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.
“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.