £6 million to invest in the development of these tools. We will continue to encourage as many schools as possible to start teaching these subjects from September 2019, partly so that we can learn lessons and share good practice about how these subjects are being taught before the full mandatory rollout.

These new subjects will put in place the building blocks needed for healthy, positive, respectful and safe relationships of all kinds, starting with family and friends and moving out to other kinds of relationships, including those online. Young people will know what makes a good friend, a good colleague and a successful marriage, and what is acceptable and unacceptable behaviour in relationships. They will understand the positive effects that good relationships can have on their mental well-being. Alongside CPR and first aid, there will be now be mandatory teaching on mental health and well-being, as a foundation for our wider transformation programme on support services for children and young people’s mental health.

We believe that these proposals are an historic step in education that will help to equip children and young people with the knowledge and support that they need to form healthy relationships, lead healthy lives and be happy and safe in the world today. I commend this Statement to the House”.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating this important Statement. We welcome the fact that the Government are introducing the provisions of the Children and Social Work Act 2017 on the introduction of compulsory relationships education for all pupils in primary schools, and compulsory relationships and sex education for all pupils in secondary schools. In addition, health education is being made compulsory for all pupils in state-funded schools, which is also something that we regard as a positive move in preparing young people for an increasingly complicated world. I have a number of questions for the Minister and will be perfectly content if he wishes to respond in writing if he feels unable to answer them immediately.

The Secretary of State announced that he is making £6 million available for training and resources to support the new subjects, but that averages out at around £250 per school. What does the Minister expect schools to be able to achieve with such meagre additional resources? Can he further provide an indication as to whether these are indeed additional resources or whether they are recycled from within the DfE budget? How many teachers will be trained in the new subjects, and how many schools does he expect to be teaching them, by the date that he mentioned, September 2020?

I agree with the Secretary of State that these subjects are of vital importance, but I suspect I am not alone in wondering what he expects schools to teach less of in order to make room for these new subjects in the timetable.

I understand the Government’s position on the parental opt-out for relationships and sex education, but I have to ask why they would not give a child the right to be included in those lessons at any age instead of selecting what appears to be an arbitrary age at which point the child’s voice will be heard. The Statement says that the parental opt-out could be overruled in “exceptional circumstances”. Could the Minister give examples of what he believes would amount to such exceptional circumstances?

Noble Lords will have read of the dreadful bullying and mental health problems that affect LGBT people. The fact that these issues are included in the draft guidance could be a milestone in ensuring that these people and others can grow up understanding more and living in a safer environment. We are certainly glad that the draft guidance says that these topics must be fully integrated into the curriculum and not taught separately. Does the Secretary of State believe that there are any circumstances in which a school should be allowed to simply not teach LGBT issues as part of this curriculum? Obviously, it would undermine the whole thrust of the provisions if that were the case.

It can be only to everyone’s benefit if we better understand the differing issues that face each of us. I hope these regulations will mean that we can work on a cross-party basis to make that a reality for the next generation.

My Lords, following on from the questions from the noble Lord, Lord Watson, I would like to say that I agree with virtually every single one of them—indeed, all of them on this occasion. I also congratulate the Government on having done this. Apart from anything else, this is a good thing; there have been very few things from across the House recently which we have been able to say were a good thing, so whatever else, it makes a nice change. Also, it was announced on the radio this morning—I heard it while having my cornflakes—that certain groups were protesting against this activity. Let me congratulate the Government again; if you had not offended somebody when you did this, it would not be worth the paper it is written on.

I have one or two smaller questions, which follow on from those of the noble Lord, Lord Watson. First, on the tools and the £6 million, the noble Lord hit it absolutely squarely; that is a very small figure for the entire education system. How much ongoing training will be given to teachers in delivering this? Will it be worked into initial teacher training or education, whichever one you want to use? How much CPD will be used? This is a new set of skills that has to be worked into lessons. It will not be that easy; there will be mistakes. How will we look at this and review it? I think this is a very valid question. Do not damage a good thing for a ha’p’orth of tar. Make sure you do this correctly.

Also, when going through this process, can we make sure that the entire system comes around and behind it, so that we can deliver this properly? If we push it off into certain departments, or it becomes something which is normally seen in certain lessons, we will always have problems. It would be very helpful, either today or in some later guidance, to have some idea about how the Government will bring the system around this and how they will work this through.

