Local Government Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:00 pm on 10th July 2003.

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Photo of Baroness Massey of Darwen Baroness Massey of Darwen Labour 5:00 pm, 10th July 2003

My Lords, I shall speak very briefly. My credentials are that I have taught sex education and I have been a school governor for many years. I suggest that the amendments before us today, for all that they are designed to clarify a situation, would simply compound the confusion about teaching sex education and would not serve parents, teachers or governors well.

There is much talk about protecting children from unsavoury resources. I shall comment on that later. What concerns me is that the sex education of many young people is inadequate. They are left vulnerable to disease, relationship problems and susceptibility to abuse. This is not protection, but negligence.

I was at a conference this week where 450 young people were discussing sexual health. The question was put to them about the adequacy of their sex education. Only 11 out of 450 thought it was "good". One quotation from the conference was, "They told us what the bits were called and the teacher was a nervous wreck". No wonder if teachers are left in confusion about what they can and cannot teach. Ofsted reports point out that sex and relationships education should be taught by teachers who are confident as well as informed.

The statistics on sexual health speak for themselves and for our woeful failure to educate young people. One in 10 women have Chlamydia: many do not know it. Over 40 per cent of these women are under 20. Over 17,000 men had gonorrhoea last year. We have an unprecedented rise in other sexually transmitted infections. HIV/AIDS rates are rising, especially among young gay men. It is simply impractical to recommend the married state and total fidelity to one's partner being the only viable state. We have to be pragmatic and realistic.

We have heard today and in earlier debates about the unsuitability of resources being produced for schools. I have seen some such materials. Some were not produced for children in the first place. I contacted several teachers and asked about the resources. Ninety-nine per cent of the teachers I spoke to had never heard of them, let alone used them. What evidence is there that such materials are being used in schools?

Let us not be dragged into thinking that there is a plot in schools to corrupt young people—there is not. Let us not be dragged into thinking that unsavoury materials are rife in our classrooms. They are not. Sex and relationships education is probably the most policed area of the curriculum and the most subject to recommendations and guidance. Parental and pupil involvement in assessing resources has increased with the positive support offered by the national healthy schools standards scheme and the DfES sexual relationships guidance.

The Learning and Skills Act 2000, mentioned previously, requires that young people learn about the nature of marriage and its importance for family life and the bringing up of children; and that pupils are protected from teaching and materials that are inappropriate having regard to the age, religion and cultural background of the pupils concerned. What could be stronger?

I want to stress that governing bodies have a number of parents as members and that they have power. Governing bodies are charged with the oversight of sex and relationships education. They are already expected to ensure the involvement of parents, young people, health and other professionals in developing policies on sex and relationships education.

Parents already have all the rights about which the noble Lord, Lord Palmer, is so concerned. I am a school governor and I know that that is precisely what happens. My governing body would be appalled by the amendment moved by the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch. We would not want to spend our time conducting polls of parents. There are already parents on the governing body and we know what happens in the curriculum.

I have just received a communication from the chair of governors of the City of Portsmouth Girls' School, who says that the amendment of the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, would:

"add to teachers' workload significantly . . . [and] undermines the role and responsibilities of Governors which is both insulting and offensive to the largest voluntary force this country has".

There is no need for the amendment before us. Spreading contention and confusion about sex education will damage even further the confidence of professionals. What they require is training, which is already being made available to deliver this area of the curriculum.

We must not deny our young people the information and skills to protect themselves and to form fulfilling relationships. We must reject the amendment.