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Schools: Relationships and Sex Education

Volume 803: debated on Tuesday 12 May 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the ability of schools to deliver the new compulsory elements of relationships and sex education curriculum from September 2020.

The Question was considered in a Virtual Proceeding via video call.

My Lords, the Government have worked extensively with schools, teachers and experts throughout the development of these subjects. This has included working with over 1,500 early adopter schools to support their journey, learn lessons and share good practice. The department also conducted an impact assessment as part of the consultation. We are committed to supporting teachers, which is why we are investing in a programme of support featuring training materials, case studies and support to access resources.

I thank the Minister for that reply. Does she agree that relationships and sex education fosters self-esteem and social skills in children and young people as well as enhancing academic performance, and that those skills will be important when pupils return to school after a long absence? I welcome the Government’s decision to include RSE in the compulsory curriculum, but how is this commitment supported precisely with resources and training? Could she give an example?

My Lords, I agree with the noble Baroness that health and relationships education will be an essential part of re-socialising children as more go back to school from 1 June. A central school support package will be on offer, which will include training materials—both online and face-to-face where appropriate—and will be based on the “train the trainer” model. Schools can also access additional training support if they need particular help.

My Lords, I declare my interests as stated in the register as chair of the National Society. In November, the Church of England produced a charter to support schools in preparing for the new compulsory elements of RSHE. It is important to us and our schools that we consult parents on how best to deliver this new material, to ensure that we provide a sensitive education enabling all pupils to flourish. Will Her Majesty’s Government reassess the delivery date of the new elements of RSHE to accommodate the current constraints on schools’ time and energy due to Covid-19?

My Lords, I am grateful for the support, and in particular the charter, outlined by the right reverend Prelate. We are aware that there are a number of curriculum decisions that schools need to take. I reassure noble Lords that due consideration is being given to RSHE implementation and its implications for schools. We are working closely with the RSHE working group, which includes the teachers’ unions and faith organisations. I undertake to keep the House updated.

My Lords, three issues greatly concern me, which I have spoken about in the United Kingdom and during my visits abroad: FGM, forced marriages, and honour abuse. Can my noble friend say whether schools in certain areas will be able adequately to discuss these issues and whether teachers have appropriate knowledge and sufficient training to do so? Furthermore, what support is available centrally to assist them?

My Lords, all aspects of safeguarding are covered in the statutory guidance, Keeping Children Safe in Education, and issues to do with violence are considered, particularly within health education. We have also given specific guidance about sexual violence between young people to assist schools with that very delicate matter.

My Lords, I declare my interests as set out in the register. What support is being provided to special schools? Are teachers in special schools well prepared to deliver relationships and sex education in a developmentally appropriate way and in a way that will support pupils’ social, emotional and mental health?

Yes, indeed, the attitude of the department is to embed SEND in every strand of the RSHE work, and we are working closely with the Sex Education Forum and NASEN to ensure that. We have also employed SEND experts to help with the development of the curriculum so that there will be specific resources in the school support package that I have outlined to assist teachers, most of whom have a child with SEND in their classroom.

My Lords, the guidance issued by the Department for Education last year stated that relationships and sex education should be

“part of the basic school curriculum … which allows schools flexibility in developing their planned programme”.

But last week the Schools Minister, Nick Gibb, stated that the department was giving due consideration to the implementation of the statutory relationships and sex education curriculum in the context of Covid-19. That suggested the possibility that implementation could be delayed due to the coronavirus, even if schools have returned by September. What process of due consideration was the Minister referring to and what additional support will the Government explore to ensure that RSE can be taught online if schools have not returned by September?

My Lords, as the right reverend Prelate outlined, parents are required to be consulted as part of the process before a school introduces its policy to teach these subjects. I reiterate that we are prioritising operational discussions in relation to the curriculum and I will keep the House updated on any further developments.

My Lords, according to the government guidelines, parents need to have been consulted about the new relationships, sex and health education curriculum changes, so what expectations will there be for schools that have not been able to consult parents about the changes due to the coronavirus school closures?

My Lords, the school support package that we will issue will enable schools and give them examples of best practice in order to consult parents. We have specifically produced leaflets so that they have the confidence to distribute that resource. In terms of the operational decisions in relation to the curriculum, I will update the House when there is any further information

My Lords, I commend the department on producing sensitive and helpful guidance. The guidance makes it clear that from September, schools, in consultation with parents, will determine what is age-appropriate. Thus teaching explicitly about LGBT+ matters is not mandatory for primary schools. But current Ofsted guidance and the practice of inspectors does not reflect that. Numerous primary schools have been downgraded in at least one category for not teaching LGBT. Will my noble friend confirm that Ofsted will inspect in line with DfE policy and not its own self-generated policies, and that primary schools will not be penalised if they do not teach LGBT, according to the wishes of the parents of a particular school?

My Lords, Ofsted has welcomed the department’s guidance on RSHE and, when it is implemented in the next academic year, Ofsted will use it as a guide for assessing part of the personal development section of inspection. As my noble friend outlined, the guidance is clear that secondary schools should include LGBT content but,

“primary schools are strongly encouraged and enabled”,

when teaching about different types of relationships within families, to include families of same-sex parents. That is clearly a move from mandatory to permissive language. Obviously, the Equality Act is also enforced in schools and schools are required to take into account the other protected characteristics, including of course the religious background of students in the school.

Does the Minister share my anxiety that the opting-out provisions of the new law are so wide that children in faith schools may well be taken out of the sex education classes that they sorely need? All children need to learn to respect a variety of lifestyles, and learn how to look after themselves and avoid harmful practices such as FGM. Children in very religious schools are the ones most vulnerable to ignorance and prejudice. What steps will the Minister take to avoid large numbers of parents removing their children from this education, and how will the Government help teachers contend with protesting parents?

My Lords, as relationships education in primary schools does not usually include sex education, there is no right to withdraw your children from that provision. However, at secondary school, when sex education is part of the content, parents have the right to withdraw their child from that education up until three terms before the child is 16, and the school is required to outline that right to parents. The balance is struck by allowing this only until three terms before the child is 16. Obviously, at that stage, when approaching the age of legal consent for sexual relationships, it is appropriate to provide some sex education if the child wishes to have it. The balance is between supporting parents’ rights and giving children their own right to request sex education as they develop.

My Lords, I regret to say that the time allowed for this Question has elapsed. We move on to the fourth Oral Question.