Sex and Relationships Education

Oral Answers to Questions — Children, Schools and Families – in the House of Commons at 2:30 pm on 17th November 2008.

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Photo of John Pugh John Pugh Shadow Minister (Treasury) 2:30 pm, 17th November 2008

What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of school teaching on sex and relationships.

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Photo of Jim Knight Jim Knight Minister of State (Schools and Learners), Department for Children, Schools and Families, Minister of State (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Schools and Learners)

The review of sex and relationships education has now been completed and the Government response to the review group's report was published on 23 October. The response includes a range of measures to raise the quality of SRE in schools, including our decision to make personal, social and health education statutory. It also includes action to address the key delivery challenges, the most significant of which is to improve the skills and confidence of those who deliver SRE.

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Photo of John Pugh John Pugh Shadow Minister (Treasury)

I thank the Minister for that answer. This is a complex and important matter, on which the evidence is quite mixed. Does he share my view, based on some experiences, that many modern schools are more comfortable teaching about biology and the plumbing and, rightly or wrongly, experience more difficulty in teaching about relationships? What can be done practically to prevent lop-sided education from being given to children?

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Photo of Jim Knight Jim Knight Minister of State (Schools and Learners), Department for Children, Schools and Families, Minister of State (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Schools and Learners)

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that it is important that young people are taught about sex within a moral framework and within one that teaches about relationships. That is one reason why I was persuaded by the arguments of the review group that we should make PSHE statutory. In primary schools, the focus should particularly be on relationships and their importance so that there is a proper setting for going on to talk about the sensitive matters around sex.

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Photo of David Borrow David Borrow Labour, South Ribble

Does my right hon. Friend agree that there is a place in sex and relationships education for teaching about sexually transmitted diseases, particularly for ensuring that young people get a realistic and accurate appraisal of HIV/AIDS and its consequences?

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Photo of Jim Knight Jim Knight Minister of State (Schools and Learners), Department for Children, Schools and Families, Minister of State (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Schools and Learners)

My hon. Friend is right that the subject of sexually transmitted diseases should be covered as part of sex and relationships education, on an age-appropriate basis, which currently means from secondary school age. It is compulsory for young people to learn about HIV/AIDS, and I am sure that that will continue to be the case.

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Photo of Patrick Cormack Patrick Cormack Chair, Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, Chair, Northern Ireland Affairs Committee

Does the Minister not accept that many parents—and, indeed, grandparents—of primary school children are extremely concerned that this should become statutory? They believe that the right place for children to be taught these things is in the home—and, in some cases, a church—and they do not want the mechanics of sex taught at a very early age and to see the further destruction of childhood innocence.

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Photo of Jim Knight Jim Knight Minister of State (Schools and Learners), Department for Children, Schools and Families, Minister of State (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Schools and Learners)

I have always made it clear—I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving me the opportunity to make it clear again—that we are not proposing that five, six and seven-year-olds should be taught the mechanics of sex. We are suggesting that they should be taught about relationships, as I mentioned in response to the question of Dr. Pugh.

The hon. Gentleman is right that parents should be involved with the school in making decisions about what should be taught and when. It is very important that parents are properly engaged and that much of this education takes place at home, but we have to take account of the fact that on some occasions some children are not taught these things at home, so we need to able to fill in for that absence, in school.

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Photo of David Taylor David Taylor Labour, North West Leicestershire

As well as dealing in school with sexual relationships, we need to look at general and social relationships with adults. Has the Minister had the chance to look at the details of the Barnardo's survey of 2,021 people, which shows that 54 per cent. of adults believe that children are starting to behave like animals and that 45 per cent. believe that children merit the adjective "feral"? Unless the survey was drawn entirely from the Daily Mail readership, can the Minister think of any other reason for such a distorted view of young people in this country?

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Photo of Jim Knight Jim Knight Minister of State (Schools and Learners), Department for Children, Schools and Families, Minister of State (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Schools and Learners)

I am aware of that report and the reporting of it in the media today, but I have not had a chance to study it in full because of preparation for consideration of Lords amendments later today. I share the concern that I think was expressed by Martin Narey, the chief executive of Barnardo's. In my experience—there is considerable evidence to prove it—the vast majority of young people are responsible: they are more likely than any other age group, for example, to volunteer in our communities. We should do everything that we can to ensure that we provide positive images of young people to counteract the stereotype that sometimes comes across from certain parts of the media.

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Photo of Philip Davies Philip Davies Conservative, Shipley

Does the Minister not accept that the more sex education we seem to have had, the more unwanted and teenage pregnancies we seem to have had, and that more sex education is not the answer and that perhaps less or even no sex education might be better? Moral upbringing should be the responsibility of parents, not teachers, and if we really want to tackle this problem it would be much better to look at the benefits and housing allocation systems than throw in more sex education for pupils in schools.

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Photo of Jim Knight Jim Knight Minister of State (Schools and Learners), Department for Children, Schools and Families, Minister of State (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Schools and Learners)

I am pleased to note from the expressions on the faces opposite that the hon. Gentleman's comments do not reflect the opinion of his party's Front Bench.

All the international evidence that we examined suggests that the opposite is the case. The number of unwanted teenage pregnancies fell by 12.9 per cent. in this country between 1998 and 2006, but it is still too high in comparison with the numbers in other western European countries. In European countries that create, through schooling, an environment that makes people happier and more confident about discussing sex and relationships at home, we see the rates of unwanted teenage pregnancies fall.

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