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Relationships and Sex Education

Volume 792: debated on Thursday 19 July 2018


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, Madam Deputy Speaker, I would like to make a Statement on the consultation on the Government’s proposals for relationships education, relationships and sex education—commonly known as RSE—and health education, copies of which will be made available on the GOV.UK website.

Children and young people today are growing up in an increasingly complex world and living their lives seamlessly online and off. This presents many positive and exciting opportunities, of course, but also challenges and risks. In this environment, children and young people need to know how to be safe and healthy, and how to manage their lives in a positive way. Ensuring that they have this knowledge also helps to tackle problems such as sexual harassment and sexual violence.

That was why, during the passage of the Children and Social Work Act 2017, the Government acted on the compelling case to make relationships education and RSE compulsory through regulations, and to consider doing the same for elements of PSHE. There was strong cross-party support then, and I am confident that we can continue to work together on these important reforms in that way.

Since the passage of the Act, we have engaged thoroughly with a wide range of organisations. Supporting the department has been Mr Ian Bauckham CBE. With 33 years as a teacher and 13 years as a head teacher, Mr Bauckham has considerable experience in the education system. I put on record that I thank Ian for the invaluable support and advice he has provided to me. Between November 2017 and March 2018, Ian led wide-ranging stakeholder engagement with groups representing teachers, subject specialists, parents, religious bodies, MPs and others. In addition, the department launched a call for evidence to seek public views from adults and young people. More than 23,000 people responded and the level of consensus has been encouraging.

I am pleased today to be able to announce the key decisions and to launch a consultation on the detail of the regulations and guidance. For relationships education and RSE, the aim is to put in place the building blocks needed for positive and safe relationships of all kinds, starting with family and friends and moving out to other kinds of relationships, including online. It is essential that we ensure that young people can keep themselves safe online—from the basics of who and what to trust, through to how personal information is used and can be used, and how to ensure that online relationships are healthy and safe. A guiding principle here is that teaching will start from the basis that children and young people, at age-appropriate points, need to know the laws relating to relationships and sex that govern our society to ensure they act appropriately and can be safe. This includes LGBT relationships, which are a strong feature of the new subjects at age-appropriate points.

The draft guidance sets out core required content, but leaves flexibility for schools to design a curriculum that builds on it and is right for their pupils, bearing in mind their age and religious backgrounds. It enables schools with a religious character to deliver and expand on the core content by reflecting the teachings of their faith.

I am also proposing to introduce compulsory content on health education. This supports the findings from the call for evidence and engagement process, where giving children and young people the information they need to make good decisions about their own health and well-being, particularly their mental well-being, was a clear priority for many who responded. This directly supports the Green Paper on children and young people’s mental health, as well as our manifesto commitment to ensure all young people are taught about mental well-being. The focus on physical health also supports work on childhood obesity.

Financial education is already on the curriculum in maths and citizenship, and careers education is an important part of our careers strategy. For these reasons, I do not consider that further economic education needs be made compulsory. I am committed, however, to improving provision of financial and careers education, and will continue to work with stakeholders to do so. I know that many schools successfully cover the content we have been talking about in a broader PSHE programme. They should continue to do so, adapting their programme to the new requirements rather than starting from scratch. Schools are also free to develop alternative, innovative ways to ensure that pupils receive this education, and we want good practice to be shared so that all schools can benefit.

We have previously committed to parents having a right to withdraw their children from the sex education part of RSE, but not from relationships education in primary or secondary schools. A right for parents to withdraw their child up to 18 years of age is no longer compatible with English case law, nor with the European Convention on Human Rights. It is also clear that allowing parents to withdraw their child up to age 16 would not allow the child to opt in to sex education before the legal age of consent. I therefore propose to give parents the right to request that their child be withdrawn from sex education delivered as part of RSE. The draft guidance sets out that, unless there are exceptional circumstances, the parents’ request should be granted until three terms before the pupil reaches 16. At that point, if the child wishes to have sex education, the head teacher should ensure they receive it in one of those three terms. This preserves the parental right in most cases, but balances it with the child’s right to opt in to sex education once they are competent to do so.

