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 5:15 pm on 24th April 2019.

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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.