Sex Education (Required Content)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:47 pm on 4th May 2011.

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Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Shadow Minister (Justice) (Political and Constitutional Reform) 12:47 pm, 4th 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.