Last, but I hope not least, I have a question about what it says in the Statement about people with special educational needs. What does the Minister mean by this? Of course, this is my own special area. Which groups is he talking about? Is there some style in this? A few people with autism may have some trouble understanding these topics, but only a few. Somebody with dyslexia may well have no problem with this. What do the Government mean by this? If you do not have the answer now, where will it be presented? The phrase about special educational needs takes into account 20% of the school population, so please give some guidance on this.

My Lords, on the questions from the noble Lord, Lord Watson, I hope I will address most of them here, but I will write on any that I have missed.

On funding, this is a ring-fenced sum of money. It comes out of the DfE budget, but as noble Lords will know, the DfE budget runs to tens of billions of pounds. This sum is allocated for this. I accept that the sum does not sound like a lot per school. One of the reasons why we are keen for schools to start to roll out this training in September of this year, before it becomes compulsory, is to get feedback from them on their experiences and whether they will need additional support.

A lot of resources are already out there, and they are good quality. For example, there is the Sex Education Forum, which, according to its website, which I looked at today, is endorsed by the ASCL, Unison and the NEU. These are all good-quality resources. It will be a matter of schools learning how to access them. If they feel there are gaps, they will feed that back to us and we will respond.

On how many teachers will be trained, we want to see this soft rollout starting in September to get a sense of how profound the additional training needs will be, going beyond what schools are already doing on PSHE, health education and other elements which are already in the curriculum. It will be a matter of seeing how much further they need to go from where they are at the moment, which also ties in with the question about room in the curriculum. There is already space in the curriculum for much of this, and we envisage there being adequate space. I will come on to that again when I answer the questions from the noble Lord, Lord Addington.

On the right to withdraw, this is a very difficult balancing act. The noble Lord, Lord Addington, made the point that we were always going to upset some people on either end of the spectrum. We believe the prevailing thrust of this is that parents should have responsibility for educating their children on these sensitive matters. We brought in the rule about three terms prior to age 16 because that is the legal age of consent for sexual intercourse, so it is important that some training is made available to children before then.

On “exceptional circumstances”, I think the term is what it is. It is extremely difficult to predict what these circumstances might be. We will see from our soft rollout starting in September if circumstances arise which are sensitive and need addressing. However, our view is that we want schools to make the judgments based on what is age appropriate and relevant to their own communities. Clearly, a metropolitan school might have a different kind of child who is more advanced in their understanding of the world than a child in a rural area. We have to be flexible on that.

On the issue of LGBT, which the noble Lord, Lord Watson, raised, we are very aware of the concern about bullying. The subjects are designed to educate pupils about healthy relationships. We have been clear that schools have flexibility on how they develop this, but in the Keeping Children Safe in Education guidance, for example, which we rolled out last year, we focused very much on bullying between children and situations where people may be of a different sexuality.

Turning to the noble Lord, Lord Addington, I thank him for acknowledging the cross-party support for this. It was heartening to listen to the debate in the other place this afternoon and see the strong cross-party support. I hope I have addressed some of the funding issues in my answer to the noble Lord, Lord Watson. The noble Lord, Lord Addington, raised the point about ongoing focus in this area. I absolutely agree that this is a Department for Education responsibility. A question was raised in the other place about the fact that it has been 19 years since we last did this and it better not be another 19 years before the next review. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State was keen to indicate that this would probably be reviewed every three years, but possibly more often. We absolutely accept that.

On SEND, coming back to my answer to the noble Lord, Lord Watson, about teaching being age appropriate, it also has to be appropriate for the mental development of a child. If a child’s special educational needs are particularly severe, schools will need to be more sensitive to the needs of that child, but as the noble Lord, Lord Addington, quite rightly says, with many SEND issues such as dyslexia, it will not really make any difference and the child would be treated in the same way.

I apologise for my earlier interruption. Noble Lords may put it down to keenness, as I am keen on this area of the school curriculum. I very much welcome the fact that this will be a compulsory subject in our schools; it has been a long time coming. The Minister rightly emphasised that teaching on keeping children safe, developing good relationships, self-esteem and sexual education has been recognised in surveys as having an impact on academic performance in schools.

We know that not all children learn about issues such as sex and relationship education and online safety at home. Indeed, many parents say that they are pleased and grateful that their children receive this kind of education from schools and other professionals. I hope the Government will not be swayed by negative impulses from media sensationalism about this, as we have seen already. Such treatment of serious subjects is a disservice to parents and children.

We have talked about funding; I hope that that will be sorted out. I also hope that schools will be encouraged to involve other professionals in delivering this programme, including school nurses, and will work across departments to share expertise and the funding that will be made available.

