I beg to move,
That the draft Relationships Education, Relationships and Sex Education and Health Education (England) Regulations 2019, which were laid before this House on
The regulations represent an historic step that will equip children and young people with the knowledge they need to lead safe, healthy and happy lives.
The world children are growing up in has changed considerably since the sex and relationship guidance for schools was last updated in 2000. Thanks to the internet, children are encountering a more interconnected and interdependent world. That presents opportunities and advantages, but also risks, as children have greater exposure to information, content and people that can and do cause harm. That is why, during the passage of the Children and Social Work Act 2017, thanks to the work of my right hon. Friend Mrs Miller, my hon. Friend Fiona Bruce and other hon. Members, the Government introduced an amendment to that measure requiring the introduction of compulsory relationships education for all primary school pupils and compulsory relationships and sex education for all secondary school pupils.
Having listened to concerns about mental health, the impact of the online world and long-standing risks related to unhealthy lifestyles, we also decided to make health education compulsory in all state-funded schools.
Although I accept that the proposal is necessary in this day and age, does the Minister accept that, in politics, we have to take people with us, otherwise it causes a great deal of resentment among our constituents? Many of my constituents do not go along with the proposal and there is a great deal of concern in the Muslim community and among those of Christian faith.
I do understand my hon. Friend’s concerns. We worked very hard during and after the consultation process to ensure that we could assemble the widest possible consensus on the new draft guidance. We accept that it contains some very sensitive issues and I understand that some parents have legitimate concerns about their involvement in their child’s education, particularly in primary schools. We have considered that very carefully.
I thank the Minister for giving way. I think he knows what I am going to ask him, because he has been very helpful prior to this debate. What can he say to reassure, for example, the Muslim community in relation to these proposals? Can he provide some reassurance to them?
I can give the hon. Gentleman, the Muslim community and other communities who share those concerns outside this House the assurance that schools will be required, for example, to consult with parents on their relationships education, and on relationships and sex education policies. One key purpose is to help to minimise any misconception about the subjects and what might be taught, and to enable parents to decide whether to request, for example, that their child is withdrawn from sex education. We encourage schools to engage proactively with parents to set out how and when they plan to cover topics included in relationships education and RSE, so that parents can understand what is going to be taught. This means ensuring that parents know what they can and cannot withdraw their children from, that they can have an input into policies, and have sufficient time and notice to make an informed decision about whether to withdraw their children from sex education.
Traditionally, Conservative Governments have held the line that parents have an unfettered right to withdraw their children from sex education. Under the proposals, it will for the first time be possible at certain ages for that parental veto to be overridden. What I want from the Minister, if I may ask for this, is a commitment that it will be used very rarely, that the headteacher will have to justify his actions, that it will only be used in certain circumstances where it is definitely in the interests of the child, perhaps because of some behavioural issue, and that it will not be taken as a matter of course that the veto of parents is being overridden.
I will come on to that specific point later in my opening remarks, but I can give my hon. Friend the reassurance that only in exceptional circumstances will the school not respect parents’ request to withdraw their child from sex education in secondary school. There is an absolute right for parents to withdraw their child from sex education in primary school.
This is always a sensitive subject, but we are talking about giving information to children about the daily reality of some of their contemporaries. Does the Minister not agree that we are talking about doing this in an atmosphere where we have seen what happens when being LGBT is somehow hidden and ashamed? It leads to bullying, high levels of self-hatred and mental health issues, self-harm and sometimes even suicide. Will he not just listen to those who wish completely to separate their children from basic human knowledge about the reality for LGBT pupils in schools?
That is, of course, one of the purposes of introducing the regulations today and the guidance is very clear about the importance of LGBT issues. However, we also want to make sure that we have a wide consensus on these issues. They are ultimately a matter for teachers in schools to decide. I will come on to that point in a little more detail.
Minister, like others in this Chamber I have a real concern over the rights of parents. I hope the right hon. Gentleman will be able to help me on a specific point relating to the regulations that I know many others cannot understand. Given that RSE is to be taught in secondary school, how will it be possible to withdraw a child from sex education but not relationships education? Logically, a withdrawal from sex education must surely also be a withdrawal from relationship education unless the two subjects are taught separately? What is it to be: teaching RSE as an integrated subject with the right of withdrawal from RSE as a whole; or splitting the subjects in two, so that one can apply the right of withdrawal to just sex education? It is either one or the other.
Order. Before the Minister replies, I remind the Chamber that a lot of hon. Members wish to speak, so interventions need to be brief.
The right is for parents to withdraw their child from the sex education element of relationships and sex education. When it passed the Children and Social Work Act 2017, the House made it very clear that there would be no right for parents to seek their children’s withdrawal from the relationships element of this new compulsory part of the curriculum, either at primary or secondary level.
The Minister will be aware—not only from comments made in this Chamber, but from his mailbag—of the very considerable concerns of many people in the community. He said that teachers will decide; does that not sum up one of the fundamental issues? There seems to be no external reference mechanism able to arbitrate if discussions break down between the parents and the heads and teachers. How will we resolve that? We need to resolve it before we impose the policy on schools, do we not?
The purpose of requiring consultation between the school and parental groups is to dispel the myths that build up about the content. If parents have concerns about the content that is being taught, schools should take them very seriously. We worked very carefully on the wording of the draft guidance, to bring as many people as possible on board, and we are giving schools discretion over when to teach some of the more sensitive subjects. The compulsion is to ensure that those issues are covered at some point during the children’s education, but when that happens will be a matter for the schools to decide. Schools also have to take into account the faith backgrounds of the pupils and their parents.
I am grateful. As the Minister knows, I have worked with his officials every day for the past month on one of the issues in one of my schools. The parents at that school believe that the Equality Act 2010 and every single protected characteristic in it should be taught, but as a result of the breakdown in consultation, the regional schools commissioner, an independent arbitrator appointed by the Department and I have had to come in and spend a month on the matter. Surely that situation cannot be replicated in thousands of primary schools if there is a breakdown of trust, so we need more prescriptive guidance to ensure that there is no retreat from the aims of this proposal.
The policy makes it very clear that there should be consultation between the schools and parents; that the schools should publish on their websites the details of what is to be taught; and that parents should be given plenty of notice, so that there is time for their input into the development of that policy. They need to know that if the school takes a different decision, they can, ultimately, withdraw their child from the sex element of RSE in secondary schools.
The new subjects will put in place the building blocks that children need to develop healthy, positive, respectful and safe relationships of all kinds, starting with lessons at primary school about family and friends. At secondary school, what is taught in relationships and sex education will expand to reflect the person as a potential partner and parent; for example, teaching will include the characteristics of healthy and unhealthy intimate relationships, the roles and responsibilities of parents with respect to raising children, and the positive effect that good relationships can have on mental wellbeing. These subjects give us the opportunity to help to protect children and promote personal development and positive character attributes such as honesty, integrity, kindness, resilience and courtesy.
All children will be taught about online relationships and about how behaviour should be the same online as in other contexts. At age-appropriate points, they will be taught about specific online issues, such as who and what to trust, or sharing information. In secondary schools, they will be taught about the dangers and the potential impact of sexually explicit content.