We are keen to hear as many views as possible through the consultation and I encourage Members and their constituents to respond. The consultation will be open until early November and the final regulations will be laid in both Houses, allowing for a full and considered debate. This very important change to the curriculum has to be delivered well, and while many schools will be able to adapt their existing teaching quickly, it is essential that schools that need more time to plan and prepare their staff get that time. It is our intention that as many schools as possible will start teaching the subjects from September 2019. We will be working with those schools, as well as with multi-academy trusts, dioceses and education unions, to help them to do so.

All schools will be required to teach the new subjects from September 2020. This is in line with the department’s approach that any significant changes to the curriculum have a year’s lead-in time, and will enable us to learn lessons from the early adopter schools and share good practice further across the sector. We will be seeking views through the consultation to test the right focus for a school support package, as we know that it is crucial for schools and teachers to be confident and well prepared. I believe that our proposals are an historic step in education that will help equip children and young people with the knowledge and support they need to form healthy relationships, lead healthy lives and be safe and happy in modern Britain. I commend the Statement to the House”.

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement and for arranging a briefing with his colleague the Schools Minister, Mr Gibb, yesterday for myself and other noble Lords.

The guidance has a 15-week consultation period, which I presume starts today. Six of those 15 weeks will be taken up by the school holidays, when parents, children and teachers tend be doing other things, so it is not really much more than a nine-week consultation period, which is pretty short. Will the Minister consider starting the 15-week consultation when schools return in the first week of September?

That said, we welcome the guidance and the fact that the Government listened to, and have acted on, the amendments tabled by noble Lords and MPs during the passage of what became the Children and Social Work Act. The guidance required for young people going through school today is quite different from what was required even 10 years ago. As the parent of a seven year-old, I am pleased that some of these issues are to be addressed at both primary and secondary school level.

It is vital that young people understand that certain what might be termed “difficult” subjects can be discussed openly, from grooming and the use of the internet to the meaning of relationships and what is appropriate or inappropriate sexual activity, to sexual orientation, bigotry—and perhaps the bullying that emanates from that—and transphobia. It is vital also that mental health, healthy eating, the need for exercise and issues involving alcohol and drugs will all be covered in schools via this guidance—again, that is a most positive development.

I have some questions for the Minister, most associated with the mandatory nature of the guidance. The right for parents to withdraw will surely become an issue and will, I imagine, be exercised by a significant number of parents, although I hope not too many. Can the Minister clarify how the issue will be dealt with after the “three terms before the pupil turns 16” cut-off? That is not clear in the Statement, which says:

“The draft guidance sets out that, unless there are exceptional circumstances, the parents’ request should be granted until three terms before the pupil reaches 16”.

Just before that, the Secretary of State says:

“I therefore propose to give parents the right to request their child be withdrawn from sex education delivered as part of RSE”.

So my question is: after the three terms before the child turns 16, will parents have no right to withdraw their child from sex education? What if the school is a faith school that does not recognise 16 as the age of consent for sexual activity? What will happen if a child of 16 opts to ask for information on sex education, which the guidance says all of them can do? Will the faith school then be legally obliged to provide that sex education even if it does not wish to do so? In that situation, how will a child seeking sex education be expected to proceed? Also, will schools be required to inform all children and parents as to what information they are entitled to? Clearly, nobody can access their rights if they are unaware of what they are.

Further, can the Minister confirm that the guidance will apply to all schools—maintained schools, grammar schools, academies, free schools, faith schools and independent schools? It is my understanding that it will, but only the first two of these types of school follow the national curriculum. How will the Department for Education know that children are receiving relationships and sex education in line with the guidance? Ofsted does not check independent schools, so who will, and how does the DfE intend to monitor all schools and ensure that the guidance is being complied with?

Finally, what resources will be made available to schools in addition to those that they already have? Many schools are facing huge budget pressures and cannot be expected simply to assume other responsibilities and the costs of training or teaching materials simply on the basis of what they have at the moment. Clarification on that point would be most welcome.

