Sex Education (Required Content)

– in the House of Commons at 12:35 pm on 4 May 2011.

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Votes in this debate

Motion for leave to introduce a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

Photo of Nadine Dorries Nadine Dorries Conservative, Mid Bedfordshire 12:37, 4 May 2011

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require schools to provide certain additional sex education to girls aged between 13 and 16; to provide that such education must include information and advice on the benefits of abstinence from sexual activity;
and for connected purposes.

I am sure that many Members will be aware of the broadcaster Dame Joan Bakewell. I always had the impression that she and I were on separate sides of the political divide, but I was intrigued a year ago to read something that she had written in the Radio Times and in the newspapers, in which she said that Mary Whitehouse, who campaigned against declining moral standards on television, was right to fear that sexual liberation in the 1960s would damage society.

Dame Joan was a long-time and fierce opponent of Mary Whitehouse, and that is why her piece was intriguing. She has now changed her mind in terms of her opposition, saying that the freedom granted by the introduction of the pill has been abused, resulting in the sexualisation of young girls and the prevalence of pornography. She said:

“The liberal mood back in the ’60s was that sex was pleasurable and wholesome and shouldn’t be seen as dirty and wicked. The Pill allowed women to make choices for themselves. Of course, that meant the risk of making the wrong choice. But we all hoped girls would grow to handle the new freedoms wisely. Then everything came to be about money—so now sex is about money, too. Why else sexualise the clothes of little girls, run TV channels full of naked wives, have sex magazines edging out the serious stuff?”

In fact, in some newsagents now there are more sex magazines available than any other kind of magazine.

Photo of Nadine Dorries Nadine Dorries Conservative, Mid Bedfordshire

That is a typically glib comment from the hon. Gentleman, who just does not understand and will oppose this measure. Indeed, it will be interesting to see a man stand and oppose a Bill that is about empowering young girls.

Dame Joan said that our society is saturated in sex: a typical prime-time hour on TV contains 2.6 references to intercourse, 1.2 references to prostitution and rape, and 4.7 sexual innuendoes.

Let us move on to look at some of the examples that are now available. Primark, a store that is frequented by many young girls, including my own daughters, was recently chastised for selling padded bikinis for seven-year-olds. Without going into too much detail, I am sure that everybody in the House understands why women would buy padded bikinis, but to make them available to and target them at seven-year-old girls seems to epitomise how far the sexualisation of young girls has gone within our society.

On 5 March 2010, explicit videos were shown in schools which depicted to seven-year-olds a cartoon graphic of a couple having sexual intercourse. This resulted in some children being removed from schools that showed those videos. It will not be a surprise to any mother, or parent, in the House that seven-year-old children do not want to see a cartoon of a couple having sexual intercourse. I have never yet met a mother who said, “I want my seven-year-old to see cartoons of couples having sexual intercourse”, so why on earth would schools think it appropriate to show such videos to seven-year-old children in the classroom? Some children were reported to be frightened, alarmed and disturbed by the videos.

In July 2009, a Sheffield NHS trust released into secondary schools—to children from the age of 11—a pamphlet which told them that sex every day keeps the doctor away. It also said that for too long experts have concentrated on the need for “safe sex” and loving relationships. Alongside this, there was a slogan saying that

“an orgasm a day keeps the doctor away”.

It also said:

“Health promotion experts advocate five portions of fruit and veg a day and 30 minutes’ physical activity three times a week. What about sex or masturbation twice a week?”

This is a pamphlet going out to 11-year-olds at secondary modern schools in Sheffield.

We have to ask ourselves whether, in the midst of this kind of society, with the over-sexualisation of children, we have got our sex education in schools right. It is often argued that compulsory sex education and effective teaching of “safe sex” will help to tackle a high pregnancy rate among teenagers and underage children. Sadly, the evidence suggests that this is not the case. The British Medical Journal found that 93% of teenagers who became pregnant had seen a medical professional prior to the pregnancy and 71% had discussed contraception. The journal found that

“teenagers who become pregnant have higher consultation rates than peers and most of the difference is owing to consultation on contraception”.

According to data published by the Office for National Statistics in 2007, Britain has the highest teenage pregnancy rate in western Europe, so we must be doing something wrong. That is why I am introducing this Bill.

I believe that the answer to ending our constant struggle with the incredibly high rate of teenage sexual activity and underage pregnancies lies in teaching our girls and boys about the option of abstinence—the ability to just say no as part of their compulsory sex education at school. I recently spoke to a 16-year-old who used these very disturbing words: “The thing is, if you reach the age of 18 and you’re still a virgin, and you meet somebody you’d like to be your boyfriend, he’s going to think you’re a freak.” It never enters the minds of young teenage girls, who are taught in sex education classes about “safe sex” and about making their decisions on whether to have sex based on how they feel that day or on their wishes—“feelings” and “wishes” are the key words—that they are empowered and have the ability to say no. That is not taught alongside information on making the decision based on their feelings and wishes and on “safe sex”, but it should be an equally viable option.

