Relationships Education, Relationships and Sex Education and Health Education (England) Regulations 2019 - Motion to Approve

– in the House of Lords at 5:11 pm on 24th April 2019.

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Lord Agnew of Oulton:

Moved by Lord Agnew of Oulton

That the draft Regulations laid before the House on 25 February be approved.

Relevant documents: 22nd Report from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee (Sub-Committee B)

Photo of Lord Agnew of Oulton Lord Agnew of Oulton The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

My Lords, I thank the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee for their in-depth consideration and report.

These regulations represent a significant step that will equip children and young people with the knowledge and support they need to lead safe, healthy and happy lives in modern Britain.

The world that children are growing up in is changing rapidly. They are encountering a more interconnected and interdependent world. This presents both opportunities and risks, as children have greater exposure to information, content and people that can and do cause harm. Evidence shows that many parents want schools to help with this. That is why during the passage of the Children and Social Work Act 2017, with strong cross-party support the Government brought forward measures 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 raised about mental health, the impact of the online world and risks related to unhealthy lifestyles, we also took the decision to make health education compulsory in all state-funded schools.

It is important that at the earliest age children are taught the building blocks they need to develop healthy, positive, respectful and safe relationships of all kinds. All of this will be set in the context of, and include, teaching about personal development and virtues such as honesty, integrity, kindness, resilience and courtesy. This will give schools the opportunity to support pupils to develop an inner sense of what is right and wrong, as well as respect for others and for difference. The subjects will drive up the consistency and quality of pupils’ knowledge about physical and mental health. Physical health and mental well-being are interlinked. It is vital that pupils understand that good physical health contributes to good mental well-being.

In developing these subjects, we have received significant input from external organisations and education professionals, as well as the tens of thousands of individuals who contributed to our call for evidence and public consultation. In reviewing responses and determining the final content, we have retained a focus on the core principles for the new subjects. These principles are that the subjects should help keep children safe, help prepare them for the world in which they are growing up—including its laws—and help foster respect for others and for difference. The content included should be age appropriate and taught in a sensitive way, respecting the backgrounds and beliefs of pupils.

In developing the accompanying statutory guidance and required content for these subjects, we believe that we have struck the right balance between prescribing the core knowledge and allowing flexibility for schools to design a curriculum that is relevant to their pupils. Parents and carers are the prime teachers for children. Schools complement and reinforce this role by building on what pupils learn at home. That is why we have taken the decision to strengthen the requirement for schools to consult parents on their relationships and RSE policy by enshrining this in the regulations as well as the guidance. Schools must consult parents on their proposed policy and any subsequent reviews of it, enabling parents to have the time and opportunity to ask questions and share concerns. It is then for schools to decide a reasonable way forward. Ongoing dialogue is important. We recommend that this consultation be carried out annually and have set out in the draft statutory guidance good practice on parental involvement. We expect to share effective examples of parental consultation in our forthcoming supplementary guide.

It is ultimately for schools to decide on their curriculum. We trust schools to make the right professional choices and act reasonably when considering feedback. We have retained the long-standing ability for parents to request that their child be withdrawn from sex education. Where a primary school chooses to teach sex education, parents will have a right to request that their child be withdrawn; this must be granted by the head teacher. At secondary school, for sex education within RSE, the school should respect the parents’ request to withdraw the child, unless there are 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 head teacher should ensure they receive it in one of those terms.

We could not have retained the right to withdraw as it stands because an absolute parental right up to 18 years old is no longer compatible with English case law and the European Convention on Human Rights. Where a head teacher makes an assessment of the request, their assessment will be based not on their personal principles or an assessment of the parents’ beliefs but on the particular circumstances of the child. Good practice will be for the head teacher to discuss the request with parents and, as appropriate, with the child to ensure that their wishes are understood, and to clarify the nature and purpose of the curriculum. Head teachers will be required to make a reasonable decision and expected to document the decision-making process.

It would not be right for the department to list all the exceptional circumstances that a head teacher should take into account, as this could distort their decision or be seen as definitive. However, to provide some reassurance, in the other place my right honourable friend Minister Gibb previously set out an example that schools may want to take into account. One scenario might be where a head teacher turns down a parent’s request because the child has had a sexual incident in the school. We expect levels of withdrawal to be very low; the Catholic Education Service notes presently that the withdrawal rate from sex education in Catholic schools is 0.01%.

We are committed to ensuring that every school will have the support it needs to deliver these subjects to a high quality. We will invest in tools that improve schools’ practice, such as a supplementary guide to support the delivery of the content set out in the guidance and targeted support on materials, as well as training. The £6 million that we have announced for the development of these tools is an initial amount for the 2019-20 financial year. It will be used to develop a central programme of support for schools; it is not funding to be distributed individually. We are also encouraging as many schools as possible to start teaching the subjects from September of this year so that we can learn lessons and share good practice ahead of compulsory teaching. We are also committed to reviewing the guidance every three years from the point of first teaching. This will enable us to monitor the implementation of these subjects and make changes in future where required. We will of course take action sooner if any considerable issues occur.

We believe our proposals are a landmark step and, after an extensive debate in the Commons, we have gained strong cross-party support for what these subjects seek to achieve by equipping children and young people with the knowledge they need to form healthy relationships, lead healthy lives and be happy and safe in modern Britain. I beg to move.

Photo of Baroness Massey of Darwen Baroness Massey of Darwen Labour 5:15 pm, 24th April 2019

My Lords, I welcome these guidelines and thank the noble Lord, Lord Agnew, for introducing the Motion. I am very pleased to see that this topic of education will at last be a requirement for schools from September 2020. Indeed, some schools will pilot the programmes and there is encouragement for some to start them during 2019.

Some schools are ready to go with this but others may need more time. Quite rightly, the Government have sought to stress the issue of consultation. We know that sexual relationship education has been considered important by children, parents, school governors and many organisations for a long time. I pay tribute to those who have worked with such diligence to get us to this point. The noble Lord, Lord Nash, deserves full credit for his determination to ensure that schools engage with the important topic of the rights of children to receive information and develop good attitudes towards sexuality and relationships. He recognised that resilience, confidence and self-esteem are important components of performing well at school and having a fulfilling life.

I congratulate the PSHE Association on its constructive and thorough approach to developing and creating materials for schools. I congratulate those organisations which have been helpful with consultation and have developed training materials for schools. I congratulate, too, those who have had the courage and perception to insist that consideration of the needs of all pupils is important. LGBT pupils have rights, too; disabled children have rights. Attention to such groups is important, not just for them but for their parents and fellow pupils.

Many individuals have helped describe and respond to the climate in which children are living today, as did the Minister just recently. That climate is different from the one in which we grew up. For example, we have social and other media, which may portray unhealthy and dangerous attitudes towards relationships and sexuality. Children and young people need resilience and skills to resist such approaches.

I have a few questions for the Minister and a few matters on which I seek reassurance. Will the decision that academies and free schools will not be required to teach sex education, but simply be encouraged to do so, be reviewed? This will affect a great number of children and leave them disadvantaged in relation to protection from harm and gaining important knowledge.

I was surprised that so few children and young people were involved in the consultation. I hope that any assessment of the effectiveness of programmes will involve them. They are the best judges of what they need. It is most encouraging that children are consulted much more on issues and decisions which affect them, such as in relation to the NHS long-term plan, where there was a children’s panel—and very useful it was, too. Many voluntary and statutory organisations have children’s panels which prove so valuable. I hope that Ofsted inspections will incorporate the views of children among their other considerations.

It is also important that school governors and parents are involved in monitoring these issues. There is a case for local communities to be involved, as envisaged in the guidelines. I note that £6 million has been set aside in the 2019-20 financial year to develop a programme of support for schools. Funding beyond that will be a matter for the forthcoming spending review. What type of support is envisaged? How will funding be decided for individual schools? Will the Minister and the DfE fight for funding to develop and maintain such programmes, monitor their outcomes and share good practice?

Some of us have concerns about discussing certain issues with children and young people and worry about “corruption”. These guidelines make it clear that teaching materials should be age appropriate. I taught, a long time ago now, sex and relationships education in an inner-city, multi-faith secondary school. We were scrupulous about consulting parents and children and had very few difficulties. No child was ever withdrawn from any part of the programme. I remember working with a nun, Sister Mary, on a sex education course. She said, in public:

“I and my Church may not approve of some of the things related to sexual activity. This does not mean that we should refuse to discuss them. Refusal to discuss denies knowledge to children, and the denial of knowledge is against good educational practice”.

I have never forgotten what she said.

We must never forget in the midst of all this that the welfare of the child is paramount, as spelled out in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which the UK is a signatory and which celebrates its 30th birthday in November this year. The convention is inspirational in envisaging a world where children flourish and where their physical, emotional and social needs are met. With this legislation today, we move a step towards that, and I very much welcome it.

Photo of Lord Storey Lord Storey Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Education)

My Lords, this is a landmark moment for children and young people in our country and I very much welcome it. I congratulate the Government and the Minister on everything he has said. If there were ever a reason to ensure that our young people had proper relationship and sex education in our school system, it came home to me this morning when I went into my office, where a letter was waiting for me with a card in it. It was a vile piece of information, trying to compare the teaching of relationships and sex education to giving up smoking. It had such comments as:

“Being gay is essentially lonely because the truth is that most gay partnerships are unstable and have a strong tendency to be promiscuous”.

There was more, but I do not wish to read the rest out, because it is so horrible. That sort of warped view about relationships in 21st-century Britain shows how strong is the need for an education system that addresses the issues in the way the Minister explained.

During the coalition Government, Edward Timpson took over the role of Children’s Minister and was looking to develop the PSHE curriculum and the sex education curriculum, as it was then called. My noble friend Lord Paddick and I were asked to meet him—he wanted to talk about that curriculum. I remember saying to him, “This is very good, but the important thing is that we have almost a dual education system here. We have maintained schools, an increasing number of academies and free schools, which of course have a much more relaxed approach to what they teach. Will this be taught in all schools?” He said, “Yes, it will”. Hallelujah, I thought. I asked whether such things as contraception and gay relationship would be taught. He said, “Yes, of course, it will”. And in church schools? He said, “Yes, of course, it will”. That was the breakthrough moment that I and many in this House were waiting for and I think that, alongside the Minister and the noble Lord, Lord Nash, Edward Timpson MP, as he then was, deserves a deal of credit in this as well.

