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Sex and Relationship Education

Volume 620: debated on Monday 23 January 2017

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Chris Heaton-Harris.)

Four Members have already told me that they wish to intervene, so I hope that others will bear with me. I think that that will probably be as much as we can contain within the time available.

Children have their first mobile phones when they are nine. Many have smartphones, with unlimited and sometimes unfettered access to the worldwide web and everything it has to offer, so we should perhaps not be surprised that by the time they leave primary school, most children will have seen online pornography and one in five will have had to deal with cyber-bullying. By the time that they finish secondary school, six in 10 will have been asked for a digital nude or sexually explicit image of themselves, usually by a friend. As a result, many will have discovered that private digital images of themselves can be passed on to thousands of people at the touch of a button. Removing such images from the worldwide web is all but impossible, which leads to difficult conversations with family, future employers and friends.

When the Women and Equalities Committee was preparing its report on sexual harassment in schools, we took evidence from children themselves, who told us that sexual harassment had become a normal part of everyday life. Women are called bitches, sluts or slags, and one in three 16 to 18-year-old women say that they have experienced unwanted sexual touching at school. Over the past three years, 5,500 sexual offences have been recorded in UK schools, including 600 rapes. Is abusive behaviour from the online world seeping into the offline world? Perhaps; I do not know.

The facts might look pretty stark to the Members who are present tonight. After hearing them, they might be less surprised to learn of the latest Barnardo’s research findings that seven in 10 children believe that they would be safer if they had age-appropriate classes in sex and relationship education at school. More than nine in 10 specifically said that it was important for them to understand the dangers of being online, especially when sharing images.

I understand and share my right hon. Friend’s concern about there being improved relationship education in schools, particularly for younger children, but does she agree that many parents would be concerned—I would be extremely concerned—if teaching sex education to primary school children were compulsory?

My hon. Friend is right that parents need to have a voice in all this, and I am sure that any consultation carried out by the Government would take that into account. Research published today by Plan International UK shows that eight in 10 adults in this country want sex and relationship education for children at school, but my hon. Friend is right that it has to be age-appropriate. In primary schools, for the most part, we are talking about making sure that children understand what a good and healthy relationship looks like.

I congratulate the right hon. Lady on raising this matter. Further to the point made by the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), it is crucial, as I have said previously, that parents have control and oversight of what happens to their children, especially when that pertains to outside influences. Does the right hon. Lady agree that parents first, as well as the Government, must consider that when thinking about any changes in sex education?

The hon. Gentleman is right that parents have a pivotal role, but so do schools, and I was about to come on to that.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way. Many of us did not get much from our parents, and many of us did not pass much on to our children, but the truth is that celibacy is the only thing that we cannot inherit from our parents, and many parents are too embarrassed to talk about these things to their children. Does she agree that it would be a good idea if parents and teachers discussed what children ought to know, and considered whether parents or teachers, or both, should talk to them about it?

As always, we hear pearls of wisdom from my hon. Friend, who knows that involving parents in decision making, and in determining ultimately what children really need to understand, at whatever age, is exactly the right way to proceed.

I know the Minister well, so I am sure that she will remind us that some of the best schools already teach children about mutual respect and self-respect, and about what makes a truly loving relationship. They go beyond what is currently compulsory—the mechanics of sex and the biology of reproduction—and tackle relationships and the context of a sexualised online world, because we need to help young people to make better and informed choices in those early years. However, it is surely clear to both me and her that many schools do not take that approach. Why should we sit by and allow children in those schools to lose out?

As I said, research published today by Plan International UK shows that eight in 10 adults think that teaching sex and relationship education should be compulsory in all schools, regardless of their status. We need children to be able to make informed choices. We need them to understand that sexting is illegal, and that it could affect their mental health, leave them open to extortion and perhaps limit their future career choices. We need them to understand that pornography does not reflect reality, and that bullying behaviour online is just as unacceptable as bullying behaviour offline. To be honest, it might be more accurate to call it relationship and sex education, because what children need more than ever is to understand what a healthy relationship really looks like. What they see and experience online is, for the most part, not that.