Health education will give us the opportunity to drive up the consistency and quality of pupils’ knowledge about physical and mental health. Physical health and mental wellbeing are interlinked. It is important that pupils understand that good physical health contributes to good mental wellbeing, and this starts with pupils being taught about the benefits of daily exercise, good nutrition and sufficient sleep, and about the positive impact that self-care techniques can have on their health and wellbeing.
Effective teaching will give children the knowledge to recognise and seek help for poor mental and physical health and support them to promote positive mental and physical wellbeing and to thrive both at and beyond school.
I welcome the inclusion of mental health and wellbeing in the compulsory curriculum, but how it is taught—ensuring that teachers are properly trained and that the training is sufficiently resourced—will be critical. Does the Minister have an expectation of how many staff will be trained to teach mental health and wellbeing in schools?
The right hon. Gentleman, a former Health Minister, raises an important point. We want to make sure that the training material is available—we are allocating £6 million in the relevant financial year to prepare and produce essential resources—and that training, both online and face to face, is available so that our teachers are well equipped to teach this subject properly.
The Minister may be aware that on Monday the all-party group on social media and young people’s mental health and wellbeing, which I co-chair, published its report, “#NewFilters: to manage the impact of social media on young people’s mental health and wellbeing”. The report makes recommendations on improving digital education. Will he consider looking at the report and meeting me and Mr Wragg, the co-chair, to discuss the recommendations and see if they could be implemented across the English education system? I will be doing the same with Welsh and Scottish Education Ministers.
Yes, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has just told me that he and I would be keen to meet the hon. Gentleman and the other members of the all-party group to discuss these really important issues. The guidance refers to the importance of teaching children about the importance of rationing time spent online, given that it detracts from other aspects of life, such as sleeping, friends, talking to parents and doing homework.
I acknowledge the significant input we had from external organisations and educational professionals, from the tens of thousands of individuals who contributed to the call for evidence and public consultation, and indeed from right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House who contributed constructively.
One reason I support the Government’s move is that all the evidence shows that good sex and relationships education enables youngsters to delay their first experience of sex, make healthier decisions about their sexual relationships and to enter into healthier sexual relationships throughout their whole lives. Does the Minister not find it utterly depressing that the one bit that people seem to object to is that pupils might be “exposed”—not my word, but other people’s—to the fact that there are homosexuals in society, and is that not deeply painful to gay parents, to children who might be gay or have gay uncles, aunts or other family members and to gay teachers?
One of the key elements of relationships education is ensuring that children are aware, including in primary schools, that loving families can be made up of two mothers, two fathers or one mother and one father. Children are being taught that other family structures are just as loving and caring as their own. There is a consensus on that among all right hon. and hon. Members.
The responses and submissions have helped to finalise the statutory guidance and regulations. It is clear, as was reflected in the Government consultation response, that there are understandable and legitimate areas of contention, but it is also clear that for many people the subjects and their content are important to help equip children and young people to manage the challenges they face. It is important to provide clear and concise guidance for schools. In reviewing responses and determining the final content, we have retained a focus on the core principles for the new subjects that Parliament endorsed through the Children and Social Work Act 2017.
Those principles are that the subjects should help to keep children safe, help to prepare them for the world in which they are growing up, including its laws, and help to foster respect for others and for difference. The content included must be developmentally and age-appropriate, and it must be taught in a sensitive and inclusive way that respects the backgrounds and beliefs of pupils. We believe that in developing the accompanying statutory guidance and required content for these subjects, we have struck the right balance between prescribing the core knowledge that all pupils should be taught and allowing flexibility for schools to design a curriculum that is relevant to their pupils.
Parents and carers are the prime teachers for children, and schools complement and reinforce that role by building on what pupils learn at home. That is why we decided to strengthen the requirement for schools to consult parents on their relationships and relationships and sex education policy by enshrining it in the regulations as well as the guidance.
I will not, if the hon. Lady will forgive me.
Schools must consult parents on their proposed policy and any subsequent reviews; giving them the time and the opportunity to influence the curriculum and discuss their views on age-appropriate content. We have also retained the long-standing ability for parents to request that their children be withdrawn from sex education. When a primary school chooses to teach sex education, parents will have the right to request that their children be withdrawn, and that must be granted by the headteacher. At secondary schools, in the case of sex education within RSE, the school should respect the parents’ request to withdraw the child, unless there are very exceptional circumstances, up to and until three terms before the child turns 16. At that point, if the child wishes to take part in sex education, the headteacher should ensure that they receive it in one of those terms.
I welcome the intention behind this move. As a parent, I see the pressure to which our children are subjected today and the extraordinary anxiety that is caused by many of the influences that they are under. It must be right to help them, particularly in relation to health. However, may I ask my right hon. Friend a question about parental opt-out? It has always been our party’s view, and the view of the House, that we should tread very gently when we step, as a state, between parent and child. Will he reassure me that there is some protection when it comes to the basis on which the state will decide that there are exceptional circumstances in which a parent can be overruled?
My hon. Friend should be reassured that they will be very exceptional circumstances. For example, if a child has experienced a sexual incident, perhaps with another child, or inappropriate touching, a headteacher may decide not to grant the request. The key point is, however, that it will be the circumstances of the child and not the views of the headteacher that will lead to that decision.
We could not have retained the right to withdraw as it currently stands, because an absolute parental right up to the point when the child is 18 years old is no longer compatible with English case law and the European convention on human rights. However, we have delivered on our commitment to maintain a right for parents to withdraw their children from sex education that is also compatible with the law.
We are committed to ensuring that every school will have the support that it needs to deliver these subjects to a high and consistent quality. We will therefore be investing in tools that will improve schools’ practice, such as a supplementary guide to support the delivery of the content set out in the guidance, targeted support on materials and training. As I said to Norman Lamb, we have up to £6 million to invest in the development of those tools this year. We are also encouraging as many schools as possible to start teaching the subjects from September 2019, so that we can learn lessons and share good practice ahead of compulsory teaching.
I will not, because I am about to finish my speech.
We believe that our proposals are a landmark step. They will bring existing guidance into the 21st century, and will introduce new content that will help to equip children and young people with the knowledge that they need to form healthy relationships, lead healthy lives and be happy and safe in the world. I commend them to the House.
Order. Before I call the shadow Secretary of State, colleagues will I hope be aware that this debate finishes at seven minutes past 8, so after the shadow Secretary of State has spoken, I will impose an immediate five-minute time limit, and it will come down after that. If any colleagues feel that their interventions mean they do not need to make further contributions, I am sure other colleagues would appreciate that, and they can let me know and withdraw their names if they wish to.
First, may I thank the Minister for his opening remarks and the tone in which he made them and for the interventions he took and ask Members to be respectful of others who want to contribute to the debate by not intervening too much?
The issue we are speaking about today is a fundamental human right, and it is absolutely right that we discuss it on the Floor of the House. The world that our children face has changed beyond recognition since our own childhoods, and it is already far too long since we last updated the guidance on sex and relationship education. The use and reach of technology has grown at an unprecedented pace and our society has changed, too, in many ways for the better, and I welcome the Minister’s opening remarks in particular around online safety and mental health and wellbeing.