When I first started teaching, sometime in the 1970s, we had an eight-week period in which we followed the BBC’s “Merry-Go-Round” sex education programme—eight weeks of watching the television and doing the workbooks. Not one single parent complained, those eight year-old pupils never giggled or sniggered and it actually developed their relationships with each other. That programme continued and was updated over the first 10 years of my teaching. I always thought it was a great pity that we almost became Victorian in our approach to such issues as sex education; we went through those difficult times in the 1980s and 1990s, with some rather nasty thoughts about relationship education.

As well as the praise I have given, there are a few things we need to ensure. I think the Minister said this, but I just want to go through them again. It is vital that teachers get quality training. I am pleased that it will be a rollout; some schools and some staff may be ready, but it is important that we get this quality training for teachers right. It is important that the resources and materials are of the highest calibre. It is also important that when school inspections are occasionally held, Ofsted actually looks at the quality of relationship and sex education.

I have three questions for the Minister. First, the Government used the powers in the Children and Social Work Act to make PSHE compulsory in all schools, including academies, for health education only. Why not for citizenship and financial education? Let us raise that now while we have the opportunity. Secondly, this matter is also about continuing professional development for teachers. Thirdly, as the Minister knows—he has been very active on this issue—there is a still a large number of unregistered religious schools where the teaching about relationships is horrendous, disgraceful and wrong. So far, only two unregistered schools have had action taken against them. We need to get this right. We need to put in place the legal requirements to close these establishments straightaway because the damage they do to young people and young minds is not to be tolerated.

Photo of Baroness Deech Baroness Deech Crossbench 5:30 pm, 24th April 2019

My Lords, I want to say how much I welcome the new guidance and regulations. In fact, the drafting of the guidance is brilliant; I compliment whoever drafted such nuanced and sensitive guidance for schools.

My main fear is that teachers will need protection. As the noble Lord, Lord Storey, said, some of the objections to these regulations are so blinkered and bigoted that one fears very much for the children and the teachers who may be subjected to this sort of unfortunate propaganda. In fact, the children in the care of such people may be the ones most at risk of female genital mutilation and abuse. For their sakes, as well as everybody else’s, the facts must be taught.

At my girls’ public school, the chapters in the biology textbook on the reproductive habits of the frog—the frog, my Lords—were removed in case we got the wrong idea. This did not hold me back until I became the chairman of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, when this gap in my knowledge caused some concern, at least temporarily. However, I managed to catch up.

The new regulations are welcome because they say that misogyny and homophobia must not be tolerated. They are not saying that any particular way of life must be promoted or forced on children—far from it. In fact, as I read it, the guidance strongly supports marriage and parental guidance. Parents should not fear because, if they have a different viewpoint to whatever is taught in school, they can point out to their children at home that they do not approve of it. However, that does not mean that the existence of different lifestyles and sexualities should not be taught in school. Indeed, children will probably get something far worse from watching things online or from their classmates than they will ever be taught at school. It is a matter of regret that primary and secondary schoolchildren could be withdrawn from sex education. The ones who are withdrawn will probably get a much worse representation of what is going on when they ask their classmates what they have missed.

Put simply, I very much welcome the regulations. What steps can the Minister and his department take to protect teachers from ill-intentioned members of governing bodies and hostile parents, who might make the lives of those teachers—who are only doing their job—very difficult?

Photo of Baroness Meyer Baroness Meyer Conservative

My Lords, I apologise for arriving a bit late. I hope that noble Lords will forgive me.

Like the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, I think that a lot of things in the regulations are really good. I am a bit more conservative; I fear that I consider sex education something that is rather more private. However, it is necessary. I started life in a Catholic school. In those days, of course, we were taught nothing. Then, at the age of 12, I arrived at the French lycée, where I had to face boys and had no idea how to behave.

Anyway, that is the past and today I want only to be sure of one thing and to ask two questions. First, can the Government assure this House that the regulations are fully consistent with the obligations to parents’ rights under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 and the Human Rights Act 1998? I ask this question in particular: is it consistent to downgrade parents’ current right to choose whether to enrol their children in sex education classes? Is it right to demote that right to a right to request the withdrawal of their children from such classes?

Further, on another subject, in her report Preventing Child Sexual Abuse, the Children’s Commissioner noted that 90% of primary schools still use Stranger Danger as a PSHE subject. Action against Abduction, the charity I founded and of which I remain president—I hereby declare my interest—has shown that Stranger Danger is out of date and ineffective in keeping children safe. One of the main reasons for that is that, obviously, most predators, especially sexual predators, are family members or friends of the family, not strangers. The charity that I founded came up with a new, much more effective, initiative, Clever Never Goes, which means that children learn how to behave when they feel that they are in an uncomfortable position. The regulations note that children can now go and tell their teachers that they were in an uncomfortable situation. Five hundred schools have already adopted our programme. Will the Government refer to Clever Never Goes in the guidance so that schools can give children the best advice on how to stay safe from sexual predators?

Photo of Lord Cashman Lord Cashman Labour

My Lords, I refer your Lordships to my registered interests as well as to my role as patron of the Terrence Higgins Trust. I begin, unusually, by associating myself with every word of the contribution of the noble Baroness, Lady Deech. I think she got it absolutely right. I also agree with my noble friend Lady Massey.

Interestingly, I too received the letter referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Storey, but I did not throw it away because it reminded me of the opposition to equality, tolerance and understanding—three things that should be at the very heart of all education. The letter said that lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans relationships were short and lonely. Perhaps my 31-year relationship with Paul Cottingham was short compared to others—I do not know—but certainly it was never lonely and I certainly felt completely fulfilled.

What about the children in schools who come from same-sex families—who have same-sex parents? Are not their relationships and their families’ relationships as important and as viable? Should they not be properly represented, discussed and given equivalence with other loving relationships? Of course they should.

As soon as we put sex and education together, the bonfire starts—especially the bonfire of misinformation. Of course parents will and do maintain control. As was said earlier, whether a parent wishes to teach a child outside school according to their faith or none is entirely up to them. But, please, let us also remember that people of all faiths and none are also lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans. It is vital that children and LGBT children receive comprehensive and inclusive sex and relationships education. In this regard I recommend to your Lordships a book to be published in June entitled Celebrating Difference: A Whole-School Approach to LGBT+ Inclusion by Shaun Dellenty. I have been privileged to see an advance copy.

I commend the Government for the guidance and regulations, and the noble Lord, Lord Agnew, for the way in which he has presented them this afternoon to your Lordships’ House. I am grateful also to the organisations that have made contact: the Terrence Higgins Trust, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, the Children’s Society, Barnardo’s and the National Children’s Bureau, which provided excellent briefings.

I will finish on a couple of points provided by those organisations in their so-called Sex Education Forum. They state:

“The majority of parents want schools to teach RSE”.

Some 92% affirmed that in an independent poll in 2016.

“Effective RSE is a partnership between parents and schools. Parental involvement is integral to the new RSE guidance … Education, not ignorance, is the only way that children will be able to recognise abusive behaviour and know how to seek help. 1 in 20 children are sexually abused and 1 in 3 did not tell an adult (Radford, 2011). Sexual abuse can happen to any child, so the only way to safeguard children is to ensure Relationships Education has no opt out … Bullying and … mental health affect LGBT young people at alarming rates. Nearly half of LGBT pupils (45 per cent) are bullied for being LGBT at school”, as shown in the Stonewall survey of 2017.

“Schools are already required to teach in a way that does not discriminate on protected characteristics, so an LGBT inclusive approach to RSE is nothing new … Teachers need training in RSE so that schools can offer the high quality provision. 80% of parents want teachers to have training in RSE”, according to the Sex Education Forum 2018.

I would like to see HIV and sexual health become a core part of the RSE curriculum if we are to empower and inform children for the real world in which they will live.

Photo of Lord Russell of Liverpool Lord Russell of Liverpool Crossbench

My Lords, I also thank the Minister. This is the second time we have interacted today; he was brave enough to go into the lion’s den of the weekly Cross-Bench meeting earlier this afternoon, and received in general a very positive reaction. It is also a pleasure to listen to my noble friend Lady Deech, as somebody else has said, and to find myself for once agreeing with everything she has said. Long may that continue—let us not go back to the other subject, if you please.

I declare an interest as a governor of Coram. For 24 years I had the privilege of being the chairman of the largest educator into primary schools in the United Kingdom of health and drug education. During the course of my chairmanship we reached about 5 million children. We have quite a lot of experience of the challenges of teaching children about difficult subjects appropriately. I shall return briefly to the subject we spoke about this afternoon in the Cross-Bench meeting: it is difficult to teach an extraordinarily difficult and sensitive subject such as this really well. It is an enormous burden to place on a primary school teacher, with all of the pressures on them from all sides, to teach this really well; in a way that makes them feel proud as a professional; in a way that makes the children feel that they are learning something important; in a way that the parents feel respects the family and their own code of morality, but which is also appropriate for the strange and complex world of the 21st century in which the children are growing up. We cannot run away from it—it is all around us. Children spend an inordinate amount of time on social media and on their phones; if somebody does not teach them appropriately, you can guess where else they will learn it from, and whatever they learn, it will almost certainly be hilarious but perhaps disastrously wrong.

I therefore emphasise the importance of this being taught well. I suggest again that while £6 million to help training in the first year is welcome, it will be woefully inadequate once this is rolled out nationally, and I appeal for continuous assessment from the very start of the trial to get feedback on what is working well and less well. Lastly, again, as we mentioned this afternoon, please can we do something very un-British and un-English and learn from best practice in other countries which have been doing this for much longer than us, particularly the Netherlands?