My right hon. Friend makes excellent points about sexting and unwanted touching, but does she agree that nowadays, given the insidious nature of early emotional abuse, it is vital that every child in school can understand the signs that it is happening?

My hon. Friend, who has a great deal of expertise in this area, is absolutely right. It is important that we give children the right information at the right time—that is what I am calling for.

Many of the reputable operators in the internet and mobile communications world understand the real downsides of their products, especially for children, and they are increasingly trying to fit parental controls to sort this out. However, at the moment those controls are only as good as we parents are, and about 40% of parents use them. Parents are conscious of the problems, but children use the internet for an average of more than 20 hours a week. Parents cannot look over their children’s shoulders at every moment and many simply feel out of their depth.

There are reasons for optimism. In a recent debate on the Children and Social Work Bill, Ministers clearly indicated that thinking was under way. The Government have already acted to show that they can work with the online industry. We should all applaud the work that David Cameron did to outlaw child abuse images online. He showed that the internet industry can act when it wants to. We can also welcome the work that the Government are doing to put in place effective age restrictions for online pornography websites.

I congratulate the right hon. Lady on securing this debate and the excellent work that her Committee has done in this area. Does she agree that it is significant that there is now such strong cross-party support for moving in this direction? Five Select Committee Chairs have now said that this is an important issue. Does she also agree that the statutory nature of her proposals is essential, because that will mean that children will get good sex and relationship education and personal, social and health education? We need the teacher training to be done well so that we can get good teaching.

The hon. Lady makes an incredibly important point. We need consistency but, as I pointed out earlier, we do not have that at the moment. Placing provisions on a statutory footing would provide such consistency.

The internet has changed everyone’s lives. For some, it has normalised sexualised behaviours, which children can find it difficult to respond to. I see the Barnardo’s research as a cry for help. Parents have to take overall responsibility, but schools have a pivotal role to play in helping more children to understand what a good relationship is and to make better decisions.

My right hon. Friend makes a cogent and compelling case. When we are discussing schools in this context, will she clarify that we are talking about not only local authority schools, but the growing academy sector? It is important that academies are included in such provisions.

I am sure that one of the many challenges for Ministers will be to ensure that every child can have the right sort of support and teaching. I do not underestimate the challenges that that will present, but I agree with the essence of what my hon. Friend says.

We can pretend that what we are talking about today does not affect children, or that parents have all the specialist knowledge that children need. Alternatively, we who are entrusted to shape our communities can do something different and act to clean up the internet, to support parents, and to give children the understanding that they need to make informed choices. Today’s debate is supported by leading charities including Barnardo’s, the Terrence Higgins Trust, the Children’s Society, the National Children’s Bureau and Plan International UK, as well as by the guides, the scouts and Liberty. They all want sex and relationship education to be compulsory. At the moment, schools are relying on guidance that was agreed more than a decade ago when the internet was still out of most children’s reach. They have failed to adapt to what children need, and it is little wonder that Ofsted recently judged 40% of schools to be inadequate in their teaching of SRE.

Who are we to ignore children calling for change? Children have only one chance of a childhood. We know the damage that is being done by cyber-bullying, sexting and the underage viewing of extreme pornography, and we have an obligation to act. I therefore have a question for the Minister, my friend from Hampshire: how will the Government respond to the seven in 10 children who want change? What are the Government doing, and when will that change happen?

I should like to start by congratulating my right hon. Friend—and, indeed, my real friend—the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) on securing this really important debate. I share her view on the importance of children and young people having access to effective, factually accurate, age-appropriate sex and relationship education. This is a subject that the Government take very seriously, and we have welcomed the extremely helpful input of many Members across the House and, not least, of my right hon. Friend’s Women and Equalities Committee. We also welcome the ongoing scrutiny of the Children and Social Work Bill. The Government are committed to exploring all the options to improve delivery of sex and relationship education and personal social and health education and to ensuring that we address both quality of delivery and accessibility in order to support all children in developing positive, healthy relationships and being able to thrive in modern Britain.