Parents want their children to be fully educated with the facts about all aspects of their own safety. What plans does the DfE have to ensure that teachers receive the necessary training to enable them to deliver guidance effectively? Already, teachers have heavy workloads. It is important that they are resourced to do this job properly, so what do the Minister and his department envisage as necessary by way of additional resources for teachers?

I hope that the Minister can answer those questions, but I should be clear that we offer our support for this guidance and its important aim of ensuring that young people are properly equipped for the challenges that they will face in keeping safe and healthy as they grow up.

My Lords, we on these Benches very much welcome this Statement and congratulate the Government on bringing it forward. It is a very welcome first—perhaps not historic—positive step forward in equipping our children and young people to cope with life in a modern society.

I think it was David Cameron who, referring to Europe, said that we should “stop banging on” about it. I am, however, glad that on this issue so many Peers, MPs and organisations outside Parliament did bang on for some considerable time. That banging on has meant, in the end, that the Government have taken note. It is right to congratulate not just the present Government but the former Secretary of State, Justine Greening, who did a lot of work to get to this stage. I particularly remember meeting Edward Timpson, the then Children’s Minister, who was very clear in his view about this topic.

The importance that not only our party but young people, parents and teachers attach to this subject is clear from the 23,000 responses to the call for evidence. While there is no definitive tally of similar calls for evidence, I am confident that this number would be near the top of that particular league table. I have looked through the consultation, and I am glad that, as most school terms finish tomorrow, sufficient time has been allowed for schools to respond in the autumn.

It is quite interesting how the world, and government policy, have moved on in the last five years, but it is disappointing that what the noble Lord, Lord Nash, the Minister’s predecessor, said in this House five years ago—

“The Government believe that PSHE is a vital part of a broad and balanced curriculum and that excellent PSHE provision is part of the life-blood of all good schools”—[Official Report, 24/4/13; col. GC 426.]

—has not led to a commitment to go one step further and make PSHE a statutory part of the curriculum. I certainly do not accept that economic education is covered by the current provision in careers, maths and citizenship, as the Statement claims. It is welcome that students can decide, from the age of 15, to opt in to sex education even if their parents do not want them to. However, there is still a discussion to be had about whether one term of sex education in the year before the age of consent is sufficient.

Liberal Democrats believe there should be an independent standards authority to pilot, phase in and resource policy changes. Such an authority would be better able to monitor the introduction of RSE than either civil servants or Ofsted. A broad and balanced curriculum for life, as the Liberal Democrats would like to see, would also include mental health education, first aid and emergency life-saving skills and financial literacy, in addition to relationships and sex education. The Welsh Assembly has already introduced a new RSE curriculum on the basis of extensive research and consultation. What discussions have the Government had with the Welsh Minister?

In 2013, the noble Lord, Lord Nash, informed us:

“I agree that we need to improve the focus on this area through teaching, schools and ITT providers”.—[Official Report, 18/6/13; col. 136.]

I cannot, however, find any mention in the Statement about who will provide the resources to train teachers. Initial teacher training had been totally fragmented, and I am sure that head teachers will be trying to work out how to provide the high-quality CPD to bring their staff up to speed with yet another new demand on finite and shrinking resources.

I have three questions that I hope the Minister will be able to clarify. First, the Statement says that RSE will be prescribed core content for all schools. The phrase that I am unsure of—perhaps the Minister will explain how it would work—is that it,

“leaves flexibility for schools … with a religious character to deliver and expand”,

on that content. I am not sure how that will work in practice and what it means.

My second question has, I think, been asked by the noble Lord, Lord Watson. It is important not just to introduce this measure in 2019-20 but to make sure that it is of good quality, with qualified teachers and good resources. What funding has the Minister set aside to invest in high-quality training and continuous professional development?

Finally, the Minister says that financial education should not be made compulsory, as it is already covered in the national curriculum in maths and the careers strategy. The national curriculum, however, is not compulsory in academies and free schools. Are we planning to make it compulsory for those schools, so that this subject will be taught?