Photo of Baroness Tyler of Enfield Baroness Tyler of Enfield Liberal Democrat 5:45 pm, 24th April 2019

My Lords, I declare an interest as vice-president of the charity Relate and president of the National Children’s Bureau. I also thank the Sex Education Forum for circulating an absolutely excellent briefing.

I warmly welcome these regulations, which are a huge step in the right direction. It is such an important area. We know—all the survey evidence tells us—that the vast majority of parents want schools to teach relationships and sex education but to do it well. Anyone who has been involved in this area will tell you that effective relationship and sex education is a partnership between parents and schools; parental involvement is integral to the new guidance, and I warmly welcome that.

For me, it is hugely significant that this guidance is on RSE: relationships and sex education. For many years, when I was more involved in this area at a more operational level, it was always called SRE: sex and relationships education. You might think that that is a tiny difference and terribly pedantic, but it was not. At that time it was always called sex education, and people would always start to get terribly exercised and worked up about it. The fact that we are now talking about relationships first and then sex within relationships is hugely important, and I want to explain why.

It is absolutely critical that relationship education, when taught well, should be able to promote safe, equal, inclusive, enjoyable, fulfilling relationships, and should be taught in a way that fosters gender and LGBT equality. Sadly, some children are not seeing models and examples of safe, inclusive and healthy relationships at home, so it is absolutely vital, as other noble Lords said, that children understand what is and is not acceptable with regard to how they are treated by other family members, particularly if there is inappropriate touching or abuse, so that they know that they can say, “No, that’s not acceptable”, and know who they can go to for help and support. I also feel that it is extremely important that safe and healthy relationships are explained in terms of adult relationships, because again, sadly, some children witness abusive adult relationships within the home and do not understand that that is not acceptable either, too often themselves entering abusive relationships in their teenage and adult years. That is why this fundamental teaching of the importance of healthy and safe relationships is so very important—and important to much wider aspects of public policy.

I will briefly make two other points. As other noble Lords said, the way that relationship and sex education is taught is absolutely fundamental. Good teaching is important. Indeed, I saw in a recent poll that 80% of parents think that RSE teachers should be properly trained to teach it, and I am sure that we all agree with that. When I used to talk to teachers who delivered what was then called sex education in the classroom they would often say that they felt quite embarrassed teaching it, they did not feel properly supported, and did not have the proper materials. They did not have the confidence to do it, but were almost being told that they had to go out there and do it. The schools I saw and spoke to that did it most successfully, as often acknowledged in Ofsted reports, were schools where the teacher was working in partnership with external, usually voluntary sector organisations that had experts very well taught in relationship education. Can the Minister confirm whether the £6 million fund for supporting relationship and sex education which we have heard about can be used to help teachers to understand how best to work with external experts who can be invited in to deliver aspects of the curriculum? That is an important way in which all this really good guidance can be taken forward and implemented.

Photo of The Bishop of Durham The Bishop of Durham Bishop

My Lords, it is my pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Tyler, and I fully endorse everything she said about the context of relationships being at the heart of all this. I welcome the discussion and the framework. The Church of England, as the biggest single education provider in the country, has been among the parties engaged in the consultation, for which we are deeply grateful.

As human beings, we are relational. Relationships with others, and indeed with God, matter. They are primarily formed rather than taught. Our parents, siblings, wider family and friends shape our ability to relate from our first breaths. Our love for God shapes how we relate to people. We do well to remember that any relationships education can only ever be rooted in our experience of relationships, both good and bad; yet education is required.

Given the rapid and drastic change to society in what has been almost two decades since the existing legislation was introduced, I am enthusiastic about updating the policy. When that guidance was written, fewer than 10% of households were connected to the internet and connection speeds were snail-like.

The guidelines are to be commended in their placing of RSE and health education in the context of wider personal development of character, virtues and values. Conversations about relationships will be empowered by discussions of honesty, courage and humility. Sex education is crucially paired in this framework with conversations about relationships: an incredibly important shift in how the curriculum is constructed. I understand that much of the response has been against existing resources that may flex the guidance too far. There has been a great misunderstanding of the requirements of the new framework, but many of those misunderstandings and concerns are rooted in at least some truth.

I am pleased that schools must take into account the faith background of pupils and work in collaboration with parents in drawing up their policies, and that they must consult parents on the planning of sex education and the resources used. It is worth noting in this debate that the Church of England has been in close contact with our Muslim friends, who share a number of our concerns.

I am also glad that sex education will be optional in primary school. However, I am deeply concerned that the same cannot be said of relationships education. Psychologists, ethicists and paediatricians often debate at what age and developmental stage it is appropriate to be exploring early concepts of relationality and sexuality. For example, girls continue to hit puberty earlier and earlier, while the average age of boys maturing remains more constant. How are schools to come to a conclusion about how and when they teach on such issues, and how will such decisions and resources then be adequately monitored? This is particularly important in the light of the comments made by other noble Lords about the importance of teachers being well trained, well prepared and able to teach the subject well.

Development is not uniform, and parents should be able to determine what is appropriate for their children, especially during vulnerable ages. Why cannot parents’ decision regarding what is appropriate for their children be respected?

The relationships curriculum highlights the unique space that families occupy in our society, often acting as a nurturing space for children. It teaches children to respect the diversity of families. Although its motives are honourable, I do not believe it lives up to its own standard in respecting the diversity of parental concern. In other deeply necessary spaces, the framework fails to give sufficient guidance. It is imperative that children are taught from a young age of their bodily autonomy so that they may be able to identify unsafe touch. How will such safeguarding teaching, which is necessary, be widely taught without extending into sex education, which the parents may have opted out of?

I support the emphasis that my noble friend Lady Massey placed on ensuring that the voice of children and young people is listened to carefully in future in reviewing the outworking of the guidance. The voice of children and young people themselves needs to be placed alongside the voice of the parents. The Minister may have seen my right reverend friend the Bishop of Ely’s comment piece in the TES welcoming the new guidance in his role as lead bishop for education. Our concern is that the views of others, especially respecting the beliefs of people of faith—and, indeed, some of no faith—about parental responsibilities and rights, are not simply brushed aside. The lines between relationships and sex education are far more blurred than is recognised, so I ask that great care is taken to monitor that this does not lead to inappropriate sex education being offered at an early age in the name of relationships education.

I conclude by returning to my opening point. Relationships are primarily formed, not taught. The family is the key place where this happens: schools only follow this. Let us together agree that we should not presume that what we debate today will offer all the answers that our children and young people need.

Photo of Lord Curry of Kirkharle Lord Curry of Kirkharle Crossbench

My Lords, I endorse many of the comments made by the right reverend Prelate, particularly on the impact of the regulations on the role of parents. To judge by the size of my mailbox and the numerous letters I have had on the subject, there is deep concern. I completely discount the scurrilous mail that we all receive, which has already been referred to.

The Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee’s report rightly says that,

“these Regulations raise highly sensitive issues about which many people feel very strongly”.

The sub-committee received evidence from more than 430 correspondents, all raising concerns. The report says that “none voiced uncritical support”—not one. These concerns appear to have been ignored.

There is a long-established right, as has been said, for parents to withdraw their children from subjects where there is likely to be teaching that clashes with the views of the family. Religious education and sex education are the two most notable areas. This is for very good reason: it is an acknowledgement that the responsibility for children’s moral and religious education lies first and foremost with parents. That is not a role that the state should be taking to itself. We in this place should not be cutting across or undermining the influence of parents. The most common theme in all the correspondence I have received is that the Bill is a potential erosion of parental rights and further evidence of the nanny state taking control.

The noble Baroness referred to Article 2 of the first protocol to the European convention, which includes these words:

“In the exercise of any functions which it assumes in relation to education and to teaching, the State shall respect the right of parents to ensure such education and teaching is in conformity with their own religious and philosophical convictions.”

I am concerned about that aspect of the regulations. There is no right of withdrawal from relationships education in primary schools at all, as the right reverend Prelate said. The right of withdrawal at secondary schools applies only to the sex education element of the relationships and sex education subject. I will come back to that. Even where a parent chooses to withdraw a child from secondary school sex education, that decision can be vetoed by a head teacher. I find that deeply concerning.

I realise the Government have given assurances—including in the excellent guidance that accompanies these regulations, referred to already by my noble friend Lady Deech—that the power of head teachers to refuse withdrawal will rarely be used. However, I could not find that assurance in the regulations themselves: it is not there. The law will simply say that the request must be granted,

“unless or to the extent that the head teacher considers that the pupil should not be so excused”.

That unequivocally gives the head teacher the final say. It is only the guidance that says this power is to be used rarely, and guidance can change. This is a fundamental change to the current position. In my view, the right of withdrawal should have been retained in full.

During the passage of the parent Bill in 2017, the then Minister for Vulnerable Children and Families said in the other place:

“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, Commons, 7/3/17; col. 705.]

I could not agree more with that final comment, but I believe that these regulations potentially undermine that commitment. If there are any further assurances the Minister can give on this, I would be most grateful.

Whatever our views might be—I take the mainstream Christian view of relationships and sexual ethics—we must surely accept that relationships education will involve sensitive topics on which people hold strong opinions. The scrutiny committee’s report rightly urges us to remember this. It is potentially divisive. For evidence of that, we need look no further than the situation at Parkfield Community School in Birmingham. I make no comment on the rights or wrongs of what happened there; I simply cite it to demonstrate that parents hold strong views on these issues. The last thing we need is for parents to feel they are being ignored. It does not help a child’s education when the relationship between their parents and the school breaks down.

Of course, someone might ask why the withdrawal right is necessary if it is rarely used—indeed, the Minister mentioned this in his opening comments. However, it is the principle: that it is ultimately for parents to decide these matters. The risk of parents withdrawing if the school gets it wrong encourages schools to give due weight to parental feedback. That will be lost if head teachers know they can override the views of parents. It is this shift in the relationship between the family and the state that I find most concerning—that the state, or the head, knows best. We need to consider this very carefully. There is a huge risk that, as a consequence of these regulations, schools will find themselves in dispute with parents where no dispute existed previously.

