Children, Schools and Families Bill

Part of Oral Answers to Questions — Defence – in the House of Commons at 8:31 pm on 11th January 2010.

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Photo of Sandra Gidley Sandra Gidley Shadow Health Minister 8:31 pm, 11th January 2010

I am unsure whether my voice or my time will run out first, but I hope to concentrate on three issues: home education; personal, social and health education; and family courts.

Schedule 1 to the Bill deals with the registration and monitoring of home-educated children, and it follows on from the Badman report, which gave rise to a significant number of concerns among home educators, who have done a fantastic job in lobbying parliamentarians. The right to interview children alone is a particular concern. The Government have listened, but it is clear from the debate that there are still significant concerns. If in Committee we can provide more reassurance that there will not be a heavy-handed lever for local authorities to use if they are not happy with what is going on, that will be welcomed by all.

There are also concerns that the safeguarding agenda has been over-emphasised compared with education. Actually, the balance of words in the Badman report shows that that is probably not the case. Nevertheless, it was felt that part of the Badman report brief was to look at safeguarding. If a Government have restrictive measures in place and protect their own back, they can say, "But we did all of this to try to prevent such an event from happening." There is a timidity in just allowing people to get on with their own lives, because I am not aware of a huge problem. That is not to say that one day there might be a problem, but that will be an exception rather than the rule. We seem to be legislating for something that might happen in very exceptional circumstances.

Registration is key. It would be welcomed more if families were convinced that they would receive help and support. There is to be some money for home educators, but it is unclear whether that will go towards the cost of local education authority bureaucracy, or whether some of it will go towards helping home educators provide things, such as science equipment if that is what their children are interested in. The crux of the matter is that many people feel that this is a licence to interfere and the whole move is representative of a societal attitude that seeks to quantify and standardise everything.

Proposed new section 19E does not reassure, as proposed new subsection (1)(a) allows LEAs to determine whether the education is suitable. Many children are home educated because they were not thriving in the state system and their parents made a positive decision to home educate. Indeed, the siblings of some of the children I met were perfectly happily in the state education system; their parents had made a specific decision about one child, not for reasons of dogma or because they thought they knew best, but because that was what was best for that particular child. It is important to bear that in mind. During the recess, I met a number of home-educated children and I was struck by the breadth and variety of the learning experiences made available to them by committed parents. The concern is that some well-meaning local education authority officer with the bog-standard training will insist on changes so that the national curriculum of the day is more closely adhered to at home.

The problem with the education system, which I have been following for many years, is that it suffers from fads. Such fads have included the literacy hour and the numeracy hour, which the Secretary of State does not seem to like very much because he is getting rid of them. Over the years opinions have changed as to the best way to teach children to read, but the reality is that although there may be an overall "best way", some children learn in different ways. A good teacher will adapt to that, and home-educating parents are doing exactly the same, by adapting to what their children need. I hope that reassurances can be given in Committee on this issue.

On personal, social and health education, I fully support both what Mr. Allen said about needing to get rid of that term and talk instead about "life skills", and the provisions in the Bill. I served on the Select Committee on Health in 2002, when it undertook an inquiry into sexual health. We had as witnesses a number of young people who were scathing about the sex education that they had received. They all made a number of interesting observations, the first of which related to the "geography teacher" syndrome-I do not know why the geography teacher is always picked out for approbation. Not all teachers are instinctively comfortable delivering this part of the curriculum, even with training. There is nothing worse than being taught this subject or taught about relationships by a teacher who is embarrassed, so we need to have specialist teachers or good, high-quality training, with an opt-out if the teacher does not want to deliver this subject. Bad PSHE is worse than no PSHE.

The second point made to us strongly by those children was that those in their peer group who were taken out of classes were often those in the most need of information. It was not that their parents wanted them to receive this education at home; it was that their parents did not want them to be educated about sex and relationships at all. That is a problem, and we should consider-this might sound like a slightly wacky idea-involving parents more in what is going on and running courses for them so that they can follow up at home on some of the topics that are brought up in school. Some parents would like to talk about this subject-some teenagers would want them to do so like they want a hole in the head, but such an approach would be helpful.

The third point that was made to us dealt with alcohol, peer pressure and self-respect. Robert Key made the point well about the impact of alcohol and the fact that it leads to careless attitudes, and we have to address this part of our education too.

Let us compare our approach with what happens in Sweden, which has a programme of relationship-based education. We always talk about "sex and relationships", but we should be talking about "relationships and sex education". Sweden's relationships education encourages people to talk about relationships in a way that covers friendships, bullying, respect for individuals and relationships with the opposite sex-as has been said, a holistic approach is much the best one. The schools also arranged, as part of the curriculum, a visit to the young people's sexual health clinic-we nearly put this in the report, but we decided that it would not pass the Daily Mail test. We found that the clinics were not just places that dished out condoms and contraceptive pills; they involved multidisciplinary teams. If their people found that a young person was being promiscuous, they would arrange for a psychologist to have a chat with that person, because they took the view that such behaviour was a sign of deeper problems. The evidence from places such as Sweden and the Netherlands shows that better sex education leads to an increase in the age at which young people have their first sexual experience and to fewer partners. Although I welcome the Government's sense of direction, I hope that they will take specific account of some of the details.

In the remaining few moments available to me, I wish to talk briefly about the family courts. I welcome the move towards more openness, because we have probably all encountered constituency cases where we were not able to see the reports from the courts, where a parent was accusing the judge of bias or a professional of not doing a job properly and where it was difficult to obtain transparency. Clearly, that is wrong and there needs to be some accountability, but the new rules have been in place for less than a year and this issue is extremely delicate, and so change has to be introduced gradually.

The media's prime interest is in selling newspapers. I have a constituency example. My female constituent was involved with Fathers 4 Justice and details were published in the press that meant that her daughter could be identified, going against everything that is supposed to be possible. My constituent challenged that in court and the judge effectively said that because of her high-profile position, her daughter did not enjoy the same protections as other children. We talk about opportunities and protections for all, and there should not be any impact on the children just because their parents might be involved in something that we do not like. Apparently, section 97 did not apply because my constituent had put herself in the public domain by protesting and courting publicity for her cause, so her children were not entitled to the same protection as others. Given that the media are totally irresponsible and exist only to sell newspapers, they will publish and be damned. I think that we need to be very careful before giving them carte blanche to ruin children's lives.

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