The Government welcomed the Women and Equalities Committee’s comprehensive report on “Sexual harassment and sexual violence in schools” that was published in September 2016 and contained several recommendations, including proposals relating to SRE and PSHE. I was honoured to take part in an evidence session as part of that inquiry. I emphasise that we are in full agreement that sexual harassment and sexual violence in schools—no matter what form they take—are absolutely abhorrent and unacceptable and should not be tolerated.

I am grateful for what the Minister is saying. Does she agree that the debate about SRE is intrinsically linked with PSHE? This is about life skills and enabling young people to deal with the challenges they will face later, by having the capacity to understand what they are facing.

Yes. My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We want to enable young people up and down the country to face the challenges of the modern world. We have given a great deal of consideration to the recommendations that arose from the Women and Equalities Committee’s inquiry. In our response, which was published on 9 November 2016, we committed to work with stakeholders, including teachers, parents and pupils, to produce a framework that gives schools sufficient support to produce their own codes of practice, setting out a whole-school approach to inclusion and tolerance while combating bullying, harassment and abuse of any kind.

Despite the usefulness of the Committee’s important evidence sessions, we recognise that the scale and scope of the problem are still not yet fully understood. To improve both our understanding and that of schools, we have also committed to build our evidence base—a work programme that is currently being developed by the Government Equalities Office. That sits alongside a commitment to provide best practice examples of effective ways to work with boys and girls to better promote gender equality and respond to incidents of sexual harassment and sexual violence. Additionally, we have put plans in place to set up an advisory group to look at how the issues and recommendations in the Select Committee’s report can be best reflected within existing DFE guidance for schools, including “Keeping Children Safe in Education” and our behaviour and bullying guidance.

There is more that we need to do. The Secretary of State has made it absolutely clear that we need to prioritise progress on the quality and availability of SRE and PSHE. In making that progress, we must of course look at the excellent work that many schools already do as the basis for any new support and requirements.

There is general agreement across the House that this is the right thing to do. Likewise, it has been recognised that with Brexit coming down the track our capacity is limited to pass legislation to ensure that every school does this. New clause 1 of the Children and Social Work Bill would require every school, both maintained schools and academies, to provide age-appropriate, inclusive relationship education—the very education that we all want to see happen. Given that and the time constraints—that Bill is almost on Report—will the Minister commit tonight to back new clause 1 or to come back with something exactly like it on Report? There is no time left to ensure that we make good on our promise to those children.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has been clear that we will set out plans to move forward as part of that Bill.

The existing legislation requires that sex education be compulsory in all maintained secondary schools. Academies and free schools are also required by their funding agreement to teach a “broad and balanced curriculum”, and we encourage them to teach sex and relationship education within that. Many schools choose to cover issues of consent within SRE, and schools are both able and encouraged to draw on guidance and specialist materials from external expert agencies.

On that point, a Terrence Higgins Trust report found that 75% of young people had not learned about consent and that 95% had not been taught anything about LGBT relationships. Even the UN is calling for SRE in UK schools to be statutory. Does the Minister agree that it is time that the Government respond to that request and make SRE statutory?

Yes, the Government are looking at it as we speak. We will set out our next plans for inclusion in the Children and Social Work Bill, but we have to get this absolutely right. It needs to be done sensitively, carefully and with cross-party support. This has not been updated for the last 16 years, and my personal opinion is that respect for oneself, respect for others, healthy relationships, consent and all the other things that we really value as part of SRE and PSHE are things that we must also ensure we embody in a whole-school ethos, not just something we teach for half an hour on a Tuesday.

In a moment. The existing legislation also means that Ofsted publishes case studies on its website that highlight effective practice in schools, including examples of SRE as taught within PSHE.

I am incredibly grateful to the Minister. I echo the point that the time really is now. We have been discussing the issue in this House since the measure was not included in the Children, Schools and Families Act 2010. Will she confirm on the record this evening that, on Report of the Children and Social Work Bill at the start of February, the Government will either move their own amendment or support new clause 1 to ensure that we have statutory SRE in every single school in our country?