I reassure the noble Baroness that we are absolutely firm on steering the middle course that we have tried to achieve over this long period to get to this point. As she will know, the call for evidence generated some 23,000 responses; the response to the consultation generated another 11,000. On top of that, we had two petitions, with 29,000 names in combination. We have tried to steer a way through this and we believe that we have come up with a process that keeps the vast majority of parents happy and comfortable that we are doing this in the right way, but, as I said to the noble Lord, Lord Addington, we will keep this under review because we are in a fast-changing world, particularly online.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for the repetition of the Statement and for the guidelines. The Church of England’s chief education officer has in particular welcomed the stronger impetus on teaching faith perspectives relevant to people of all faiths and none, irrespective of the kind of school that they attend, which is key to combating religious prejudice.

I underline the concerns raised by noble Lords about resourcing. The Minister will be even more aware than I am—as Bishop of a diocese where there are some 283 church schools—of the pressure on budgets for head teachers and the stress that creates. I am very encouraged by the Minister’s comments that this will continue to be scrutinised.

I particularly welcome the emphasis in the document on mental health and on good education for an online world. Would the Minister like to comment on the interface between these very good guidelines on ensuring good teaching on this in primary and secondary education and the forthcoming online harms White Paper? Clearly, there needs to be dovetailing between good policy on education and good regulation to ensure that the environment in which our children and young people are growing up is adequately regulated and supervised.

The right reverend Prelate is absolutely correct to mention the whole issue of online safety and the regulation that I hope will curb some of the excesses we have seen over the last 10 years. One of the things we amended in the period between laying the original guidance and the consultation was to put more emphasis on encouraging children to have much more self-discipline and self-restraint in their use of the online world. It is a matter of great concern to me that teenagers are spending four or more hours a day in this medium, which cannot be healthy. All these things will need to be brought together. My friend, Minister Zahawi, recently established an online safety working group, made up of online safety and education experts, to help advise the department on future iterations of Keeping Children Safe in Education. Indeed, that could be strengthened to support schools if needed.

My Lords, many parents will have strong religious beliefs, be they Christian, Jewish, Muslim or others. Following up on what the right reverend Prelate said, can my noble friend assure me that at all stages the leaders of all the major faiths, both locally and nationally, will be consulted and referred to so that they can have an input? There is a passing reference in the Statement to respecting,

“the backgrounds and beliefs of pupils”,

but we need something rather more than that.

I reassure my noble friend that faith is a protected characteristic and we have been clear that schools have flexibility over how they deliver these subject so that they can develop an approach that meets the needs of their local community and/or religious beliefs. All schools will be required to take into account the age and religious backgrounds of their pupils when teaching these subjects.

My Lords, in paragraph 79 of the draft guidance there is a reference to FGM. Recent events have made it very clear that getting prosecutions, however desirable they may be, is extremely difficult. I commend the Government on coming to the conclusion that education in this area is perhaps the most important facet of stopping this revolting and awful practice. Can the Minister confirm that there will be a real emphasis on educating children about FGM and supporting them when they have friends who have experienced it and might be in need of help?

My Lords, I reassure the noble Lord that FGM is absolutely in the new guidance. It has been added as an extra subject. As my right honourable friend the Secretary of State said in the other place today, this is not just about educating young girls for their own protection but about changing the attitude to this in the long term so that those who go on to become nurses, doctors and health workers will understand the pure evil it represents.

My Lords, the Minister referred to good tools and materials such as those made available by the Sex Education Forum, but he will know that there are a lot of tools and materials produced by groups that have a particular perspective that they wish to push that would not comply with the objectives of these regulations. What guidance could he offer to pupils, staff or parents in a school who find themselves forced to use materials that do not fulfil the objectives set out in these regulations?

I reassure the noble Baroness that we will provide further advice to support schools to improve the practice and training that could be delivered using the latest technology, including opportunities for face-to-face training for teachers. We intend to produce supporting information by September for schools on how to teach all aspects of internet safety, not just those relating to relationships, sex and health, and to help schools deliver this in a co-ordinated and coherent way across the curriculum. They will of course be free to seek advice from the department on whether the various forums that are out there are considered good. I mentioned that forum because I did not get to my notes quickly enough, but there are several others, such as the PSHE Association; the Royal Foundation, set up by the two Dukes, which focuses on mental health; and the Catholic Education Service, which has also created a model curriculum for primary and secondary schools.

