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 The Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee quoted the draft guidance, which states that,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