I return to my point about practicality. We are told that there is a right to withdraw from sex education but not relationships education, either at primary or secondary school. But is this realistic? How can it work in practice? As has been already said, the lines are very blurred. If the two cannot be separated, will the right to withdraw be applied to both, or will it effectively be overridden by the school and applied to neither? I press the Minister to give clarity on that precise point; it is a very important question that has not yet been addressed.

I do not want to sound completely negative. As has been referred to already, there are a lot of positives about these regulations, but there are some aspects we can recognise as important. They are not overly prescriptive, which is welcome, and faith schools in particular will benefit from the freedom to choose. However, what about teaching staff who have a faith conviction and work in non-faith state schools? We are already aware of the sad case of Kristie Higgs, who was sacked for expressing concerns about a conflict with her Christian convictions. How many more teachers or teaching assistants are going to find themselves in impossible situations?

Parents must be consulted on topics and materials well ahead of time, so that there can be genuine opportunity for feedback and for their concerns to be taken on board. Channels of communication must be kept open. The views of parents must be properly understood and proper processes must be in place to ensure that schools understand fully the views of parents. I ask the Minister to think about the serious risk of usurping parental rights and handing further control to the state. Nothing ranks as more important than the education of our children.

Photo of Lord Mackay of Clashfern Lord Mackay of Clashfern Conservative 6:00 pm, 24th April 2019

My Lords, it is natural for me to want to start at the protocol—which the noble Lord, Lord Curry, has just mentioned—to the European Convention on Human Rights. In 1977, I lost the action under that protocol that the UK Government took in relation to corporal punishment in schools, so I am reasonably familiar with that provision. In this connection, under the human rights legislation, it is still the law here that the Government—the state—have a duty to ensure that the teaching is in accordance with the religious and philosophical convictions of the parents. That is a very strong right.

Of course, it is difficult. If you have parents with different religious convictions, how do you go about it? There is a European Court of Human Rights case that deals with this—it is even older than the one that I lost. It deals with statutory provisions introduced in Denmark. One of the arguments used against the provisions was Article 2 of Protocol 1. The court said this, which I think is very useful:

“The second sentence of Article 2 implies on the other hand that the State, in fulfilling the functions assumed by it in regard to education and teaching, must take care that information or knowledge included in the curriculum is conveyed in an objective, critical and pluralistic manner. The State is forbidden to pursue an aim of indoctrination that might be considered as not respecting parents’ religious and philosophical convictions. That is the limit that must not be exceeded”.

In relation to the state’s duty, it points out later on that, although it is always possible that something may go wrong,

“competent authorities have a duty to take the utmost care to see to it that parents’ religious and philosophical convictions are not disregarded at this level by carelessness, lack of judgment or misplaced proselytism”.

That is a very useful way of looking at this. As the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham said, religious convictions vary: different people have different convictions. Therefore, if you are to teach according to those convictions, you have to be mighty careful. The answer appears to be that you do it in such a way that is “objective, critical and pluralistic”.

The mailbag that I have had has been mainly from people objecting to the replacing of the withdrawal right with an option to request withdrawal and asking me very strongly to vote against these regulations. I have decided not to do that, because these are very difficult matters that are required to be dealt with. Your Lordships will know that my primary concern is the best interest of the children, and it is very important that that be safeguarded. As has been said, we live in very dangerous times, and children grow up in difficult situations with many temptations, grooming and what not. It is mighty difficult to deal with these without help. I strongly support what was said by the noble Lord, Lord Russell of Liverpool, about the need for teachers to be very well provided for in this. I cannot think of a more difficult area than this in which to teach.

Another point has been brought to my attention by experienced doctors in this area. The health implications of various aspects of this matter can be very serious indeed. Accordingly, it is important that that aspect should be taught and is compulsory under these regulations. That is extremely important, but extremely difficult for teachers. I notice that the assessment says that there will be no effect on any other department, but I would have thought that the Department of Health might have a strong interest in providing the necessary help to teachers to be able to deal with these serious issues.

So far as I am concerned, what has been said to me is mainly about withdrawal, and I do not see that withdrawal has much bearing on the protocol. The protocol is not on requesting withdrawal but on teaching in accordance with the religious conviction of the parent. That is where the difficulty arises, as the court saw. Therefore, it has to be objective in every respect.

This is a very difficult area and a great deal of thought has been given to it. I am glad to think that there is time for even more thought in the light of all that is said today and what was said in the debate in the House of Commons before the perfect solution is found.

Photo of Lord Farmer Lord Farmer Conservative

My Lords, it is a great honour to follow my noble and learned friend, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, and I agree with much of what he said.

I will touch on three issues: first, on the specifics around parental rights to withdraw children, much of which has been spoken about already; secondly, on whether the Government will help to develop the relationships and sex education curriculum through an innovation fund; and, thirdly, on the role of the inspectorate, as the noble Lord, Lord Storey, mentioned earlier, in applying the new curriculum requirement.

On the first point, can the Minister clarify whether the Government’s intention is the same as was stated in 2017 by the then Minister for Vulnerable Children and Families during the passage of the Children and Social Work Act:

“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, Commons, 7/3/17; col. 705.]

That would mean, for example, that if for reasons of religious belief a parent withdraws their child from sex education up to age of 15, the right of withdrawal will be respected. Currently, the proposals seem to put the final decision firmly in the hands of head teachers not parents, as they are given a power of veto on parents’ wishes. The Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee quoted the draft guidance, which states that,

“except in exceptional circumstances, the school should respect the parents’ request to withdraw the child, up to and until three terms before the child turns 16”.

However, no attempt is made to define “exceptional circumstances”. We need definition of this phrase and specifics, otherwise these will be defined on an ad hoc basis. Any business contract including such language would be rejected by a good lawyer because of the vulnerability that it introduces. I understand that this is guidance, not legislation, but guidance is where the specifics should be.

The Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee suggested that the House might wish to invite the Minister to provide further clarification about how the ability of parents to withdraw their children will operate in practice in relation to different age ranges. I do so now because, after these draft regulations were laid before Parliament, the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee received evidence from over 430 members of the public. All expressed concern about the regulations and many made it clear that they were Christians and that their concern arose out of their religious belief.

The committee set out the main issues raised in these submissions, including,

“a very widespread concern to protect the right of parents to educate their own children on matters such as relationships and sexual health”.

One particular quote stood out to me:

“The assumption seems to be growing that it is the state which educates children, assisted by parents. It should always be the other way round. It is the parents’ job to educate, train and guide their children”—

And, as the right reverend Prelate emphasised, those relationships should be formed at home—

“and the state should not take this upon itself”.

Parental involvement in how relationships and sex education is delivered is also very important. This can be encouraged and improved if a large part of the curriculum is digital and online. Parents can be given access to the modules, learn what their child will be taught and, if necessary, communicate with the school. A high level of transparency about the content of the education will also assist teachers when faced with parents raising concerns.

I move on to my second point, which is about the curriculum. Can my noble friend inform the House whether the Government have looked into the potential for digital solutions to help parents, schools and children work in partnership in the delivery of the new curriculum? This may help sustain and build on good relationships education beyond the classroom and dissipate parental concerns about withdrawing children. Proposals have been made in response to the original consultation for an innovation fund which could help develop these digital tools to support the new curriculum and, crucially, help to develop the evidence base which is needed. We need to know what works in relationships education. That is not yet very clear, particularly in the United Kingdom.

Thirdly, another key issue emerging is how the new curriculum requirement will be applied by Ofsted. How Ofsted interprets schools’ delivery of relationships education and relationships and sex education will be of material concern for schools. The draft inspection framework was out for consultation until 5 April, for rollout in September. This is ahead of the implementation of the relationships education, relationships and sex education and health education curriculum requirements. Can my noble friend assure the House that the new guidance and regulations and good practice will be embedded in the new Ofsted framework? At present, the draft inspection framework does not appear to give any reference to the new relationships education/RSE curriculum and how, for example, it will apply to an inspector’s judgment about whether British values have been promoted. For example, the section from the draft inspection framework on personal development that refers to British values is devoid of reference either to relationships or to the new curriculum, yet if relationships education and RSE are implemented well, this should have a direct bearing on the inspector’s judgment in this area. Will my noble friend ensure that the chief inspector and her inspectorate are fully aligned to the new curriculum and its requirement, explicit in primary legislation and now guidance, to have due regard to the age and religious background of pupils?

Photo of Lord Liddle Lord Liddle Labour 6:15 pm, 24th April 2019

My Lords, I congratulate the Government on bringing forward this measure. It is a brave decision to stand up to the forces of social conservatism, which are still far too strong in our society. I also believe that this marks an important stepping stone in the progress that we have made as a society on these questions. At an abysmal time in our politics—the lowest moment in politics I have known—this is a great step forward.

We have heard a lot about the rights of parents. I believe the rights of parents have to be respected, and I took very much the point made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, that teaching in schools has to reflect the religious and philosophical convictions of parents, even though they could be very diverse convictions. Therefore the teaching has to be objective and non-propagandist and must certainly not be able to be described as indoctrination. I support him on that, but we have to recognise that as well as the problem of the few thousand parents who may have difficulties with certain aspects of relationships and sex education, the situation in our schools is a long way from the equality to which we want our society to aspire. We have only to look at LGBT kids, who disproportionately suffer stress and mental health problems and have a higher propensity for suicide. Those are facts. As the noble and learned Lord said, if one’s primary concern is the welfare of children, something has to be done to make them feel at home in that school environment.

The original contribution I have to make to this debate is that I have several gay friends active in the Labour Party who are now in their late 20s and early 30s. For this debate, I asked them to tell me what it was like at school and their impressions of sex education at school. One lad said to me—well, he is now a very mature and successful person—“When I attended a state secondary school for boys in the 2000s, the sex education was mostly limited to slide shows of sexual diseases and a discussion about the consequences of getting a girl pregnant at a young age. We didn’t even learn how to put a condom on a banana. While this sex education was far too limited for heterosexual young adults, it was a dereliction of duty for gay and bisexual young adults who learned nothing about sexual intercourse. Had the young people I went to school with been taught at a younger age about the wide range of loving and valid relationships that exist in society, I imagine I would have felt much more comfortable coming out as gay at school. Instead, I spent many years hiding my sexuality for fear of being bullied or cast out by my friends and family, not gaining the confidence to come out until I made a new group of friends at university”.