The Equality Act 2010 and equal marriage have both been passed by this House under Governments of different parties, and I hope we have led as well as reflected the changes that have happened in social attitudes. Today, we have the chance to do so again, and I am glad that this has been taken forward over many years on a cross-party basis, reflecting a consensus that cannot simply be thrown away when Governments change.
I am grateful to my hon. Friends the Members for Rotherham (Sarah Champion), for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) and for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) as well as many others, and I must also pay tribute to my hon. Friend Mrs Lewell-Buck who I was sad to lose from our Front Bench and who made a positive impact not least on shaping the Children and Social Work Act 2017, which legislated for universal SRE. There are many Government Members, too, who have made these reforms possible. In particular, let me acknowledge the roles played by Mrs Miller as Chair of the Women and Equalities Committee and the former Secretary of State Justine Greening, who was instrumental in bringing these changes forward.
Reform is necessary and I hope that the cross-party agreement will be reflected by all Members of this House, because it is clear this week that we must send an unequivocal message. There is a moral obligation on us to show political leadership in updating these regulations. We must ensure that every child in England today learns about healthy relationships when growing up, but it is absolutely essential that they learn about their own identities. On this point, I hope that the Minister will explain what the guidance means when it says that it “expects” all children to be taught about LGBT issues.
My hon. Friend is making a very strong speech, and she rightly mentioned mental health and the wellbeing of young people. Does she agree that all the more reason why we need LGBT+ inclusive education and SRE is because the mental health particularly of young LGBT people and especially trans young people is often at great risk?
My hon. Friend is right, and the statistics lay bare the devastating lifelong impacts if we cannot ensure every child is celebrated for who they are, which I am sure is what we all want across the House.
One of the most moving days of my life was when my youngest son George told me, his father and his brother that he was gay. I will never forget the look of relief on George’s face when he told us, and we had a family hug. Today, I would like us to think about all those LGBT children and young people out there who do not have a family to hug them. So I ask that there is a guaranteed requirement that every child will be taught about LGBT issues—or is there a risk that some LGBT children in particular, like my George, will miss out on this part of their education?
I welcome my hon. Friend’s powerful intervention, which shows the whole House that there is an obligation on us all to ensure that support is available. I also pay tribute to the Government for bringing forward these regulations. There is no opt-out from the Equality Act 2010, and we have to ensure that all schools understand the obligations and that we work with society and do not push back from the gains that we have made over the years and decades. We must support society and our young people, who actually lead the way a lot of the time on these issues. We must listen to them and show them that we love and respect them for who they are and that we will help them to grow.
Does my hon. Friend agree that it is often not the wider society but young people who lead the way and that this House can help to frame the discussion that will take place in the wider communities? These regulations are really important in ensuring that we frame the debate in a positive way rather than in a negative one, which is in danger of happening in some corners of this country.
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. Far be it from me to say that this House can sometimes be prehistoric when it comes to moving forward, but I do believe that young people challenge us, as we saw with the recent climate change strikes. We have to listen to young people, as they often show us that we can be a more tolerant, more equal, more loving and more respectful society.
LGBT issues are not something that can be detached from the society in which our young people are growing up and to which they are exposed. LGBT people will be their friends, their families, their teachers and of course some of the children being taught. They must know that, throughout their education, they will get the support that they need. Teaching LGBT awareness does not make someone any more or less LGBT, but it does teach people the facts and dispel the myths, to ensure that our young people feel loved and valued for who they are. For all the positive social change that has been achieved, nearly half of all LGBT young people are bullied in school for their sexuality, and half of them do not tell anyone about it. More than three in five lesbian, gay and bisexual young people have self-harmed, and the figure rises to more than four in five among trans students. Perhaps most devastating of all is the fact that one in five lesbian, gay and bisexual students have tried to take their own lives, as have more than two in five trans people.
We agree on the need for these reforms, but we must ensure that they are properly implemented. The Minister has said that there will be a £6 million budget for school support, training and resources, but if that were to be spread across all of England’s 23,000-plus schools, it would amount to about £254 per school. Does he really believe that schools will have the resources they need to deliver this curriculum? Perhaps he will tell us later how this funding will be distributed, and how many schools can expect to get it in the first year. Also, will every teacher who requests training in the new subject be able to access it? If not, how many does he believe will have received such training by September 2019 and 2020? Does he believe that this funding is enough to ensure that the new curriculum is available to all pupils, including those with special educational needs and disabilities, in all mainstream and special schools?
Will the Minister tell the House what steps he will be taking to monitor the implementation of the new curriculum, and in particular, how he will ensure that every child gets the education that they are entitled to? Will he also tell us what support will be given to the teachers who are delivering it? We have already seen the challenges now facing some schools in delivering similar subjects. What action will he take to monitor how the new curriculum is being implemented? What action will be taken if schools are not delivering it?
I am a member of the generation that had to deal with section 28, and we do not want to go back to that. What words of reassurance does my hon. Friend think we need to hear from the Government tonight for those parents who are concerned about sending their child to school and finding that their child and their family relationship, because they have two mums or two dads, is suddenly being judged or excluded from the curriculum?
My hon. Friend makes an important point but, without putting words in his mouth, some of the Minister’s opening remarks were absolutely right. Most people would support relationships education when they understand what it is about. We have made great progress, and I honestly think this is a tolerant, supportive and loving society. Some would not accept it, but we cannot row back from the advances we have collectively made together. I hope that the whole House will send that message across all our communities and say that this is what we want: healthy, resilient young people who will be happy into adulthood.
The regulations require the Secretary of State to review the guidance from time to time, but I am sure the Minister agrees that, with the pace of change in modern society, we will need to do so regularly. Will he confirm that he will look again at the guidance at least every few years? The option for young people to opt back in to SRE is an important one, and it is right that the guidance acknowledges the voice of young people in such decisions about their education, but can the Minister explain why the opt-in begins only from three terms before turning 16? As it stands, even in secondary schools, children will not have the right to opt in. Given that the curriculum will always be age appropriate, does he believe this age cut-off and the opt-out are genuinely necessary? Will he look again at these issues once the new guidance has bedded in?
The guidance has specific provisions requiring schools to take the religious background of all their pupils into account in teaching SRE. This flexibility can be useful, although we must be clear that there can be no opting out of the Equality Act 2010 and that all schools must teach the law on these issues so their pupils understand it. I hope that the Minister will echo that point.
As the Minister said, schools, particularly faith schools, remain able to teach distinctive faith perspectives on these issues. However, I know there are still concerns in some faith communities and, of course, we want to ensure our education system is inclusive in the widest possible sense. For example, I recently met representatives of the orthodox Jewish community, which has particular concerns not just about the curriculum but about Ofsted that I hope can be addressed.
For this to succeed, we must take parents from all our communities and all backgrounds with us. As the Minister stated, concerns that arise are often based on misunderstandings of what is being taught, and good parental engagement can avoid that. I hope that the Government will support schools on that, but I also hope that the Government are prepared to investigate and intervene, where necessary, to ensure that schools are following the Equality Act and that the Minister will come back to update the House.