We have to re-examine thoroughly the content of sex education that is provided in schools, and consider whether what is currently offered is in the best interests of our children and society as a whole. Children learn about puberty and intercourse at the age of seven, and about pregnancy and contraception from the age of 11. Teaching a child of seven to apply a condom to a banana, without telling them that they do not have an obligation to go and do it, is almost like saying, “Now go and try this for yourself.” At no stage of the curriculum does the teaching cover anything about relationships and the option to say no. Girls are taught to have safe sex, but not how to say no to a boyfriend who persists in wanting a sexual relationship. They are given no guidance on that whatsoever.

In a letter to the Daily Mail, a 14-year-old, Josie Parkinson, described the sex education that she had received at her local secondary school:

“As a 14 year-old girl, I have had to attend four talks in the past nine months from a woman from a family planning clinic. I have been taught three times how to put on a condom; how easily pupils can acquire condoms free at a clinic; how to recognise sexually transmitted diseases and have them treated confidentially at a clinic; and that we do not need to tell our parents, GP, the police or anyone else in authority about being provided with contraception, or even having an abortion. There was not one mention of abstaining or any discouragement of sex.”

For a girl or boy to have sex before 16 is unlawful, but they are told in school, “It is unlawful, but it’s okay. You can have the condoms anyway.” They should be told, “It is unlawful. You can have the condoms anyway, but why don’t you consider, because it is unlawful, saying no and waiting until it is lawful?” That just is not taught to girls at school.

One factor constantly ignored by society is that peer pressure is a key contributor to early sexualised activity among the children of our country. Society is focused on sex. Our sex education teaches children how to have sex, not how to say no to sex. We ignore at our peril the fact that many girls feel pressurised into having intercourse when they are far too young, when what they actually need is their childhood.

In our sex education programmes, we need to promote the notion of abstinence and all the advantages that it brings, such as self-respect and not making relationship mistakes. It needs to be seen as a safe alternative. We need to let young girls know that to say no to sex when they are under pressure is a cool thing to do; it is as cool as learning how to apply a condom. It is as important as all the other issues that they are taught in sex education. It has to be taught alongside everything else so that young girls can say, “I have been told to say no.”

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Shadow Minister (Justice) (Political and Constitutional Reform) 12:47, 4 May 2011

I note that Nadine Dorries said that it would be a disgrace, or something like that, if I were to speak on this matter because I am a man. Of course, I am a gay man, so I am not exactly an expert on heterosexual sex or sex with girls. However, I say to her that this is the daftest piece of legislation that I have seen brought forward. I agree about many of the problems that she has highlighted, and I will come on to those, but this is not the way to solve any of those problems.

For a start, the Bill is just about girls. I said that I am not an expert, but it seems axiomatic to me that if we want to tackle teenage pregnancy, we have to talk to the boys and the girls. Secondly, the Bill is just about 13 to

16-year-olds. I did a lot of research on teenage pregnancy a few years ago, and one of the great distresses for a large number of girls was that they got to their first period without knowing what was happening to their body. I think that proper education in schools, which gives girls and boys an opportunity to seize hold of their lives and make good decisions for themselves, should start long before a girl’s first period.

Thirdly, the hon. Lady talks about an abstinence programme. Of course, the single most important thing that we can give any child in their education, boy or girl, is the self-confidence to make good decisions for themselves and, when they have made bad decisions, to be able to stand up to the consequences. There are things that we need to do through housing allocation and the benefits system to address those issues. However, there is no evidence anywhere in the world that an abstinence programme of sex education works in delivering the outcomes that she wants.

Fourthly, the hon. Lady refers only to sex education; she just wants sex education. She refers to the number of youngsters who are told how to put a condom on a banana. I have never understood why putting a condom on a banana or a cucumber is of any use to anyone, but she is absolutely right in saying that if sex education is just about teaching people the mechanics of having sex, it is effectively an advert. Rather than the present legal situation where the only obligatory bit is sex education—in other words, the mechanics and teaching people about sexually transmitted infections—there should be proper sex and relationship education starting at an early enough age to make a real difference.

The level of teenage pregnancy in my constituency is probably higher than in the hon. Lady’s, because the map of high teenage pregnancy figures is the map of poverty in this country. I feel absolutely passionately about trying to cut the number of teenage pregnancies. Indeed, I have done a great deal of work on trying to do that in my constituency. The hon. Lady rightly refers to the statistics showing that we have the highest rate in Europe. It is not just higher than anywhere else; it is fives times higher than in Holland, three times higher than in France and twice what it is in Germany. Yet countries such Holland, France and Germany have much better sex and relationship education in their schools that starts at a much younger age and is much more explicit. That is part of the difference.