Another man said, “I realised I was gay, or at least that I liked boys rather than girls, at primary school. However, I didn’t really understand what that meant. I felt ashamed and confused from an early age and had no understanding about how to cope with it. I definitely experienced feelings of disgust and, while I was not suicidal, I was deeply distressed about it and had no one to talk to. I had no idea about what being gay was, and no role models, reference points or education. Sex education focused solely on heterosexual sex and relationships, so I didn’t learn much from that”.

This is something we ought to be concerned about and do something about. We need a broad view that reflects modern Britain in relationships and sex education. I think these guidelines are progress in that direction, and that is why I support them.

Photo of Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts Conservative

I am a member of the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee under the chairmanship of the noble Lord, Lord Cunningham. The committee scrutinised these regulations, and I shall give the House a remark or two about our very lengthy discussions, which are reflected in the report to which several noble Lords have referred. In this very sensitive area, the Government have achieved a good balance, but it is a balance and there are contrary views that need to be heard.

When you serve on the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee, you struggle away in decent obscurity most of the time, but not when you deal with regulations such as these because we had a huge volume of inquiry. The noble Baroness, Lady Donaghy, who is on the committee with me, will testify to that. Certainly in all the years I have served with the noble Lord, Lord Cunningham, and before that with my noble friend Lord Trefgarne, there has never been the volume of outside representation that we received on this occasion. There was some from those who the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, and the noble Lord, Lord Storey, would say are mad, bad and dangerous to know, and there were certainly some people who had a write-around—you could see that they were all part of a group writing around—but among the more than 400 contributors there were people who had serious concerns, and it would not be right for us to ride roughshod over them in the interests of not addressing their concerns fairly.

If we work on the basis that understanding conquers all, what I learned from our discussions and from reading those particular representations was the difficulty people have in distinguishing between relationships education and relationships and sex education. It is proposed that the first is taught throughout the time a child is at school. Children can be withdrawn from relationships and sex education at the parents’ behest at any time until the end of primary school, and then during secondary education parents have some rights until three terms before the child is 16, and then after that the school is much more pre-eminent in its ability to decide what is right for the child. Those who wrote in to the committee felt that it is not who is being taught but what is being taught that concerns them. This takes me back to the point about the difference between relationships education and relationships and sex education. As the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham pointed out, there is concern among those who feel this way—and their concerns need to be addressed—that the two will morph into each other, and that is why I hope that the Minister when he replies will take up the point made in our paragraph 28:

“The House may wish to ask the Minister for a fuller explanation of the interrelationship between these two subject areas”.

That is a fair point that was put to the committee by very many people.

The second point where the Government can reassure those who have concerns is about consultation with parents. We dealt with that quite extensively in paragraphs 19 and 20. As a subset of that, we need to learn from what has gone well and to obtain feedback so that those who are not immediately at one with the majority of the House this afternoon can see that their concerns are being addressed and thought about, without us losing the essential point that we now need to move forward on the basis that the Government propose.

Photo of Lord Morrow Lord Morrow DUP

My Lords, I shall focus on one very important part of the relationships and sex education regulations we are debating today. Some speakers have already referred to it, but I think it merits further comment. It is the right of parents to withdraw their children from RSE. At the heart of this debate is a simple question: do we trust parents? Do we trust parents to decide what is best for their children? Do we trust parents to steward their authority over their children’s education? Do we trust parents to ensure that such education is in conformity with their religious and philosophical convictions? My view is that the Government should do all they can to empower parents, not to undermine them and reduce their authority and responsibility over their children.

If we look back to the passage of the Children and Social Work Bill in 2017, we see that the Government made repeated assurances that they would uphold their trust in parents and maintain the right of withdrawal from sex education. At Second Reading—this has already been referred to—Edward Timpson MP, the Minister for Vulnerable Children and Families in the other place, said:

“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, Commons, 7/3/17; col. 705.]

The proposed change would mean that as a matter of law the final decision about whether to withdraw a child from school sex education would, for the first time, rest with the head teacher, not with the parents. I fully accept that the guidance says at paragraph 47 that,

“except in exceptional circumstances, the school should respect the parents’ request to withdraw the child, up to and until three terms before the child turns 16”.

However, the Government have made little attempt to define “exceptional circumstances”, and ultimately the guidance is just that—guidance. The regulations define the law, and they remove the final decision from parents and place it in the hands of the head teacher. The regulations before us today therefore fundamentally alter the relationship between parents and the state.

This issue is consequently, in an important sense, much bigger than relationships and sex education. The far-reaching constitutional implications of the change in the way in which the state regards its relationship with parents has caused real concern in many quarters. As of yesterday, almost 117,000 people had signed a petition calling on the Government to maintain the right of withdrawal.

A similar message came from the Government’s own consultation, which shows that over half—54%—of respondents disagreed with the suggestion that the new right of parents to request the withdrawal of their children from sex education provides sufficient clarity and advice to schools in order for them to meet the legal requirements. Only a third of respondents—34%—agreed. What is the point of running consultations or having a petition process if the Government just ignore the feedback that they receive and carry on?

The Government have offered only the flimsiest of justifications for the far- reaching changes that they propose, simply stating in their consultation document:

“A right for parents to withdraw their child up to 18 years of age is no longer compatible with English case law or the European Convention on Human Rights”.

Crucially, the Government have not published their legal advice to back any of that up, which makes it impossible for us as lawmakers to properly scrutinise these proposals. In this context, I want to ask two things of the Minister. First, will he set out the relevant case law to the House? Secondly, is he saying that the Supreme Court has made a human rights declaration of incompatibility with respect to the right of parents in the existing legislation to withdraw their children from relationships and sex education? I am struggling to see how Parliament can be constrained by either.

In the first instance, if Parliament does not like the direction of case law, it is its prerogative to introduce new statutes to send the law in a different direction. In the second instance, even if the Supreme Court were to rule that our arrangements were incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights, this would neither have the effect of changing the law nor require that Parliament should change the law. Section 4 of the Human Rights Act is absolutely clear that the only thing that Parliament must do in response to a declaration of incompatibility—and of course, none has been given here—is consider it.

In that context, although the Government could of course decide to shift, as a matter of law, the final decision about withdrawing children from the parents to the head teacher, I am not at all convinced that they are obliged to make this change by an irresistible legal imperative. The fact that the Government have chosen to make this proposal in the absence of any such imperative suggests to me that they have embraced a statist mindset alien to true Conservative political philosophy. Their instinct should be to trust parents first, not the state.

During the Children and Social Work Bill debates, the Minister said that the Government wanted children to decide about RSE from up to three terms before they turn 16. Rather than removing the right of parental withdrawal from that point, however, the regulations replace the right of withdrawal with a right to request withdrawal—with the head teacher making the final decision—from the age of 11. In this sense, the regulations treat 11 year-olds and their parents in exactly the same way as they treat 18 year-olds and their parents.

Particularly concerning is that when Labour tried unsuccessfully to make a similar change in early 2010, through Clause 14 of its Children and Families Bill, it provided far more and far better reassurances to parents. Specifically, Clause 14 proposed that the right of withdrawal should remain completely intact until a child is 15. The Conservative Front Bench opposed that more modest change because it undermined the role of parents, yet today we see a different approach from the Conservative Front Bench.

With that in mind, I conclude by quoting from the 2016 Supreme Court judgment against the Scottish Government and their profoundly misconceived statist “named person” scheme. The UK Government would do well to keep this in mind:

“Different upbringings produce different people. The first thing that a totalitarian regime tries to do is to get at the children, to distance them from the subversive, varied influences of their families and indoctrinate them in their rulers’ view of the world. Within limits, families must be left to bring up their children in their own way. As Justice McReynolds, delivering the Opinion of the Supreme Court of the United States famously put it in Pierce v Society of Sisters, ‘The fundamental theory of liberty upon which all governments in this Union repose excludes any general power of the state to standardize its children by forcing them to accept instruction from public teachers only. The child is not the mere creature of the state; those who nurture him and direct his destiny have the right, coupled with the high duty, to recognize and prepare him for additional obligations’”.

I ask the Government to think again.

Photo of Baroness Barker Baroness Barker Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Voluntary Sector) 6:30 pm, 24th April 2019

My Lords, the process by which we have arrived at the document before us has been very lengthy. There has been a very extensive consultation, and Members of all parties in both Houses who took part in it and have brought the matter to this point should feel proud of what they have done. Two people who have not been mentioned today deserve a degree of recognition. As Ministers in the department in the early stages, Justine Greening and Nick Gibb started this process and saw it through. Today, we have arrived at a very well-considered set of proposals, which are a compromise. Inevitably, a compromise is open to attack from both sides; none the less, this one is rather important.

I, like the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, believe utterly in the welfare of children being paramount. I noticed that in referring to certain cases he went back to 1977, but he will know that one of the opening statements of the Children Act 1989 is that the welfare of children is paramount. I happen to believe that that means that no child should be withdrawn from education designed to protect their welfare, but I am prepared to concede that parents should have a right to withdraw their children up to a point. I believe the Government have been right to set the age limit to the point where a child is within three terms of reaching 16 because we know that children at that point are extremely vulnerable, particularly if they have not had education about what represents safe relationships and sex.

I took part in two meetings that were part of the wide consultation that brought us to this point. One was a meeting with Nick Gibb. The noble Baroness, Lady Massey, was there giving us the benefit of her years of wisdom and experience. Nick Gibb made the point, which was also eloquently put by the noble Lord, Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts, that some people are ideologically opposed while some have genuine concerns about what might be taught to their children; we should not equate the two.

I wish we could trust every parent to do the right thing—we cannot. I wish we could trust every teacher to do the right thing—we cannot. But teachers are subject to inspection and regulation of what they do so, ultimately, if a child is missing out in school, it will be found in that way. It is important therefore that, on balance, we give educators a greater role in this than perhaps some people would like.