We are concerned that the Government’s structural reforms to the school system have made it more difficult for parents to have their concerns heard at a school level. The shift to academies and the removal of parent governors can lead to the perception that decisions are made by managers in academy trusts that are remote from local schools and communities. That damages the relationship between parents and schools, and it works against early and effective engagement.
The new guidance requires schools to discuss the new curriculum with parents, and it suggests an open dialogue on this subject. I believe that it is best left to schools to work in their own communities, but there must be support from the Government. If this House passes the guidance today, as I hope it will, we are asking teachers and schools to deliver that curriculum. We must give them political leadership and support in doing so. I hope that the message will be made loud and clear, not just by the Minister today, but by the Secretary of State as well.
It is rare, at a time when we are so divided, to see those on this side of the House in agreement with the Government, but that is the case today. I hope that we can agree this measure without dissent and make it clear to the whole country that it represents the will of the whole House. Of course, as shadow Education Secretary, I believe that there is room to improve the guidance and that a Labour Government will do so, but we can take a giant step forward today by passing these regulations. They are badly needed to ensure that every child grows up safe and happy. It is our absolute duty as Members of this House to make that happen. This may be the only time that I say this from this Despatch Box, but I, too, commend this motion to the House.
I, too, rise to support these regulations and guidance, and I thank Ministers for the constructive engagement with Members from across the House that they have exhibited in preparation for these regulations. Through engaging, they have struck a right but difficult balance, so I am pleased to broadly support these regulations, particularly given their emphasis on teaching about relationships; the sex element is compulsory only in secondary schools.
Young people are being taught to develop healthy relationships, both physical and mental, and about maintaining relationships so that their relationships can endure, which is what they aspire to. They are being taught about the nature of marriage, and its importance for family life and the bringing up of children. The fact that schools can choose the resources they use to teach RSE is very important, particularly for faith schools, which will be able to have regard to the religious background of pupils, as is the fact that materials should be age appropriate.
I know that some colleagues have reservations about the qualified right of parental withdrawal, but I am pleased that the Schools Minister has said that this will be used in very exceptional circumstances. I ask him to reflect on the following words of the then Minister for Vulnerable Children and Families during the passage of the Children and Social Work Act 2017:
“We have committed to retain a right to withdraw from sex education in RSE, because parents should have the right, if they wish, to teach sex education themselves in a way that is consistent with their values.”—[Official Report,
Vol. 622, c. 705.]
In other words, where a parent withdraws their child from sex education for reasons of religious belief up to the age of 15, that right of withdrawal should normally be respected. The exceptional circumstances we are speaking of would be there to deal with exceptional safeguarding issues, such as those involving children with special educational needs or other vulnerable needs. I would be grateful if the Minister could clarify that. He has referred to the anticipated supplemental guidance about the implementation of this curriculum, and it would be helpful if further information could be given about the right of withdrawal. Could the Minister clarify that the focus of these exceptional circumstances is to be safeguarding issues?
On working with parents and the wider community, I very much welcome paragraphs 40 to 44 of the guidance, which set out that schools should work closely with parents when planning and delivering the subjects. Good engagement is essential, but it does not always happen enough between schools and parents, and between children and parents. Anything Ministers can do to encourage this would be welcome. For example, parental involvement could be enhanced if some of the curriculum is digital and online. Some very good materials are available on the digital platform provided by OnePlusOne, such as those on how to communicate better with a partner, on conflict resolution and on how to see the best in one’s partner. It would be very helpful if parents could be given access to such modules, in order to learn what their children will be taught and, if necessary, then to be able to communicate with the school
The other key issue has been touched on already: how the new curriculum requirements will be applied by Ofsted when the inspector calls. I raised this issue in the Westminster Hall debate in February, and it is crucial to the implementation of these regulations. The draft inspection framework for Ofsted inspectors is out for consultation until
“reflect on faith teachings about certain topics”,
but it would be helpful if the Ofsted inspection framework also referred to the new curriculum and how it will apply to inspectors’ judgments. As we have heard, concerns have been expressed, and I have received concerns from parents of children at Jewish schools who feel that Ofsted inspectors’ questions were not age-appropriate and did not reflect the religious principles regarding their relationships.
I spoke about RSE and the issues relating to it most recently in a Westminster Hall debate. It is fair to say that that speech gained quite a social media reaction, and the past couple of weeks have been a difficult and challenging experience: difficult because I have been forced to confront head-on the appalling reality that my comments and, in a number of instances, the reporting on my comments has led some to think me a homophobe; and challenging because I have felt that my intentions, which were to get a fair hearing for everyone and give voice to people who have felt excluded from a process, have been both lost and misunderstood.
Let me be clear: I think RSE should be taught in schools; that the curriculum should be inclusive of all, and that includes the LGBT community; and that all of it should be taught at the right age and in the right way. I continue to call out in the strongest terms the homophobic banners, chanting and hostile protests at Parkfield School in Birmingham, because they are wrong and feed the very prejudices that I want to help to eradicate. I am happy to discuss, debate and listen to all communities, but I have been a little taken aback by some of the comments made about my position, some of which have been quite simply untrue.
My involvement first came about when a large number of parents turned up at my weekly advice surgery in January. They had come to share with me their concerns about a lack of proper engagement ahead of changes to RSE at the schools their kids attend and the delivery of education under the purview of the Equality Act. They were measured and respectful, but also genuinely angry and frustrated. Why? Because there had been a breakdown of trust between the school leadership and the parent body. It was, and is, my hope to restore that bond of trust, but we must all reflect on and learn from how it came to pass. It is not a breakdown born of bigotry or hate; it is one born, for the most part, of a failure of process, policy and oversight.
Under the new guidelines, schools will make choices about what they think the best approach is; indeed, a variety of approaches will be developed, all achieving the same end but in different ways. It is imperative that there is honesty and trust between schools and parents. If a school leadership team oversells and overstates, or undersells and understates, what is required, in order to duck challenging conversations about the choices and discretion that the law allows them, we will have conflict where there need be none.
We need to bottom-out what good consultation looks like, because in my part of Birmingham there are many examples of bad consultation. I have been heartbroken to see the contempt with which some parents in my constituency have been treated. Some deeply troubling and discriminatory assumptions—that because these people look a certain way, they will think a certain way —lie at the heart of that treatment.
So, where is the dispute resolution process to fix this mess? Any sensible person would say that we must either construct a system designed to stop disputes occurring in the first place, or have a system to deal with them once they have occurred. What we actually have is a system that assumes there will not be any disputes at all. That does a disservice to everyone, not least of all the children. Where they still exert control, local education authorities can respond and move quickly to ensure that everyone is represented within a structure that is designed to stop disputes and foster a sense of shared mission between different minority communities, but academies are not designed in that way, and that is a real problem.
