Local Government Bill [H.L.]

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:30 pm on 6th December 1999.

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Photo of Baroness Massey of Darwen Baroness Massey of Darwen Labour 6:30 pm, 6th December 1999

My Lords, I am glad that this is not my maiden speech because I want to support the repeal of Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988. I shall limit my remarks to the relevance of this section to schools and young people. The section is only a small part of the Bill, though it may attract a disproportionate amount of attention; I hope not. I shall try to convince your Lordships that Section 28 is simply outdated and unnecessary, for it has been overtaken by new guidance. I shall also argue that it is actually counter-productive.

The section has always been a confusing piece of legislation. Of course, in truth, it applies only to local authorities, which are not in fact responsible for the management of schools and colleges: power lies with the governing bodies. However, I do not intend to spend time on this anomaly; nor do I intend to go over old and sensationalist arguments relating to Section 28. My main argument is that the section has been rendered obsolete by guidelines to schools from successive governments since 1988.

As your Lordships know, this section was written into--I almost said slipped into--the Local Government Act 1988, a long time ago. Much has happened since then in the fields of education and health. I shall not go into a detailed description of this, but I should like to draw your Lordships' attention to some significant interventions which, whatever one thought of Section 28 before, now make it unnecessary, and as counter-productive as ever.

In 1990, the National Curriculum Council published its guide to health education in schools for five to 16 year-olds. For the first time, and after much consultation, the content and organisation of health education was spelled out for the four key stages of schooling. Sex education falls under health education and biology, and age-appropriate topics are given. There is no promotion of homosexuality; rather an emphasis on responsible decision- making and the expectations of parents. These guidelines are widely respected.

In 1993, the National Curriculum Council published its report, Spiritual and Moral Development for schools. It aimed to demonstrate that spiritual and moral development belongs,

"to every area of the curriculum and to all aspects of school life"-- the school ethos, the curriculum and collective worship. The Education Act 1993, since subsumed into the Education Act 1996, stated that the Schools Inspectorate must inspect and evaluate schools' provision for spiritual and moral development. This same Act required school governors to ensure the provision of sex education (including HIV and AIDS, and other sexually transmitted diseases) for all pupils.

The Act also established the rights of parents to withdraw children from all or part of sex education, except the biological aspect of the national curriculum, both in primary and in secondary school. In addition, school governors are required to provide a separate statement to parents on the teaching of sex education and to present it at the statutory annual meeting of parents. Of course, parents now constitute, numerically, almost a third of a school's governing body.

Prior to these discussions and curriculum documents, a seminar was held in 1992, funded by the Health Education Authority, where people representing 24 different religious faiths discussed sex education, values and morality. Consensus was reached and the report found that young people need sex education that,

"encourages self-awareness, self-esteem, a sense of moral responsibility and the development of social and communication skills essential for making informed decisions and maintaining personal relationships".

The seminar concluded that,

"values cannot be imposed, but children can be equipped with the skills needed to allow them to develop their own".

It was agreed at the seminar that pupils have the right to age-appropriate and accurate information on all aspects of sexual health, a right to learn communication and social skills and the opportunity to discuss attitudes, values and beliefs in order to develop a moral framework for action.

At this seminar, differences between the faiths were acknowledged in an open and accepting way. Differences included issues of abortion, celibacy, cohabitation, disability and sexuality, and homosexuality. It was recognised that for some faiths,

"homosexuality is unacceptable, whilst others are struggling with the tensions of wider acceptance".

This is not to say that homosexuality cannot be discussed--the seminar certainly discussed it--but that religious and cultural viewpoints should be made clear. Many Roman Catholic schools discuss contraception, but make the Catholic faith's position apparent. Discussing is not promoting, but the semantics have confused teachers, doctors, school governors and young people.

I hope that the examples I have given will waylay some of the fears that I have heard expressed about the teaching of sex education. Those fears include: first, the view that there are not enough controls over school sex education, but this is counteracted by the provision of curriculum guidance, inspection and the role of school governors; secondly, that vulnerable children will be corrupted, taken advantage of, or manipulated by inappropriate teaching or teachers, but guidelines emphasise age-appropriate teaching and the safety of children.

Thirdly, there is the fear that religious faiths will be ignored or contravened, but guidelines take account of this. If parents are truly worried, they can withdraw children from lessons. I am a school governor of a primary school. I have just arrived from a school inspection meeting where these issues were discussed. My school has parents who represent around 20 faiths. No one has ever withdrawn a child from any lesson.

There is an extreme view that sex education has been rampant in this country for years and has done untold harm. In fact, sex education has mainly been in the spotlight with very little to see. It was introduced to the school where I am a governor six years ago by a new head teacher and introduced in the context of personal, social and health education. Nothing but good has come out of the programme, including dramatic improvement in the behaviour of the children and in academic results.

Of course, lurid examples sometimes hit the newspaper headlines, but every institution has its lurid examples. It does not mean that they are the norm. A headline I saw at the weekend was about a boy who has fathered twins. I understand that he was a perpetual truant from school. If he had attended, he might have learned something to his advantage!

If the examples that I have given are not enough, perhaps I may go on to quote more recent guidelines from the Department for Education and Employment (on the National Curriculum for Schools) where sex education is now, I am glad to say, firmly within personal, social and health education. The guidelines are clear about what should be taught and when. They are based on wide consultation, including consultation with young people. The young people were clear that they expected schools to help them sort out dilemmas related to drugs, friendship, sex, smoking and crime. Parents in many surveys have overwhelmingly supported efforts of schools in these areas. The guidelines also support and emphasise home-school relationships and the role of school governors. A new framework for inspection comes into force in January.

Again, I have no time to go into detail, but there is an emphasis in these guidelines for primary schools on developing confidence and responsibility, keeping safe and learning to reject pressure to behave in unacceptable ways. In secondary schools, issues of sexual health are placed,

"within a context of the importance of relationships".

In each curriculum document there is a statement of values from the National Forum for Values in Education and the Community. The word "promote" is used once--it refers to marriage.

I turn to why I believe this section to be counter-productive. Children ask questions about sexuality; they deserve honest responses. They deserve information and a place where they can discuss relationships and moral issues in safety. One of those places is schools. Parents appreciate this. Some children, from all religious groups, will be lesbian or gay, not because they have been taught to be lesbian or gay but because they are. These young people are entitled to information and protection.

As Shaun Woodward said in yesterday's Independent newspaper,

"At such a sensitive time in the development of young people's lives, they need understanding and acceptance, whatever their sexual orientation".

Finally there is the issue of HIV, AIDS and sexually transmitted infection. This cannot be discussed without reference to sexuality (heterosexual as well as homosexual) and to drug misuse. It is vital that we give young people the information and skills to protect themselves. At the beginning of concern about HIV and AIDS public education campaigns in this country were successful. We have fewer cases of AIDS than predicted. However, the medical profession is becoming worried that today's teenagers missed out on those campaigns and urgently need education. We cannot afford to discourage teachers, doctors and school nurses from giving that education. Therefore I suggest that we get rid of Section 28. It is not necessary, if it ever was. It is potentially confusing and damaging. It might be more productive to direct our attention to some media treatment of sexual issues where violence, exploitation and inaccurate information are rife. Responsible sex education can, of course, counteract these influences.

Agreeing to the repeal of Section 28 would show that your Lordships have taken into account new curriculum guidelines on personal, social and health education, inspection frameworks, parental involvement and the responsibilities of school governors. To retain this measure denies the integrity of organisations and individuals consulted about the guidelines, and the common sense of teachers, parents and young people themselves.