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.