It is a matter of profound regret to me that the clash between rights and the role of the state, and the issue of whether all our protected characteristics are protected equally, have found themselves played out in our classrooms. The question of what happens when there is a clash remains. If others, like me, happen to think it is not possible to Twitter-storm out of existence everyone with a view different from their own, a different approach is required—one that is focused on dispute resolution, negotiation, compromise and reconciliation.
It is terrible to see communities pitted against one another. We cannot allow hard-won advances for the LGBT community to be quietly rolled back, but nor can we allow faith to be re-badged as bigotry or shout down those with sincere questions or concerns. Hard conversations cannot be avoided forever. This very institution must ultimately be the one that reconciles the competing rights and needs of different groups, which is what the guidance clearly seeks to achieve. My fear, though, is that without more, it will fall short.
I rise to speak in support of the statutory instrument before us today, and to congratulate my right hon. Friends sitting on the Front Bench for doing what no other Ministers have been able to do for almost two decades. That deserves fulsome congratulations from every Member of this House. As has been said, the world has changed for our children—changed beyond all recognition. This SI rewrites the statutory guidance for schools to deliver relationships and sex education that is actually relevant for our children and not of a bygone age, and it is long overdue.
The internet proved to be the straw that broke the camel’s back. An issue around which we can all unite is the appalling impact of the social media and the online world on our children’s lives. After years of campaigning for change by numerous organisations outside of here and by many, many individuals inside this House, it was the impact of the internet that proved to be the uniting factor—the factor that meant we could no longer ignore the need for change. It is important to recognise that that is what happened. It was the House of Commons making its voice heard.
Two years ago, on
I think it was putting those party political differences aside on this issue that enabled Ministers to act; otherwise, we would not be here today. Credit goes to those individuals—they know who they are—who made it happen. On
David Burrowes and I were united in the need for change because of the way in which the internet was changing our own children’s lives: the fact that children now routinely see pornography at the age of eight; the fact that pornography is now the way that most children learn about sex; the impact on children of websites showing self-harm; and the never-ending bullying through social media websites. As somebody said to me yesterday—it might have been the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley—the internet does not know the religion of the children who watch it. It does not know whether they are Christian or Muslim or have no faith at all. There is no filter. All our children need to know how to use the internet safely.
Those of us who came together can be proud of what is happening today, but only if schools take seriously the important role that they now have. They must make sure that parents do not see this as an opportunity to opt out of the system. Instead, schools must see it as an opportunity to explain to parents why it is more important than ever that their children get the sort of education that they are now obliged to give them in terms of relationships and sex education.
This instrument is a modest measure. If anything, it does not go far enough, but I warmly support the Government’s proposals. The regulations ensure that every child receives inclusive and age-appropriate relationships education, including on the full diversity of family life—from the same-sex parents dropping their children off at school, to the lesbian teacher at the front of the class, through to the young people understanding and reconciling themselves to their own identity as lesbian, gay, bisexual or trans.
Under the regulations, parents retain the option to withdraw their children from sex education—in my view, at considerable risk. If I may say so, too much of this debate is focused on LGBT education. What about safeguarding children from abuse and harm, which more often than not takes place in the home? It is vital that children are taught about what is and is not acceptable by trained professionals in a safe environment. In the context of child sexual exploitation up and down the country, we lose sight of that at our peril.
I want to focus on the opposition to this modest measure, because it speaks directly to the country that we are and demands an answer as to the kind of country that we want to be. Much of the opposition that has found its way into my inbox has been motivated by religious objections. As a Christian, I understand theological debates about human sexuality. But I should also say, particularly to those who have stood at school gates with homophobic placards and leaflets, and those who have bombarded my inbox warning about LGBT lobbies, clearly not knowing their audience: you should know better. When schools are talking about the importance of having no outsiders, and celebrating diversity and difference, who do you think they are talking about? It is not just the gay child at the front of the classroom. It is the Muslim children in the classroom, the Christians who are still persecuted—in north Africa, across the middle east and sometimes in this country—and the Jewish people who are subjected to a rising tide of antisemitism. Those of us who are different know exactly what it feels like to be an outsider. How dare people, in defence of their own difference, seek to stifle the freedoms and equality of others? If someone has a problem with gay people, bisexual people or lesbian people existing, I suggest they take it up not with their Member of Parliament but with God, because we are all created in God’s image.
It has been said, quite rightly, that we need to take people with us, and I warmly welcome the advice and encouragement of the Catholic Education Service, the Church of England and the Office of the Chief Rabbi. Religious leaders understand the kind of society we are and the kind of society we want to live in. They understand that the central tenet at the heart of so many faiths—in fact, all faiths—is to love your neighbour as yourself. Ultimately we will face judgment from one, and it will not be us.
In conclusion, I want to say to LGBT children up and down the country: in the light of the kind of world we live in—the kind of direction that we see in this country and across democracies—I cannot promise you that the world will be a better place than the one we have now. But I can promise you that I and other people in this place have got your back, and we will fight for the kind of a world that genuinely values equality, freedom and human rights. To my Muslim, Christian and Jewish constituents and friends who have written to me: I’ve got your back too. Anyone who is coming for you, your religious freedom and your place in the community will have to come through me first. I just ask—for the sake of our country, the democracy we live in and the kind of society that we want to build—that you have my back too. If we build that kind of society, whatever our background and wherever we come from, we will all live in harmony together. That is the kind of society we need to build.
Although I have some reservations, which I will discuss, I warmly welcome the new guidance for the introduction of compulsory health, sex and relationships education. Of course, many schools already deliver the full suite of guidance to their pupils. These regulations will ensure that all do so.
Growing up is hard. The internet and social media can make it a cruel place. In my time at school, bullying was rife and the home was a place of refuge. With the online and social media world, there is no escape. We have to reinforce to young people that online activity can be a weapon. Knives cause physical violence; cyber-abuse causes mental violence. The results can be equally devastating. Lives are destroyed, and lives have been lost. We must ensure that our schools are getting the message across. I therefore welcome the focus on mental health and wellbeing, relationships and sex education, and the need to think of the feelings and sensitivities of others. I welcome the coverage afforded to issues such as discrimination, forced marriage, domestic and sexual violence, and addictions, and the emphasis on the need to have respect for oneself and every other person in class and celebrate differences.
There are a few areas on which I seek reassurance from the Front Bench. First, I disagree that parents of secondary school age children should be able to take pupils out of sex education classes. Quite frankly, young people who fall into that category probably need even more attention, because they are unlikely to be discussing these issues at home. I am pleased that the new curriculum will give a 15-year-old the right to opt in, thus taking the matter from the parent, but it concerns me that by this time there may not be time to get sufficient sex education classes, particularly with GCSEs being taken. I would like some reassurance that the entire sex education component will be covered in that shortened window.
Secondly, teacher workloads are increasing. When speaking on this matter before, I called for room to be found for a sex education and relationships curriculum, in preference to adding to existing workloads. I would like an assurance from the Minister as to how this education will occur. If the answer is that a large amount of time will not be taken, that in itself would be of concern to me, because I believe that the wellbeing of our young people requires that investment in time.
