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

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

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Photo of Lord Agnew of Oulton Lord Agnew of Oulton The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education 5:11 pm, 24th April 2019

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.