As I have already said, we are currently considering all the options and are committed to updating the House during the passage of the Children and Social Work Bill. The Minister for Vulnerable Children and Families will definitely be bringing the measure forward as part of the Bill, but the key is getting it right, not rushing it through just to satisfy loud voices on either side of the House.

Just to translate, my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) is talking about compulsory SRE. I would call it comprehensive SRE. Do the Government have any idea of how many young people miss out on effective sex and relationship education? Will the Government try to ensure that the number of young people who are missing out will be reduced to virtually zero within a few years?

The biology of sex and relationships is compulsory in schools, but we want to see a much broader look at healthy relationships, respect for oneself, respect for others and issues around consent. Those are all things that we have to look at very carefully as we move forward, which is why we are encouraging schools to use the Ofsted case studies as a resource while they tailor their own programmes to meet the specific needs of their pupils.

In addition, in 2014 the PSHE Association, Brook and the Sex Education Forum produced a supplementary guidance document on sex and relationship education for the 21st century, which provides valuable advice on what are, sadly, the all-too-modern issues that my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke has already mentioned, such as online pornography, sexting and staying safe online. That useful guidance provides teachers with the tools to support pupils on those challenging matters, developing pupils’ resilience and ability to manage risk.

As we have heard today, social media and interactive services are hugely popular with children and young people. They can provide fantastic opportunities for them to express creativity, to learn digital skills and to improve their educational attainment but, like all forms of public communication, they come with a level of risk. The Government expect online industries to ensure that they have relevant safeguards and processes in place, including access restrictions for children and young people who use their services.

We have published a guide for parents and carers of children who use social media, including practical tips about the use of safety and privacy features on apps and platforms, as well as conversation prompts to help families begin talking to their kids about online safety. We have also funded the UK Safer Internet Centre to develop new resources for schools, including cyberbullying guidance that helps them to understand, prevent and respond to this issue, as well as an online safety toolkit to help schools to deliver sessions through PSHE on cyberbullying, peer pressure and sexting.

We are also talking directly to young people about healthy relationships. The Government Equalities Office jointly funded a £3.85 million campaign with the Home Office to launch the second phase of the “This is Abuse” campaign, called “Disrespect NoBody,” from February to May 2016. The campaign encourages young people to rethink their understanding of abuse in relationships, including issues such as sexting. It also addresses all forms of relationship abuse, including coercive and controlling behaviour, and situations including same-sex relationships. Some of the campaign materials contained gender-neutral messaging, and others depicted male victims of female perpetrators. It was targeted at 12 to 18-year-old boys and girls, with the aim of preventing them from becoming the perpetrators or victims of abuse in relationships.

As I said, we are actively considering calls to update the guidance on SRE, which was issued in 2000. The feedback we have received indicates that the guidance is already clear that young people should be learning what a healthy relationship looks like. However, we do not consider the guidance we produce to be static, and we fully recognise that there will continue to be changes to update it. We are looking at the issue extremely carefully. As I have said, it is essential that we do not rush things. We need to adopt a fresh and responsible approach and listen to a range of views from young people and parents alike.

The Minister is rightly setting out the useful advice, guidance, toolkits, resources and campaigns that are available, but does she agree that all those things, valuable as they are, are not an alternative to ensuring that every single school in this country provides high-quality SRE to all our children and young people?

Absolutely. I agree that we need to equip all our young people to face the challenges of the modern world and everything that it throws at them. We know that SRE is an evolving and vital area of education, so we need to ensure that we have guidance that is fit for children growing up in modern Britain.

Our aim is to secure the very best teaching and learning in our schools on these issues, as a matter of priority, alongside providing the clarity for schools on what should be delivered that I know Members wish to see. We recognise that this is a really important issue, and will continue to explore all effective means to remove sexual harassment and sexual violence from young people’s lives. My hon. Friend the Minister for Vulnerable Children and Families has committed to update Parliament further during the passage of the Children and Social Work Bill. I know that he will do his utmost to achieve outcomes that keep young people safe and supported to gain the skills they need to develop healthy and positive relationships.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.