I want to address the point made by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham about why it should be important to teach relationship education in primary schools. The education of small children—children in primary schools—is about educating them to understand the world. They learn from the world around them. They learn from the relationships that they know and understand. It is a process of explaining to children what good relationships are, which may not be the relationships they know. This is important. It is about educating them as individuals to know what a good relationship is like and what should be happening to them. It is not about encouraging them to develop sexual relationships inappropriately at a young age; it is the opposite. It is about protecting them from relationships that are inappropriate.

Photo of The Bishop of Durham The Bishop of Durham Bishop

If the noble Baroness heard me say that I do not believe relationship education should be given in primary schools, she completely misheard me. What I raised was the question of whether parents should have the right to withdraw their children if they so wish. I agree with everything the noble Baroness has just said about why we teach about relationships in primary school.

Photo of Baroness Barker Baroness Barker Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Voluntary Sector)

In that case I hope that, when the right reverend Prelate looks at some of the materials from the Catholic Education Service and from the NSPCC—its PANTS materials, for example—he will understand that it is possible to arrive at an education in primary school that should be acceptable to a parent who wishes the best for their child.

In view of all this, I have two points to raise with the Minister. First, it is laid out in these regulations that all schools must teach relationships and sex education, and they will have to teach what the law says in this country. They are at liberty to do this within an overall framework that is compatible with their beliefs, but they cannot choose not to educate children about the law. So where parents or pupils find themselves subject to education built upon materials that do not fulfil that part of the guidance, what would be the route through which they can seek a remedy?

Finally, I want to talk about a subject that has not received much attention at all: that is, disabled children. I am co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Sexual and Reproductive Health. While the consultation was going on, we had a meeting and brought into Parliament people who are disabled and people who are specialists in talking to children with disabilities as part of sex education. It is an incredibly difficult and embarrassing thing to do. Bear in mind that some of those children will be cared for in institutions by some of the same people are who are doing the educating. It is very highly skilled work.

I was deeply struck by the words of a deaf woman who works with deaf children. She expressed such alarm to us that these children were learning from pornography —they were picking up from it stuff that they felt was normal, because adults were embarrassed to talk to them. I know that the Minister’s department has an aversion to developing national materials. I understand that, but I wonder whether he could make an exception on this subject with regard to children with learning disabilities. The noble Baroness, Lady Hollins, has spoken to some of us at different times about developing materials that are appropriate for people with learning disabilities. I wonder whether, during the implementation process, some of the Government’s £6 million budget for this area—I have to say that it is wholly inadequate—could go to what is a very specialised service for a very small number of people. I believe all children deserve to be protected.

Photo of Lord Elton Lord Elton Conservative 6:45 pm, 24th April 2019

The noble Baroness is quite right. This is an extraordinarily difficult area for teachers to teach in and, sometimes, for parents to talk about. I endorse anyone who says we should provide sufficient money to train teachers to do this, and give them the actual materials to use. If developing these centrally helps to make it easier, I would be in favour of that as well.

I had an awful lot to say but, unfortunately, most of your Lordships have said most of it already. I therefore welcome, first, the fact that we recognise that children must be taught to see the world as it is and not as some of us want it to be and, secondly, that we recognise that there are legitimate differences between our views on some of these issues. Sometimes these views are extremely strong. It is therefore predictable that there will be challenges to a change in the law that diminishes and, in some cases, extinguishes, the right to withdraw children. The noble Lord, Lord Morrow, has kindly indicated two areas on which the Government need to ensure they are briefed: the provisions in the European Convention on Human Rights and English case law which, between them, make it necessary—unavoidably so—to end the complete right of withdrawal that existed until now. This is sure to come up in the courts so it would be helpful to your Lordships to know about it.

On the subject of withdrawal, I have one small suggestion. The cases will be fairly numerous but nothing like as numerous as some others. Those cases where parents object to the withdrawal of their right to withdraw will be sufficiently few as to have no consistent form or yardstick. I wonder whether the Government should consider creating an appeal body which, by its rulings, could develop what the courts would call case law: some sort of yardstick to which teachers could refer in coming years as it is built up, as to what is acceptable.

To me, the actual administration of the teaching of these subjects presents great difficulties, because the calendar age and the biological age of children are never, or very rarely, absolutely in step. Therefore, the points at which a child should be moved into a different room, or treated differently from others in some way, and then made different and embarrassed, are very difficult to determine.

As I said, your Lordships have said a great deal; it has been a wise debate. It has also been an encouraging debate—it has certainly encouraged me. I regarded the whole of this subject with great apprehension when I started reading it, but if the Government can sort out the difficulty over the mixing of relationship education and sex education, and the withdrawal interface, then this can turn into good legislation. However, that means the inspectorate needs to keep a close watch on how this develops and we need to know parental reactions to it. My mailbag and those of my noble friends have been rather different from those of the noble Lords, Lord Storey and Lord Cashman. We have had very large numbers of letters from Muslims, Jews and Christians; those cares have to be catered for. We must see what the reactions are and have a report; first, after three years, when those who are not in the first flight will have two years’ experience, and then, probably, five or 10 years later. Mores change in society and we will have to change the legislation with them.

Photo of Lord McCrea of Magherafelt and Cookstown Lord McCrea of Magherafelt and Cookstown DUP

My Lords, I think everyone would agree that our young people are growing up in an increasingly complex world. Many are the voices that beckon our young people, whether they are our children or youths in society. It is correct to acknowledge that this legislation does not apply to Northern Ireland. But, as one who believes in the union and being part of the United Kingdom, I think it is important to bring to the attention of this House the fact that the pressures of legislation for England quite often come to Northern Ireland. Therefore, it is important to raise some concerns. My noble friend Lord Morrow of Clogher Valley certainly raised many of these issues in his excellent and thoughtful contribution, and I will not repeat those to which he has already drawn attention.

I am encouraged by the high number of responses that the Government received concerning this legislation. But, after the responses were given, suggesting a high level of opposition to the Government’s plans, one has to ask: what is the use? Had the majority of the responses been in a different direction, they would have been greatly used as evidence for why we should move forward with this legislation. But, of course, they were not. It seems strange that the Government have downplayed the responses, which are certainly very interesting and thought-provoking.

I remind this House that the responsibility to raise our children is one that is given not by man but by God. Children are a gift from God. The scriptures tell us that children are the heritage of the Lord. Parenthood is given by God and parents carry a God-given responsibility and authority for raising children. Many children in this nation were taught:

“Honour thy father and mother”.

That is a very important foundation for raising children. In Ephesians, chapter 6, we are reminded that children are to obey their parents. It says:

“Honour thy father and mother; (which is the first commandment with promise;)”.

That is also important. We are also reminded that parents are given the responsibility to “train up” their children. That is recorded in the Book of Proverbs, in chapter 22, verse 6:

“Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it”.

Therefore, in my opinion, anything that undermines this is of great concern and is a radical shift with far-reaching consequences.

Sex and relationships education is primarily the responsibility of parents. I noted that the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, said that she wished she could trust every parent. I wish I could trust every person. I wish I could trust the state. Do we undermine parents—those who desire to honestly and honourably train up their children and fulfil their God-given responsibility to raise them in the fear, nurture and admonition of the Lord? Parental responsibility must be maintained and parental rights of withdrawal from sex education ought also to be maintained.

Today, it seems popular to give sex education to children that ignores biblical standards. I know that drawing this noble House’s attention to this is not popular, but I did not come here to be popular. I came to be honest to my convictions and to honestly state what I have preached for 50 years and believe with all my heart. That seems to be something that is frowned upon. I believe that ignoring biblical standards is damaging to our young people. Whose standards are we teaching? Do we want society’s standards? Do we want what is regarded by society as acceptable? We have to be careful.

I notice that this very day a Statement from the Foreign Secretary in another place concerning the persecution of Christians was repeated here. We talk about the persecution of Christians, but if someone stands up and states Christian principles, it seems that he or she is frowned upon. Even in this House, these views seem to be less acceptable than those of others who have different opinions. I believe that respect is something of vital importance and that we ought to have respect as a standard—respect for the family and for others. That is something I wholeheartedly support.

We talk about relationships. Relationships within the family and society are also something of vital importance. With this legislation, for primary school children, we find that relationship education is something on which a parent does not have the final say. Yet how do you draw a clear line of distinction between relationships education and sex education? And who draws that line? I also think we ought to acknowledge that there are teachers in state or maintained schools who have strong biblical convictions. What about them? What are their rights? Will they be forced to teach what they do not believe, or things that go against their religious convictions?

When the Minister winds up, he has to address the point raised by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern. The duty is not to compromise the parental responsibility or the teaching that is opposite to the religious and philosophical conviction of parents. That is not to be disregarded. I fear at times that that is set aside whenever it comes to this situation, because the draft statutory guidance states that,

“except in exceptional circumstances, the school should respect the parents’ request to withdraw the child, up to and until three terms before the child turns 16”.

Of course they are to respect the parents’ request, but the headmaster is given a greater responsibility and authority over the parent. That is a dangerous situation whenever we come to children being taught to honour their parents, which I believe is a basic right and a fundamental standard for any civilised society.

I therefore feel that the Minister ought to take this legislation back and give a very clear answer to the points raised by my noble friend Lord Morrow and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay. I therefore ask that the Minister, having listened to the debate, give earnest and genuine consideration to the appeal from noble Lords in that respect.

Photo of Lord Scriven Lord Scriven Liberal Democrat 7:00 pm, 24th April 2019

My Lords, I interject at this point simply because a lot has been spoken about the theory of relationships education, and people coming to terms with who they are and understanding the modern world. I was one of those 15 year-olds who looked over the edge and contemplated suicide. Stories about the real world are far more important than theory.

I was in a school that was meant to be a safe place— because not all families, households or communities are safe. School is meant to be the safe place that gives a child the right to feel safe, to explore and to understand the world and community they are part of. Communities are diverse. The noble Lord, Lord McCrea, referred to respecting the family. Families are very diverse. There are same-sex families and single-parent families. There is no such thing as “a family”; there are families. Therefore, schools and relationships have to expose young people to the world they will have to negotiate. I looked over the edge and nearly committed suicide because I and many others did not have that safe space. It was not safe for teachers to explore the differences. There was a monoculture about what relationships were about.