My Lords, I thank the noble Lords for their questions on this subject and for their broad support. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Watson, for joining us yesterday and for the contributions that he made in that meeting. I hope that I will be able to answer most of their questions.

On the consultation period, the reason that we decided to issue the Statement today, ahead of the school holidays, is that most multi-academy trusts are open over these holidays. They cover half of secondary school pupils, so we felt that it was better to get the information out there sooner rather than later to enable them to get focused on the subject.

I am sorry, but that answer is not particularly helpful. Half of them may be open during the holidays, but that means half of them are not. Why should the maintained schools sector be treated less favourably? I am really surprised at that answer.

My Lords, the point is that the subject is already being considered by the sector. That is why we have given it a 15-week period, which takes us to the next half-term. I was trying to answer the noble Lord’s question about why we issued it today rather than, say, on 1 September. Another thing we expect to see is a lot of schools introducing this from September 2019, which will be a year ahead of the statutory requirement. We expect that a lot of those early introducers will be the bigger chains, which are already further developed in this area.

The noble Lord also asked whether schools will be required to tell pupils and parents about the policy. It is clear that schools will be required to publish policies on their RSE and RE curriculum, and the guidance sets out what should be included in that notification.

On the right to withdraw, a parent may still request the withdrawal of their child in the three terms before they reach the 16 year-old age group, but if the child wishes to receive education, the school will be required to provide it. That is the case for all schools. To put that in perspective, 99.5% of children currently participate in the sex education that is going on in schools, so we do not feel that it will be a sensitive issue. Again, however, in the consultation we are asking for views from all respondents. If they feel that we need to improve the guidance, we are open-minded about doing that.

Regarding the materials and resources for schools, we are certainly committed to ensuring that schools are supported and ready to teach these new subjects to a high quality. Many schools are already doing that, so they will be able to adapt quickly to teaching the new subjects. But many schools will require some support, and we are asking questions in the consultation about where the help will be most needed. To support schools, we will ensure that there is a repository for quality teaching materials covering these new subjects. We intend to work closely with the unions, the MATs, the dioceses and subject associations to ensure that the right support is available for schools.

The noble Lord, Lord Watson, also asked whether the guidance will apply to all schools, including independent schools, and how we will know that the subject is being delivered in those schools. The guidance for relationships education and RSE will apply to all schools, including independent schools. PSHE is already a compulsory subject in independent schools and we will work with the Independent Schools Inspectorate, which already addresses these areas, to ensure that it covers the area adequately when it inspects.

I turn to the noble Lord, Lord Storey, who asked about the level of training that we will give to support teachers in these new areas. We will certainly amend the initial teacher training. In fact, perhaps I might give the noble Lord a list of the specific subjects that will be covered in the new areas. I think this gives a bit of context to the areas that teachers will address. The noble Lord will see from the list that much of this is already going on and this is just a way of codifying it. The subjects are: mental well-being; healthy friendships; LGBT; respectful relationships, including addressing inappropriate behaviour, harassment and exploitation; online safety; consent in all types of relationships, including sexual relationships where appropriate; tolerance and respect for others; the impact of viewing harmful content or sexually explicit material; and the law in relation to abuse, exploitation and harassment. That gives a flavour of the subjects, and I think they will be intuitive for the majority of the profession.

Schools will be encouraged to teach PSHE and may cover content that they feel their pupils need. The PSHE Association has today strongly welcomed our approach. I have a quote from the association that may provide some reassurance:

“The government’s commitment to mandatory health and relationships education is welcome and a major step forward. Damian Hinds has shown outstanding leadership in guaranteeing young people an education that supports their physical and mental health, wellbeing and relationships”,

and it goes on. We have made the association a key stakeholder in our discussions.

I think I addressed the topic of support to schools in replying to the noble Lord, Lord Watson, but I reiterate that we want to use the consultation to finalise our plans for the support that we provide to schools. It would be a bit premature to commit to a particular budget on school support before we get to the detail of the support that they feel they would like.