Thirdly, I understand the need to allow schools themselves to develop content, and I believe that it is often best when teachers use their own authentic approach and style to communicate these messages. However, I am concerned that schools will be put under pressure from parents to tone down the content or eradicate parts altogether. We have witnessed scenes where some in the Muslim community have put pressure on schools. Parkfield Community School has been the scene of weekly protests over lessons covering LGBT issues. The school is rated “outstanding” by Ofsted, which praises its record of promoting tolerance, acceptance and mutual respect. The school has now said that it will cease to teach its course until a resolution has been reached. That is absolutely appalling.
No, I will not.
The resolution should have been a public spaces order ban on the protesters and fines for the parents who withdrew their children from school.
That is not what Parkfield School has done. It has agreed to go into dialogue with parents to ensure that the Equality Act is taught. That is the fact of the position.
I am happy to take that correction, but as I looked through the reports, I saw that the content on that specific area had been taken down, and I felt that that was absolutely appalling. I will correct that if it turns out not to be the case, but the reality is that we have seen those weekly protests of people carrying—
Please let me continue. We have seen those weekly protests of people carrying placards, which has been a disgrace. I have a right to call that out, just as the right hon. Gentleman obviously has a right to comment as the local Member.
Let me correct the hon. Gentleman on a point of substance. The long-term curriculum plan of the school was set at the beginning of the year, and that is what the school continues to deliver. Of course the protests are unacceptable in terms of some of the abuse that has been hurled, and he is right to call that out, but I ask him please not to muddy this sensitive issue with facts that are incorrect.
I stand corrected, but I also stand by the point that content in a particular course had been taken down—I mentioned the reports—until this had been resolved, and I find that absolutely appalling.
Obviously the right hon. Gentleman is entitled to his opinion, but I ask him please to accept that in Parliament I am entitled to one, too.
This issue demonstrates to me that it is vital that schools feel supported by Government and MPs. We need to send a message out today that while schools have the choice on content, every school must deliver it, without exception. I would like a reassurance that we will ensure that there cannot be another Parkfield, and that the Government will insert their own content should it be found wanting.
These reservations should be put into context. Overall, this step forward is absolutely superb. We have moved on. I am really proud to be standing here and helping to deliver this initiative.
I really welcome these regulations, and I am incredibly proud of the cross-party manner in which we brought them in. I also want to make it very clear that the fact that the charities, survivors, teachers and parents have been lobbying for over 20 years to get to this point should be recognised and celebrated.
The last guidance was in 2000, before the internet and before social media, so this is well overdue. I came to this issue a mere five years ago, and my main driver was preventing child abuse by empowering children to spot inappropriate behaviour. How else is a six-year-old meant to know that the uncle abusing them is acting inappropriately and they have a right to say something about that? Education, not ignorance, is the only way that children will be able to recognise abusive behaviour and know how to seek help.
The scale of this problem is enormous. One in 20 children are sexually abused, one in eight experiences inappropriate sexual behaviour towards them, and one in three has never told an adult. Sexual abuse can happen to any child.
My concern is that, in this vacuum, a generation of children have gone unprotected—a generation who most recently have gone to online pornography, which is a very gendered form of violence, to find out about sex and relationships. The Government’s age verification measure is welcome, but it does not cover social media, and the main place that children, or anyone, access porn on social media is Twitter. Will the Minister liaise with colleagues to see whether that massive gap in protection can be covered?
In the absence of teaching, we have seen the LGBT community, and particularly young people, suffer enormously. Nearly half of LGBT children have been bullied at school. One in five lesbian, gay and bi children and two in five trans children have attempted suicide. That is shocking. I hope the Minister will ensure that that gap is bridged. It concerns me that the guidance says that schools are “expected” to have taught about LGBT relationships by the time children leave school. Can the Minister confirm whether that is a requirement or a recommendation? Will there be sanctions if it is not carried out?
Like others, I have been lobbied about the rights of parents. It is not an either/or situation. We need to recognise that 90% of child abuse is carried out within the extended family or by a family friend. Teachers know their stuff. We need to give them the resources and support to provide this education in a sensitive way. Some 80% of parents want teachers to be properly resourced, so I ask the Minister to focus on why he is allocating £250 per school. Our children deserve better.
These are laudable regulations, and strong arguments have been set out in support of them, but as we have been reminded by a number of speakers, there are concerns among faith groups. I want to touch on those and to pick up in particular the point that my hon. Friend Angela Rayner made about concerns in the orthodox Jewish community.
For 70 years, state-funded Jewish schools have helped to make Britain safe and welcoming for the Jewish community. I understand that over the last eight or nine months, 10 orthodox Jewish schools that were previously rated good or outstanding have been downgraded to “requires improvement” or “inadequate”— a downgrading that threatens their survival—because Ofsted is unhappy with them in the area covered by this guidance. Voices in the community say that if this continues, orthodox Jewish families will either home-school en masse, which they are fully entitled to do, or conclude that the UK is no longer a country where they are welcome. Haredi schools—the fastest growing—will not breach deeply held religious convictions, and they should not have to, because religion or belief is a protected characteristic under the Equality Act 2010.
With rising antisemitism, which we all know about, state schools where the Jewish faith is observed are more important than ever. Nobody wants orthodox Jewish families to feel that they have to leave the country, but something has to give. I chair the all-party parliamentary group on faith and society, and we want to have a meeting on this issue after Easter. Will the Minister commit to his Department and Ofsted being represented at that?
It feels good to be here agreeing on such an important issue. Thousands of children from all backgrounds and faiths walk into schools across the country every day who already know that they are lesbian, gay, bisexual or trans or just feel different but do not know it yet. They will get into school and face homophobic or transphobic bullying from other pupils—45% of primary school teachers have observed such bullying, and nearly half of all LGBT pupils are bullied for being LGBT in our secondary schools.
The Government risk undermining their efforts with the opt-outs. What are the Government saying to these children when they say that schools are not required to teach about LGBT inclusivity and diversity—that learning about heterosexual relationships is age-appropriate, but learning about LGBT families requires a PG rating? The introduction of statutory RSE was the chance to right this wrong, but the Government’s guidance must be beefed up.
New statutory relationships education at primary level is a unique chance to ensure that all young people develop inclusive attitudes to LGBT people from a young age. Inclusion from primary can prevent the development of prejudice and wipe out the bullying that leads to so many of our young people developing higher rates of mental health problems and that leads more LGBT young people to attempt suicide. Teaching about LGBT families as part of teaching about different families at primary age is vital to ensure that young people with LGBT parents see their families reflected in teaching.
I was disappointed to see the Education Secretary say in a piece for The Times today that it will be up to primary schools to decide whether or not to teach in an LGBT inclusive way. This felt too much like a disclaimer, and too much like a trailer for the guidance by way of assuring those objecting to it. Along with 58 of my colleagues from the Opposition, we wrote to the Education Secretary this week to ask that he take a look at the guidance and ensure that LGBT inclusivity in RSE teaching is a requirement, not just a recommendation with opt-outs. This has my full support, but I do think we need to go further.
At this point, I want to highlight that there are many gay men and women with deeply held religious views as well; they are not exclusive of each other. We need to concentrate far more on examples that highlight the cause and prove the argument on which we are joining together in unison this evening.