If I had grown up with the regulations that the Government will, I hope, enact, some of the issues that I and many others were dealing with would have been explored—not just sexuality but many different issues. I would have felt normal and safe. I would have understood that my relationship was equal and that I was a fellow human being. Yes, there were going to be issues, but I was equal. That is what this is about: giving children, no matter who they are, the right to negotiate the world safely and with confidence, so that they do not go, particularly now, to the internet to be mistaught, have their differences reinforced and possibly contemplate suicide even more.

There are balances to be struck, which is why this is complex—but no parent has the right to stop their child being ready to explore and navigate the world. They have the right to give them their views and to explain them, but school also has the right to give an opposing view—not to indoctrinate, but objectively to say, “This is the bigger picture. This is the world that you inherit”. Parents’ views are important, but so are other relationships, other views and other ways in which the world happens.

So I welcome these regulations because they are the correct balance. They balance the right of parents and of religion, but they also balance the right of the individual child to be taught the skills and the knowledge they need to go and navigate the world. I suggest that, if these regulations go forward, fewer young people will look over the edge like I did at the age of 15. They will feel normal, feel that their relationships are valued and feel confident enough to navigate the world, meet their full potential, and understand that the world is complex, that people are different and that equality is important.

Photo of Lord Watson of Invergowrie Lord Watson of Invergowrie Shadow Spokesperson (Education)

My Lords, I thank the Minister for introducing these regulations. Noble Lords have contributed to what I can fairly say has been a wide-ranging debate, and certainly a very interesting one.

These regulations relate to issues that I believe are fundamental for the human rights of everyone in the UK, both adults and those young people who have yet to achieve that status. As my noble friend Lady Massey said, they are overdue and we welcome their introduction, although they could be more robust in one important respect, as I will mention.

As the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham said, a major change in the world that young children are growing up in since the sex and relationship guidance was last updated two decades ago is the development of the internet and the spread of social media. Of course social media has benefits, but it can also have a genuinely detrimental effect on the lives of children.

Another instrumental factor in the legislation that provided for these regulations was the growing realisation and acceptance that LGBT people have human rights too and that it is not for the state to dictate the dynamics of family life. It is poignant to remember this on the day of the funeral of the murdered journalist Lyra McKee, whose life stood for treating LGBT people equally, especially in a part of the United Kingdom where those rights are currently often denied.

Many noble Lords will recall the progress two years ago of the then Children and Social Work Bill though your Lordships’ House. The key change to the Bill was made in another place, when a new clause was tabled by Maria Miller MP with the cross-party support of almost 50 other MPs, most notably my colleague Stella Creasy, who had long campaigned on the need for LGBT education. The new clause was given enthusiastic support by several children’s organisations and the Terrence Higgins Trust, which, allied to the broad base of support from MPs, led the Government to table their own amendment. So, from September next year, relationships education will be compulsory in all primary schools in England, and relationships and sex education will be compulsory in all secondary schools, with health education compulsory in all state-funded schools. That is an appropriate response to the identified risks that children and young people might face and the need to support them to be safe, healthy and manage their academic, personal and social lives positively.

By that same deadline all schools must have in place a written policy for relationships education and relationships and sex education. Schools are meant to work closely with parents when planning and delivering these subjects, but therein lurks a potential problem. There is a real concern 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 in many cases of local parent governors gives the impression, I fear too often borne out by fact, that decisions are made by managers rather than educationalists in academy trusts that are remote from schools and their communities. That not only damages the relationship between parents and schools, but surely works against early and effective engagement in framing relationships and sex education. It matters if the person in charge of each school is not accessible to parents; that person has to have sufficient stature to carry out the consultation sought by the Secretary of State under these regulations. The Minister is very much an academies man, so I invite him to set out how the remoteness felt by many parents from those running some academies will be addressed in the context of the close working with parents when planning and delivering the subjects covered by these regulations.

We accept the need for parental choice, and understand the provision for parents having the right to withdraw their child from the sex education element of relationships and sex education—in what are still rather ill-defined exceptional circumstances—up to and including three terms before a young person turns 16. I accept what the Minister said in his introduction—that there were likely to be only a small number of occurrences of that—but in terms of contributions from other noble Lords, who can say how many parents will be either willing or equipped to fill the void in providing the sexual knowledge that a young person needs to enable them to make informed choices in their lives? In relationships education in primary schools, the focus should be on teaching the fundamental building blocks and characteristics of positive relationships, which will create opportunities to ensure that children are taught about positive emotional and mental well-being and how friendships can impact on that.

Children should also learn about different types of family make-up. The guidance falls short of requiring schools to teach the acceptance of LGBT people and lifestyles, and gives encouragement to those few schools that might wish to omit LGBT content completely, which is unacceptable. A school’s role is surely to set out different views and approaches in society, with an overall duty to tackle prejudice and foster good relations between people of different characteristics. Teachers should be actively supported in this regard, not undermined, as has happened in those schools that have recently suspended the No Outsiders programme. While the guidance is stronger on LGBT inclusivity at the secondary school stage, it nevertheless advises that sexual orientation and gender identity “should”, rather than “must”, be explored by secondary schools in a,

“clear, sensitive and respectful manner”.

I do not think that comes close to the proselytism referred to in the powerful contribution by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay. There is obviously a need to reassure parents about these regulations, not least in some faith communities. However, it must be stated unequivocally that there can be no opt-out from the Equality Act 2010. We have to ensure that all schools understand their legal obligations. It is essential that they work with their wider communities and resist any attempts to push back from the gains that we have made—often with great difficulty—over recent years.

For all the positive change that has been achieved, as my noble friends Lord Cashman and Lord Liddle said, nearly half of all lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender young people are bullied at school because of 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. We have a duty to ensure that all young people are provided with the tools they need to navigate a course through situations and events that are at best confusing or challenging, and at worst frightening. As the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, said, schools should offer a safe space.

At the point at which schools decide that it is appropriate to teach pupils about LGBT issues, they should ensure that this is fully integrated into their programmes of study, rather than delivered as a standalone unit, a fact that I was pleased to see supported by the Government, who articulated it succinctly in their response to the consultation on these regulations:

“Pupils should be able to understand the world in which they are growing up, which means understanding that some people are LGBT, that this should be respected in British society, and that the law affords them and their relationships recognition and protections”.

Ensuring that parents are involved in planning what is taught in their children’s schools as part of these regulations is important, but parents must not be allowed a veto on school policy, particularly when that policy is following the law. Recent events at schools, particularly in Birmingham, related to the introduction of the No Outsiders content in the curriculum have attracted a disproportionate amount of attention. In response to these events, the Secretary of State has written a helpful letter to the National Association of Head Teachers, stating that:

“What is taught, and how, is ultimately a decision for the school. We trust and support head teachers to make decisions that are in the best interests of their pupils”.

The only slight issue I have with Mr Hinds’s letter is that not many parents outside school gates will read a letter of three and a half pages to the general secretary of a trade union. A well-publicised visit by the Secretary of State to Parkfield school in Birmingham, standing in support of the head teacher, would have said much more than the letter.

My colleague Wes Streeting MP spoke powerfully when these regulations were debated in another place last month. He suggested that when schools are talking about the importance of having no outsiders and celebrating diversity and difference, the parents need to ask themselves who they think the teachers are talking about. As he said, it is not just the gay child at the front of the classroom. It is the Muslim children in the playground, the Christians who are still persecuted—horrifically in Sri Lanka, as we saw just three days ago—and the Jewish people who are subjected to a rising tide of anti-Semitism. I echo his pointed question:

“How dare people, in defence of their own difference, seek to stifle the freedoms and equality of others?”—[Official Report, Commons, 20/3/19; col. 1162.]

I want to finish on a practical point that I raised with the Minister when these regulations were discussed in your Lordships’ House in February. I did not get an answer then, so I am returning to the subject. We agree on the need for these reforms, but we must ensure that they are properly implemented. The Government have said that there will be £6 million budgeted for school support, training and resources. However, if that were to be spread across all of England’s 22,000-plus schools, it would amount to around £250 per school. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Russell, that the Minister cannot believe that such paltry amount will enable schools—let us not forget that many are already under huge financial pressures—with the resources they need to deliver this new curriculum. That figure simply must be increased. This is emphatically not political point-scoring. At the heart of relationships education, relationships and sex education and health education, there is a focus on keeping children safe, informed and prepared for life. We are united in wanting that aim to be fulfilled. It must not be frustrated by a lack of resources.

Photo of Lord Agnew of Oulton Lord Agnew of Oulton The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education 7:15 pm, 24th April 2019

My Lords, I am grateful for the many comments on these emotive issues, and will attempt to address them all. I have been asked to be as brief as possible, so I will have a balancing act to do.

I acknowledge the support of the noble Baroness, Lady Massey. She raised the question about the teaching of this in academies and free schools, and I reassure her that these regulations, if passed, will apply to all state schools in England. That is the biggest impact of this statutory instrument. Until now, academies have been asked to teach a broad and balanced curriculum but not specifically to cover the issues raised in this statutory instrument.

The noble Lord, Lord Storey, made a strong point in asking why other issues such as financial education are not included. We tried to give autonomy to schools in the way they construct their curriculums. We need to keep that under review, to be honest with you, but at the moment, this is how the system is working. On the very important issue of unregistered religious schools, it is important to say that it is an offence to run an unregistered independent school, and that we are clamping down on that. We have provided additional funding to Ofsted for inspections of those institutions where we discover them. I am happy to write with some more details on that.

The noble Baroness, Lady Deech, talked about potential hostility to teachers. We discussed that at the Front-Bench meeting earlier today. It is also worth saying that sex education is being taught in many schools at the moment—this is not a sudden change being imposed across the whole school system—but I completely accept her concerns. It will be a matter for schools to ensure that their teachers are properly supported, and we will keep this under close review.