Before the Minister sits down—perhaps he could write to me on this, because it is quite difficult to give a verbal answer—I get that the core RSE content will be prescribed for all schools, but then there will be flexibility for schools with a religious character to expand on that content. Could he write to me about how he sees that working in practice?

I will write, but, to give the noble Lord some reassurance, two of the bodies that have been most effective in handling sex education have been the Catholic Education Service and the Church of England education service. Both have model ways of dealing with this, and part of that is early engagement with parents so that they do not feel that they are being railroaded into it and it is done in an inclusive way. I shall write with more details.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement and for the meeting that he held beforehand, which I managed to get to even if my noble friend did not.

Whenever we go through this, we may find that the three-terms exemption to parents being able to remove their children is where the potential conflict is going to occur, and where it is going to be difficult to manage the balance between the right of parents’ controls and the rights of the child. I am quite in sympathy with what the Government are doing and probably agree with it; I am someone who more or less likes everything that is there. A little more might have been more to my taste, but we support what the Government are doing. However, the people who are going to have to implement this are the teaching staff. Have the Government given any guidance as to whether a parent has to be informed if a student opts into this process having been previously excluded? If there is an objection, what sort of support are we giving to the teachers and headmasters when they encounter some form of conflict? This may well be a tiny minority of people, but it will be a very vocal one because—let us face facts—it always has been. Have the Government given any thought to how we support teachers through that process, ensure that what they are doing is the law of the land and not something the teacher has decided upon, and make that clear to the parents of students who are in conflict over this? That is a point that will ultimately affect what happens on the ground.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Addington, for his comments and indeed for his contribution yesterday. He asks a very practical question. This is something that needs to be handled sensitively, and we will be looking in the consultation response for any sense that we need to strengthen the guidance to schools. Broadly speaking, head teachers are experienced at engaging with parents, particularly on difficult topics, so we trust them to put the right processes in place for their schools. We will see if there is a sense in the consultation that they do not feel well enough supported, and if that is the case then we will address this point further.

Will the end of the consultation period be followed swiftly by final government decisions? Clearly, it is important that things proceed quickly, since new arrangements take effect in September 2019. I thank the Minister for clarifying, too, in response to the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Watson, that independent schools will be covered by these new arrangements. It seems to me extremely important that all elements of our school system participate in what is now going to be established.

Yes, we are keen to get on and do this, and the plans at the moment are that the results of the consultation response will be published on GOV.UK within 12 weeks of the consultation closing. We will make an announcement on the draft regulations and draft statutory guidance at the start of next year. At that point, we will, if appropriate, make clear any changes to the draft statutory guidance and regulations prior to parliamentary debates, during the passing of the associated regulations.

My Lords, I am extremely grateful that the Government are going to make progress in this important area. I thank the Minister for spelling out the content of the teacher education aspect, which has partially answered the question that I wanted to ask. Some of us have raised on a number of occasions the issue of the increase in violence and harassment against young girls in schools. In particular, there is the fact that a lot of young boys get their sex education from pornography online. They are getting sex education, but it may not be the appropriate sex education. This issue of violence is becoming endemic, and I wonder whether we are a little bit mealy-mouthed in all this in talking about internet safety and harms. In the content that the Minister quoted, he talked about illicit internet information, or something. Should not we call a spade a shovel? Perhaps I am influenced by listening to the maiden speech of the noble Lord, Lord Pickles. We are talking about a serious increase in pornography available at school level. I hope that people recognise how difficult it will be to tackle. If we do not make it clear that these sorts of issues are included, I wonder whether some people may miss it as an important aspect.

The noble Baroness makes a very important point. The key point that I would like to make is that this is the first change to this part of education for 18 years, which is extraordinary when you think that 18 years ago very few children owned a mobile phone, and Facebook did not even exist—so this is a major step forward to bring us into the 21st century. The Secretary of State said today that this would be kept under review every three years or so, to make sure that we were keeping on top of any further developments that occur in the online world. I gave the noble Lord, Lord Storey, a taste of some of the things that we are including, although I did not give the whole list. To give the noble Baroness some reassurance, it includes strengthened content around areas such as relationship focus and bullying, including cyberbullying. We are very alert to this—it is so important.