My Lords, I welcome this Statement, but does my noble friend the Minister agree that the press reports over the weekend suggesting that primary schools were teaching LGBT issues from the age of five cannot possibly be true? Can he also confirm that while there is no specific requirement to teach about LGBT in primary schools, they can cover LGBT content if they consider it age-appropriate to do so? Finally, can he confirm that age-appropriateness is ultimately a matter for the governors of a school?

To reassure my noble friend, it is not correct that young children aged five or six will be taught about sexual education. We are quite clear that that is not required until a child moves into secondary education. On LGBT, the approach at a young age is more about letting children understand that families come in different shapes and sizes, to remove any sense of bigotry that could develop at an early age through ignorance.

My Lords, will the Minister confirm that the Government will firmly adhere to the promise made in the Statement, that they have retained the long-standing ability for parents to request that their children be withdrawn from the sex education element of RSE? When it comes to exceptional circumstances, who decides what these are?

To reiterate, the right to withdraw is in the parent’s gift until the three terms before the child is 16. It is extremely difficult to predict what an exceptional circumstance would be, but paragraph 41 shows how clearly it is entrenched in this guidance:

“Parents have the right to request that their child be withdrawn from some or all of sex education delivered as part of statutory RSE. Before granting any such request it would be good practice for the head teacher to discuss the request with the parent and, as appropriate, with the child to ensure that their wishes are understood and to clarify the nature and purpose of the curriculum”.

Schools will want to document this process to ensure that a record is kept.

My Lords, I warmly welcome this new legislation, particularly in relation to mental health. However, I am very concerned that independent schools will not have to conform. People who go to independent schools are just as likely to suffer from mental health problems as those in state-funded schools. We should review this situation, because the demands are far more likely to fall on the NHS than on the private sector, if we have a group of people in independent schools who have not had what we are declaring is sound health promotion. I ask the Minister to consider this issue seriously.

Let me clarify the definition of an independent school: while academies are defined as independent schools, they fall within these regulations, so I can reassure the noble Baroness on that point. We are still in the stages of finalising the independent school guidance, and will address the issues raised.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the continuing advance of social media is presenting severe challenges for parents and teachers alike in knowing how and when it is best to deal with this difficult subject, in what is already a sensitive area? I welcome what the Secretary of State has announced today. It is right not only that it happens now, but that it be renewed on a very regular basis, to keep up with the changes in social media.

My noble friend is absolutely correct. Internet safety is an integral part of the subject content. The principles of positive relationships apply as much online as they do in other contexts. The distinction between the online world and other aspects of life is less marked for young people. Schools should support their pupils in distinguishing between different types of online content, and making well-founded decisions. As I mentioned earlier, we intend to produce supporting information for schools on how to teach all aspects of internet safety—not just relating to relationships, sex and health, but to help schools deliver in a co-ordinated and coherent way across the curriculum.

My Lords, it seems hard to find anything about morality or moral relationships in the Statement. Surely we can all agree that morality demands respect for others as unique persons? We hear a lot about bullying, grooming and seduction online. Will the Government go deeper than that and insist that there must be a solid moral base for education and lessons on all these subjects?

The Children and Social Work Act provided the Secretary of State with the power to make PSHE, and elements therein, mandatory in schools. This deals with some of the issues that the noble Lord raises. Regarding the latest changes to the guidance, we have included and clarified the values and personal traits that will give pupils the character to persevere, manage adversity and make a positive contribution to society. These items are very much embedded in the spirit of the document.

My Lords, does the Minister accept that there is the potential within his Statement for undermining the authority of parents?

I have tried to reassure noble Lords that that is not the intention. We always recognise that parents should lead in this part of a child’s education, and are not intending to undermine that in any way.

Does my noble friend agree that these regulations are essential if teachers are to be able to give children a firm, proper understanding of very sensitive issues that, left untaught, can so easily give rise to vicious bullying of LGBT pupils, and serious sex offences at a young age? As far as independent schools are concerned, to which reference has been made, has my noble friend noted the wide support that they have given to the Government’s proposals? This means they are likely to be widely adopted. As one who follows independent schools affairs closely, I have been very struck with the seriousness with which they are treating mental health issues.

My noble friend raises an important point. These issues are a matter of safeguarding, not only against bullying but in ways such as recognising unhealthy relationships and symptoms of poor mental health. These subjects are designed to support all children to be healthy, happy, safe and respectful, both in the school environment and the wider world. We are committed to ensuring that schools and teachers are supported and ready to teach these subjects to a high standard. The £6 million we have announced today is an initial amount for the 2019-20 financial year, which will be used to develop the programme of support. I agree with my noble friend that independent schools have been very supportive in this process, and I am confident that they will follow the guidance.