The noble Baroness, Lady Meyer, asked about compatibility with the convention rights. The advice we have is that when laying the regulations for debate, the Secretary of State is expected to certify that in his view they are compatible with the convention rights; he would not have been able to do that with the regulations on the absolute right of the parent to withdraw. I will cover that issue a little later, as it has been raised by several other noble Lords.

The noble Baroness also mentioned the out of date Stranger Danger, believing that Clever Never Goes is a better training, something we will certainly take on board. Part of this process will very much be to learn what the best toolkit is to make available to schools as we roll the programme out.

The noble Lord, Lord Cashman, asked about education in issues such as HIV and sexual health. I can confirm that it will be part of the RSE curriculum at the secondary stage, and that it will continue.

The noble Lord, Lord Russell, asked about the quality of training—a subject that came up quite a lot—and the amount of money, on which the noble Lord, Lord Watson, finished. The £6 million is a small sum of money and is only for this current year, so we will bid in the spending review for additional resources. Turning to one of the points raised by my noble friend Lord Farmer, it is also important to stress that this money is very much for good digital resources. That is where we will point some of this money. A number of organisations are already producing some of this information: for example, the Catholic Education Service, the PSHE Association, and the Royal Foundation of The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and The Duke and Duchess of Sussex. The information is starting to come out and the role of the department is to quality assure it, and to signpost the schools to the resources that we believe are best.

One issue raised in the Cross-Bench meeting earlier was an example of some inappropriate material that was being publicised. I can certainly commit that our department will be rigorous in ensuring that if that sort of thing occurs, we will not recommend it and will use whatever powers we have to make sure that it is not part of the system.

The noble Baroness, Lady Tyler, made a strong point about the regulations being named so as to refer to “Relationships and Sex Education”. As I mentioned earlier, we have been teaching sex education but, until now, often probably quite poorly. The whole point of this instrument is to put relationships at the heart of what we teach children, rather than teaching sex as a slightly disembodied and taboo subject. The two need to come together because, as the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, said at the end, it is about understanding the power of these relationships early on. They can otherwise lead to a great sense of isolation.

The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham raised a number of points. He asked about determining the age-appropriateness of teaching the sex element of relationships and sex education, and the ability to separate the two. I cannot offer him a magic wand for how those two things are separated, but we start with the principle that healthy relationships are born out of more than just the sexual element. Schools will be able to determine that, and we are asking schools to make those decisions themselves because these are nuanced subjects. As I said in my opening comments, we will keep this area under review. We have said that we will review the regulations in three years but if urgent elements become apparent much sooner than that, we will of course look at them more quickly.

The right reverend Prelate also asked about Ofsted, which was raised by several other noble Lords. It has recently consulted on a new arrangement for school inspections but while it will not be making a discrete judgment on the delivery of RSE, there will be a strong emphasis within the new inspection arrangements on schools ensuring that pupils access a broad and balanced curriculum. That will include the new requirements around these subjects and there will be a new judgment on pupils’ personal development, which is of course very relevant to these areas.

Photo of Lord Elton Lord Elton Conservative

My Lords, my noble friend may be coming to this again later, but I think that we need to have a progress report to the House in a year or two, or three, on how this is all working. I hope that he will take note of that and at least think about it with his colleagues.

Photo of Lord Agnew of Oulton Lord Agnew of Oulton The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

My noble friend makes a good point. I will certainly encourage the department to do that. We are all aware that this is a big change. As the noble Lord, Lord Watson, said, it is the first change in two decades. We are dealing with a whole new set of phenomena out there, in the shape of social media and the internet, which we are now starting to tackle head-on. It would be absolutely appropriate for us to review that, so I will certainly take that back to the department.

The noble Lord, Lord Curry, raised a number of points. I will start on sex education with what is covered in relationships education at secondary level and how we know what a child can be withdrawn from. This is at the core of the right-to-withdraw issue. I know that there is some concern from noble Lords about that right to withdraw, but it is absolutely clear that a parent has the right to withdraw other than in exceptional circumstances. My noble friend Lord Farmer was worried that we have not defined those circumstances, but it is extremely difficult to do so, because we are not dealing in a commercial world here. We are dealing with human beings and their emotions, and with different reactions to similar situations. I can assure noble Lords who are worried about the right to withdraw that the guidance is statutory. It cannot be ignored by schools; they must have regard to it and have a very good reason to set aside anything that is in the statutory guidance. Again, we have tried to strike that difficult balance to address the rights of the child and the rights of the parent. We are clear that parents remain the primary educators of children and we absolutely want to stick to that line.

The noble Lord, Lord Curry, also asked about religious groups. We have engaged with the whole spectrum of religious schools. It is of course worth remembering that we have at least 6,000 state-funded religious schools in this country and they have been a very important part of the stakeholder engagement. We have had strong support from the Catholic Education Service, the Church of England and the Board of Deputies. It has been a long process, but I believe we have got to a point where those groups are broadly happy.

The noble Lord, Lord Curry, was also concerned, as some other noble Lords were, about teachers expressing their own views. The noble Baroness, Lady Massey, made an insightful comment in her speech at the beginning about teaching alongside a nun, who obviously had strong views about sexual relationships but she acknowledged that it was still her duty as a teacher to provide an objective and unbiased education on those subjects. That is a very important point: all of us are prejudiced in some form or another, but when teachers are teaching, they have to put aside those personal views and try to give as unbiased an opinion as possible.

My noble and learned friend Lord Mackay raised some important and technical issues, and I will certainly not try to take him on in matters of law. Just to take one or two issues, regarding faith freedoms, in all schools when teaching these subjects the religious background of pupils must be taken into account. Schools with a religious character can build on the core content by reflecting their beliefs in their teaching. In developing these subjects, we have worked with a number of faith bodies, as I have just mentioned, and schools can also consider drawing on their own expertise when delivering those subjects.

My noble friend Lord Farmer was also concerned about the “exceptional circumstances”. I have tried to address that and am very happy to continue dialogue with him on it, as we learn more about it. It is perhaps worth restating that a number of schools will start to teach this on a voluntary basis in September of this year. We already have about 1,000 schools which have signed up to the pilot; we expect that to increase and we will learn from their experiences in the process.

The noble Lord, Lord Liddle, made supportive comments for which I am grateful. It is worth restating that the core of this is relationships, which is where we should start. There is no reason why teaching children about the diverse society that we live in, and the different types of loving and healthy relationships, cannot be done in a way that respects everybody’s views. Schools should ensure that the needs of all pupils are appropriately met and that all pupils understand the importance of equality and respect, in particular respect for difference. The new guidance is clear on the teaching about LGBT relationships expected in secondary schools and encouraged in primary while retaining the flexibility for head teachers to respond to the needs of their own schools.

My noble friend Lord Hodgson asked about the blurring of subjects, which I tried to address. Our view is that they complement one another. As I mentioned in my opening remarks, schools will be expected to consult parents, to explain the structure of their curriculum in these subjects and to get feedback. We have also said that we expect schools to refresh that periodically so that new parents arriving in a school are also included in those discussions.

The noble Lords, Lord Morrow and Lord McCrea, are clearly passionate Christians, and I absolutely respect that. Again, as I tried to say earlier, this is about trying to strike a balance. While we are respectful of the Christian community—as I mentioned earlier, we have had strong support from both the Catholic Education Service and the Church of England—we also have to respect other members of our society who have different views. I have tried to provide some reassurance that the guidance is statutory, so it cannot just be ignored.

On providing the legal evidence, unfortunately the convention to reveal legal advice is in the gift of the Attorney-General and is not for me, but there is a bigger point here which was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Scriven: it is about the rights of the child as well as those of the parent. That is a difficult balance to achieve. As I mentioned in my opening comments, the Catholic Education Service estimates the number of children withdrawn under the right to withdraw at the moment to be 0.01%, so we are talking about an extremely small cohort in the overall number of children in our system. If that number were to go up, clearly we would need to look at it. My noble friend Lord Elton asked about an appeal body if we see an increase in the number of appeals. We would certainly keep that under close consideration.

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Watson, for his broad support for this statutory instrument. He asked a specific question about academies’ complaints procedures. I reassure him that it is an absolute requirement that every academy has at least two parent governors on the governing body of individual schools. They are there to deal precisely with his concern about any sense of remoteness. Beyond that, a parent can of course write. It is a requirement that all academies have a complaints procedure which is on their websites, so a parent can go down that route. If they are still unsatisfied at the end of that—this applies to everything and not just to this issue—they can take the matter up with the ESFA, which is essentially the regulator of academies.

Photo of Lord Watson of Invergowrie Lord Watson of Invergowrie Shadow Spokesperson (Education) 7:30 pm, 24th April 2019

I thank the Minister for that interesting description of the complaints procedure, but it was not the point that I raised. I was talking about the means available to parents of children who are in an academy as part of a multi-academy trust which has its own governing body. Often, the schools within that do not have their own board of governors or even a committee—call it what you like—to which individual parents can feed in. In the context of these regulations, if we are deciding what is taught in a particular school, that is important. If parents do not have that link—because it is perhaps a manager at the academy trust headquarters making the decision—it is a gap that needs to be filled.

Photo of Lord Agnew of Oulton Lord Agnew of Oulton The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

I am certainly happy to write to the noble Lord to clarify that, but I reassure him that each academy school will have a governing body. There may be some instances where a governing body operates over two or three schools, if they are small schools, and they may be called academy councils rather than governing bodies, but there is a representative body beneath the academy board—there may be instances that I do not know about, but I would be very surprised. To link back to my opening comments, academies as well as local authority schools will be required to consult parents in their construction of these curricula.

The noble Lord raised the budget issue. I understand that £250 a school sounds somewhat derisory. We will be looking at training for newly qualified teachers and at how we can provide more training as part of that preparation for teaching. We will of course keep a weather eye on the quality of the online materials made available and will gain experience from the pathfinder schools that start teaching this from September this year.

I believe that we all share an ambition to ensure that our 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 difference. These regulations give us the opportunity to build a consistent foundation across all schools so that children and young people have the knowledge they need to manage their academic, personal and social lives in a positive way. For the reasons that I have set out, I commend the regulations to the House.

Motion agreed.