I can tell you a terrible story in my own life as an academy sponsor. Last year, in one of our schools a young girl of 16 went on a date with a boy. They ended up in bed together, and the next day the boy boasted on Facebook, and the girl was so mortified that she hanged herself—dead. That is the reality. That boy will have to carry that for the rest of his life, and a young girl lost her life. So there is no one more passionate about this than me.

My Lords, I declare my interest as the chair of the All-Party Group on Sexual and Reproductive Health. I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement, and I too think that Justine Greening deserves great commendation for having started this, and that Nick Gibb deserves credit for taking it through. This is clearly a very carefully worded document and I very much welcome its main intention.

There are just two things that I take the opportunity to pick up. The first is about pupils with special educational needs and disabilities. There are very few people who are expert in the field of developing materials and delivering training for talking to people with disabilities, including learning disabilities or disabilities such as deafness. Can the Minister say whether the Government will make sure that, during this consultation, young people with disabilities and the people who work with them are included? They are often very isolated; it is difficult enough to talk about some of these matters if you are in full command of your communication, and sometimes teachers find it intensely difficult to speak to people with disabilities about these matters. There is a lot of evidence that these young people end up relying on the internet and coming away with really strange ideas, because they have been looking at the wrong sort of stuff. It is an area that has to be handled with great sensitivity and care.

Secondly, I welcome paragraph 33 of the draft guidance, which is about the inclusion of LGBT, and I note the way in which it has been drafted. It is my understanding—and I ask the Minister to correct me if I am wrong—that there is no general guidance for schools about transgender issues, including what happens when you have trans teachers or trans pupils. There are bits and pieces of guidance that individual schools and authorities have developed—most notably Cornwall County Council—but I do not think that there is any general guidance for schools. Am I right that this is the first time that any kind of guidance on trans will be in schools? Will the Minister consider that in a bit more depth?

The noble Baroness raises two important questions. First, on SEND, just to reassure the House, the whole thrust of these changes is for the teaching of all pupils, including those with special needs. In the debate in the other place today, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State made particular reference to reaching out in the consultation to special schools, SENCOs and others on how we can support the needs of pupils with SEND to ensure that we have the correct materials available for them. Likewise, on the LGBT question, I do not know what the existing materials are, but one reason for not bringing this in sooner, as some people would like, is to give us the time to start developing best practice, particularly across these sensitive areas. As I mentioned to the noble Lord, Lord Watson, earlier, we expect quite a few schools to be starting this in September 2019, which will give us time to develop good practice and make it available across the whole system.

My Lords, with the permission of the House, I would like to return to a point that I asked the Minister about when I spoke earlier, which is the issue of faith schools. The noble Lord, Lord Storey, raised a similar point. If there is any difficulty in making this guidance effective, that is most likely where it would occur. The point I specifically asked was: what happens where the school itself effectively does not recognise that sex education should be delivered at, say, the age of 16 and puts pressure on the parents to ask that their children opt out, and yet one or more of these children decide that they want that? The school, as I understand it, would be legally obliged to provide that sex education but would be very uncomfortable about doing so. Can the Minister say a bit more about how faith schools will be expected to act in those circumstances to make sure that they comply with the guidance?

Yes, of course this is a very sensitive area, but I think we have to be clear that there is a requirement for faith schools to enter this mandatory process. However, schools with a religious character can teach these subjects according to the tenets of their faith. In schools with a religious character, the distinctive faith perspective on relationships may be taught, and balanced debate may take place about the issues that are seen as contentious. For example, a school may wish to reflect faith teachings about certain topics, as well as how their faith institutions may support people in matters of relationships and sex. As I mentioned as part of my answer to the noble Lord, Lord Storey, we find that two of the most effective organisations in dealing with these areas tend to be the Catholic Education Service and the Church of England. However, we do invite responses in the consultation if there is still a sense of ambiguity.