I rise to speak as the ambassador for youth drug charity Mentor UK. One of the most important steps we have not talked about so far today is the regulations that will make drugs education mandatory in all primary and secondary schools.
Drug usage permeates society, and it can have a devastating effect on our communities and young people. Children can be exposed to parents’ drug usage, be exploited by criminal gangs through county lines and, ultimately, end up developing life-ruining habits. It is critical that young people know the effects of drugs so that they can rationalise and understand abnormal behaviours related to drug usage and be aware of all the risks, such as addiction and long-term health effects, before they end up taking drugs themselves. Unfortunately, the effect of cuts has been to limit our schools’ ability to train teachers to deliver comprehensive drugs education, and to drive them away from these added-value lessons in favour of core performance-targeted subjects, so there has been a lack of the frequent, high-quality, early drugs education that is sorely needed.
According to charities such as VolteFace, there are a few steps the Government could take to improve the guidance further and make drugs education better across the whole country. Schools should start to build and develop drug programmes—with pupils, parents and local partners such as the police, substance misuse services and youth community hubs—that take local and personal vulnerabilities into account. These sessions should not be one-offs, but the guidance does not stipulate how often these lessons should be delivered, which means that schools could still provide basic lessons as long as they tick the boxes relating to what children should be taught by the end of primary and secondary school. This should be clarified in the guidance to mandate for yearly comprehensive drugs education, with an expansion of what is expected of this education. For example, the current guidance does not stipulate the need to teach awareness of child criminal exploitation, which could be vital in preventing children from falling into extremely dangerous situations.
I also rise to welcome today’s regulations, and I want to speak specifically on the issue of age-appropriate relationship education. I have been very alarmed by the debate we have seen outside this House, and to see that some schools are considering dropping LGBT lessons in the light of a backlash from parents. I find this deeply worrying and astonishing, because our schools have a vital role to play in preparing our young people for their life. That includes helping them to understand tolerance, love, respect and self-determination. Children are not possessions of their parents; they have their own rights, and they are entitled to their own learning and to find their own way in the world.
Schools must help equip children for that. Schools must allow them self-expression, and give them confidence, resilience and self-belief. What is more, schools have to teach British values as a compulsory part of the curriculum. These values are defined as democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, and mutual respect for and tolerance of those of different faiths and beliefs and those without faith. I am afraid I have not seen enough tolerance and respect in some of the debate and action we have seen outside this place, and that concerns me deeply.
As for that British value of the rule of law, I am very proud of the laws in this land, which so many have fought for so valiantly over many years. I am proud of the law of this land that recognises equal marriage and I am proud of the law of this land that does not allow discrimination against LGBT people under the Equality Act 2010, including discrimination against pupils who are LGBT, pupils who are perceived to be LGBT and pupils with LGBT parents and family members. This must be upheld, and children are never too young to learn about the values behind those laws.
It is right that, at primary level, relationships education includes the full diversity of family life that exists in Britain. That includes families with different-sex parents, same-sex parents, single parents, adoptive parents and surrogate parents. Doing that ensures that all children are aware of those families and that they are included in the teaching. There are 18,000 same sex parents in the UK—a figure that is rising and that we should welcome.
Early education can ensure that young people develop inclusive attitudes to LGBT people from an early age, helping to prepare them for their life in 21st-century Britain. We have already heard today the troubling statistics that 45% of primary teachers observe homophobic bullying in their schools and that one in five lesbian, gay and bi students have attempted to take their own life. Those statistics are deeply concerning.
At a time when the far right is rising across the world and intolerance and hatred are on the march, when people take up arms against communities for their faith, their race and their sexuality, as we saw in Orlando where 49 people were gunned down in a gay nightclub, we need more tolerance and love, not less. Children are never too young to learn about love, kindness, tolerance, difference, compassion and empathy.
I wholeheartedly support the regulations and pledge my solidarity with and support for the LGBT community today.
I am proud to back the regulations today. I am also proud to be gay. I say that not to fly a flag but because I was not always proud to be gay. When I was growing up, I felt dirty and alone. I felt that people like me did not exist because I did not see them and I was not told about them. We were hidden away. People in this place at that time made rules that made people like me hidden. They failed to give the support and recognition we needed and failed to value the place of LGBT people in our society. That is why I want every child in our country to have age-appropriate, healthy sex and relationships education.
Love is love. Different families all love the same. That is a message that we should be proud to send out. Our young people—gay, straight, lesbian, trans or bi—all deserve to know that they are valued and loved. We need not only LGBT education, but LGBT materials in our schools. I want “And Tango Makes Three”—a beautiful book about two gay penguins who adopt a baby penguin—to be in our schools. Such books help show our young people that it is not just in an occasional lesson that we say that being LGBT is part of our community and valued, but in the libraries and everyday conversations. That matters.
I am Plymouth’s first gay MP. That matters to me because I know that there are little versions of me, be they straight, gay, bi—[An Hon. Member: “Mini Lukes!”] Those mini Lukes—and mini Lucys—are in every school in my city and in this country and they deserve to know that they are not alone, and that they are valued and loved. They deserve to know what they can do with their bodies, why it matters, what those feelings are, what is appropriate and what is not. If we can do that, we show every one of those people that, whether they are straight, gay or bi, they can stand up proudly and say, “This is me. This is who I am.” That will make this a place that we can all be proud of.
On my hand today, it says, “Call Sam”. Sam is a woman in my constituency who has just had to be rehoused again because of domestic abuse. I write “Call Sam” on my hand because I have promised to ring her every day, because I want to try to make sure she gets to the next day. If we do not talk about those issues—about how toxic relationships end up and how certain people and power structures should be challenged—we will always have to have “Call Sam” written on the back of our hands.
Cross-party, we have tried to do this brilliant thing, which I hope will be passed today without question, because there is an epidemic in our country of violence against women, children and LGBT people and a rising tide of racial hatred. Our children are already talking about it. For those who seek opt-outs and exceptions, and worry that people will not be able to be taken out, it is my experience that children who are taken out of these subjects or whose families might not want to talk about these things, may very well have a desperate need for someone to talk to them at school, and to feel that they have somewhere to go when they feel they are in a safe place with their teachers. We should trust our teachers. No one spoke to Sam about it at school. Maybe she would not have avoided the situation she is in, but maybe we could at least have given her hope that there would be somewhere to turn.
On the subject of the conversations about Birmingham that have now become whole-House-worthy, I recently went to Joseph Chamberlain College, which is on the border of three constituencies represented by Members sitting in this room. A young African women wearing a niqab stood in front of the classroom and said, “I’ve invited Jess Phillips because I want to prove that anyone”—I could take this as an insult—“can become a Member of Parliament.” [Laughter.] She went on to say, “As a gay African Muslim, it is really important that we make sure people can see that anyone can do anything.” I felt that my city had leapt forward and I wish for my city to keep on leaping forward. That is the face that I want people to take away when they think about Birmingham tonight, and to remember that it is for Sams, as well as Lukes, that we need to do this.
