Education

Part of Rating and Valuation – in the House of Commons at 7:00 pm on 20th March 2019.

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Photo of Angela Rayner Angela Rayner Shadow Secretary of State for Education 7:00 pm, 20th March 2019

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.