There are many other elements to trying to rectify this situation, but one of the reasons why many Opposition Members think that teenage pregnancy is such an important issue is that it is not just wealth that is inherited in this country; all too often, poverty is inherited, in many cases because of teenage pregnancy. Lots of teenage mums are absolutely wonderful—they triumph against the odds—but many of the babies that are born to teenage mums are much smaller and have more health problems, and if they are girls, they are three times more likely to become teenage mums. We thus perpetuate the cycle of poverty, particularly in certain parts of the country. That is why I believe that we should have far better sex and relationship education in schools.

Incidentally, I am delighted that a Labour Government, through resolute work between the Department for Education and the Department of Health, managed to cut the figures significantly in this country. History shows that the time when the figures grew most dramatically was under Mrs Thatcher. We have now seen the figures for 2009, and they show that we have reached a record low compared with 1980. I am not at all complacent about that, because there is a great deal more to do. My own ten-minute rule Bill is in a charabanc situation and as unlikely to become legislation as the hon. Lady’s.

We need to address other associated problems. The number of children in care in this country is a shock and a disgrace, and it has risen dramatically to 65,000 in England. It has gone up from 3,000 to 5,000 in six years in Wales. It is difficult to find good care arrangements for many of those youngsters. Hospital admissions for self-harm, particularly among young girls, have risen by some 30% in Wales over the past few years.

Yes, we have achieved great things for young people in recent years. Drug use has decreased over the past decade—some 7% of youngsters between the ages of 16 and 24 have used a class A drug. Contrary to what hon. Members will read in the national newspapers, drinking among 15-year-olds has decreased quite dramatically. Ten years ago, 58% of boys said that they drank alcohol; the figure is now 36%. The figure for girls is down from 54% to 30%. [ Interruption. ] Government Members may ask what that has got to do with teenage pregnancy, but every time that I talk to young people about teenage pregnancy, they tell me what happens: everyone has a great idea and a strong set of moral principles at 6 o’clock in the evening, when they have not had a drink, but by the time that they are blotto at 11.30 at night, all those choices disappear out the window, and they start to take much more risky decisions. That is why tackling the consumption of alcohol by youngsters is just as important as every element of sex and relationship education.

Some of those figures relate specifically to girls, but many more young men commit suicide than young women. Although the number of suicides among young people has fallen by a third over the past few years, the single most important thing that we can give to any young person is a sense of their own worth. Of course, some of them are in families or schools where they do not feel valued, but to introduce legislation that applies only to girls and refers only to sex education, rather than to the broad experience that young people have to have fulfilled, is a complete mistake.

Better legislation would ensure that girls and boys had proper, thorough sex and relationship education in all schools, with no school allowed to opt out. Yes, if parents want to opt out, that is fine. Yes, they should be able to draw up the curriculum, but schools should not be able to opt out because, as Ofsted has pointed out, the provision of sex and relationship education is very patchy in England, and we are letting down far too many of our youngsters.

Many teachers are frightened of providing such education because it is not a formal part of the curriculum. Youngsters pick up that fear, and that informs some of the bad choices that they end up making. Yes, we should teach self-confidence and self-worth. Some work done by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation showing that many young girls choose to get pregnant almost as a vocation or are so careless about having sex that they end up pregnant is very distressing. They often have no self-worth, they are not valued at home, and they find the educational arrangements at school difficult; but the moment they get pregnant, suddenly everyone comes round and provides them with support. Would it not be better if we gave them the support that they needed before they made that wrong decision for themselves?

In addition, we need to enhance out-of-school activities. I worry that many local authorities will cut youth services because of the situation with local authority grants. Youth services are often where young girls and boys have a positive role model for the first time in life that is not just an authority role model in school. That is why those services play such an important part in changing all this.

Finally, the only thing that I would add is that, sadly, many youngsters get only 10 minutes of sex education in their whole lives. They do not get proper sex and relationship education; they spend less time on it than we have had to debate the issue today.

Question put (Standing Order No. 23).

The House divided:

Ayes 67, Noes 61.

Division number 266 Sex Education (Required Content)

Aye: 64 MPs

No: 58 MPs

Aye: A-Z by last name


No: A-Z by last name


Abstained: 3 MPs

Abstained: A-Z by last name

Question accordingly agreed to.


That Nadine Dorries, Thomas Docherty, Mr Julian Brazier, Dr Thérèse Coffey, Mr Edward Leigh, Fiona Bruce and Mark Pritchard present the Bill.

Nadine Dorries accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 20 January 2012, and to be printed (Bill 185).