These are important new rules and I am glad that my Front Bench is giving them our wholehearted support. On the Labour Benches, we are very proud of our role in repealing section 28, not just in law but in spirit. We are very proud of the role we played in getting the Equality Acts on to the statute book. I never come into the Chamber without looking at the words on the wall behind me. “More in common” is at the heart of the Equality Act 2010. That Act and inclusive education are the most important ways in which we deliver that message on the wall behind me, through inclusive education to the children and the future of this country. It reminds us that we cannot and will not pick and choose the equalities that we champion and therefore teach our young people.
The Minister will know that in Parkfield School in my constituency, we have outstanding educators and pioneers such as Andrew Moffat, who is now up for global teacher of the year. We wish him all the luck in the world in securing that prize. However, Parkfield is a good illustration of the challenges that we all have in navigating this agenda not on paper but in the real world. That is where we saw the risks of what happens when consultation just comes to a halt for years on end. We saw what happens when parents become concerned that protected characteristics are not taught in full or in a balanced way. We saw, lit up in lights, the concern when there was a hint that this was a programme that was linked to the de-radicalisation programme, Prevent. That is still something that requires an apology.
Disputes will arise as we translate this agenda into action. As the Minister knows, I feel the Government were much too slow to get a grip on their academy in Parkfield. That delay allowed those with intolerant and extreme views to hijack what was a group of parents simply wanting their voice to be heard and their role to be respected. I hope that we will send out a clear message from this Chamber to those who have been circulating that intolerant hatred aimed at the LGBT community that we will never see it go unchallenged. We stand united—united against that hatred in our city and in our schools. Parkfield parents want the Equality Act to be taught in full. They want every protected characteristic to be taught. They ask nothing more than for their voice to be heard and their role to be respected.
The challenge for the Minister, as he knows, is that he is asking academies to take full school autonomy without the kind of accountability that delivers the dialogue that he says is at the heart of this guidance. He needs to put more guidance on the table, because inclusive education is too precious to risk in disputes like those we have had over the past month.
This is a moment to celebrate. Many immensely powerful speeches have been made; I very much welcomed the speech of Luke Pollard. This is a really important moment for our whole Parliament to unite and say, “You can love whoever you want and be whoever you want, and that will be respected.”
On the question of withdrawal of children, in my book the child’s right must always dominate over the parents’ right. Surely children have the right to be informed about all the challenges that they will face as they grow up.
I applaud the Government for including mental health in the sex and relationships education curriculum—the culmination of years of campaigning by so many people. How it is taught will be incredibly important: teachers need to understand the sometimes complex causes of mental ill health and distress, including trauma and child sexual abuse or other violence in the home, and teach those issues sensitively. It is also important that they be given the resources, training and support to do so; I share the shadow Minister’s concern about whether the resources that the Government have allocated for that purpose will be sufficient.
“awareness of child criminal exploitation;
harm reduction advice;
understanding of hidden harm;
where parental substance misuse can impact on a child;
advice on decision-making during pressured situations”.
It also notes that the curriculum does not include education for sixth-formers, who are under particular pressure with respect to drugs, and that because there is no guidance about sustained, continued education, the requirement could be met by a one-off tick-box exercise that did not meet young people’s needs. I urge the Government to keep the policy closely under review and listen to the concerns of organisations such as Volteface, so that we get it right for young people.
I am very happy to contribute to this debate. I would like to focus on the distinction between relationships education and sex education in relation to the right of withdrawal. Earlier, when I intervened on the Minister, I asked him to address the lack of clarity on how a right of withdrawal from sex education, but not relationships education, will work in practice when relationships and sex education is taught in an integrated manner.
The truth, of course, is that relationships education has been a part of sex education since the Education Act 1996, which requires that sex education be
“given in such a manner as to encourage those pupils to have due regard to moral considerations and the value of family life”,
and that pupils
“learn the nature of marriage and its importance for family life and the bringing up of children”.
In that context, parents have been able to withdraw their children from sex education, which includes relationships education, since 1996. I suggest that the Government now propose to change the scope of that right of withdrawal by renaming sex education as “relationships and sex education” and applying the right of withdrawal only to sex education, not to relationships education.
If relationships and sex education is taught as an integrated subject, how can one withdraw a child from sex education but not from relationships education? The Government’s proposed changes will put parents and teachers in an impossible situation; in some cases, I suspect that it will put them on a collision course. Teachers are being told that they must teach relationships and sex education in an integrated way and that, if necessary, they should be able to remove young people from some parts of their lessons, but not others.
As I see it, the Government could address the problem by amending the regulations, either to mandate that sex education and relationship education be taught as two separate subjects or to ensure that the right of withdrawal continues to cover both sex education and relationships education. The latter decision seems to me more sensible and would be very easy to make. I expect the Minister will reiterate the position the Secretary of State took on
“must include provision…about the circumstances in which a pupil (or pupil below a specified age) is to be excused from receiving relationships and sex education or specified elements of that education”.
Ministers could decide, on the basis of the 2017 Act, to allow a parent to withdraw a child from all elements of the curriculum. I have received considerable correspondence on this matter, and others in the House have the same concerns as me about the rights of the parent, so I suggest that he withdraw the regulations or make it clear where we stand and bring them back to the House in much better shape.
With the leave of the House, I will conclude this debate.
We have listened to some superb and heartfelt speeches right across the House, from my right hon. Friend Mrs Miller, the hon. Members for Ilford North (Wes Streeting) and for Rotherham (Sarah Champion), my hon. Friends the Members for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) and for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman), Stephen Timms—yes to his invitation; officials would be pleased to attend the roundtable he is holding in his role as the chair of the all-party group—the hon. Members for Birmingham, Ladywood (Shabana Mahmood), for Bury North (James Frith), for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn), for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) and for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) and the right hon. Members for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Liam Byrne) and for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb). I am grateful for the support that hon. Members right across the House have given to the regulations.
The regulations have also had support from beyond the House, from the Catholic Education Service, the Church of England, the PSHE Association, the National Children’s Bureau, Mencap, the End Violence Against Women Coalition and the Board of Deputies. The director of the Catholic Education Service has said:
“We welcome this commitment by the Government to improve relationships and sex education”.
I apologise that in the two minutes left I cannot respond to the many important issues raised by right hon. and hon. Members, but I will write to them with my comments.
I believe that we all share the ambition to ensure that children and young people have the knowledge to help keep themselves safe, to be prepared for the world in which they are growing up and to respect others and to respect difference. The regulations give us the opportunity to build a consistent foundation across all schools, and I commend them to the House.
The question is that motion 3 as on the Order Paper be agreed to. As many of that opinion say Aye.
I think the Ayes have it. [Interruption.] I think it was quite overwhelming. I will try once more. As many of that opinion say Aye.
Order. The hon. Gentleman is allowed to come—[Interruption.] Mr Frith, you know very well that a Member can come in at any time to vote. Members vote all the time without having been in the Chamber, so that is not the best point to make in this case. I would say that there was a singular voice that was continuous, in which case the Division will have to be deferred.
The Deputy Speaker’s opinion as to the decision of the Question being challenged, the Division was deferred until Wednesday