My Lords, I congratulate the Government on bringing forward this measure. It is a brave decision to stand up to the forces of social conservatism, which are still far too strong in our society. I also believe that this marks an important stepping stone in the progress that we have made as a society on these questions. At an abysmal time in our politics—the lowest moment in politics I have known—this is a great step forward.
We have heard a lot about the rights of parents. I believe the rights of parents have to be respected, and I took very much the point made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, that teaching in schools has to reflect the religious and philosophical convictions of parents, even though they could be very diverse convictions. Therefore the teaching has to be objective and non-propagandist and must certainly not be able to be described as indoctrination. I support him on that, but we have to recognise that as well as the problem of the few thousand parents who may have difficulties with certain aspects of relationships and sex education, the situation in our schools is a long way from the equality to which we want our society to aspire. We have only to look at LGBT kids, who disproportionately suffer stress and mental health problems and have a higher propensity for suicide. Those are facts. As the noble and learned Lord said, if one’s primary concern is the welfare of children, something has to be done to make them feel at home in that school environment.
The original contribution I have to make to this debate is that I have several gay friends active in the Labour Party who are now in their late 20s and early 30s. For this debate, I asked them to tell me what it was like at school and their impressions of sex education at school. One lad said to me—well, he is now a very mature and successful person—“When I attended a state secondary school for boys in the 2000s, the sex education was mostly limited to slide shows of sexual diseases and a discussion about the consequences of getting a girl pregnant at a young age. We didn’t even learn how to put a condom on a banana. While this sex education was far too limited for heterosexual young adults, it was a dereliction of duty for gay and bisexual young adults who learned nothing about sexual intercourse. Had the young people I went to school with been taught at a younger age about the wide range of loving and valid relationships that exist in society, I imagine I would have felt much more comfortable coming out as gay at school. Instead, I spent many years hiding my sexuality for fear of being bullied or cast out by my friends and family, not gaining the confidence to come out until I made a new group of friends at university”.
Another man said, “I realised I was gay, or at least that I liked boys rather than girls, at primary school. However, I didn’t really understand what that meant. I felt ashamed and confused from an early age and had no understanding about how to cope with it. I definitely experienced feelings of disgust and, while I was not suicidal, I was deeply distressed about it and had no one to talk to. I had no idea about what being gay was, and no role models, reference points or education. Sex education focused solely on heterosexual sex and relationships, so I didn’t learn much from that”.
This is something we ought to be concerned about and do something about. We need a broad view that reflects modern Britain in relationships and sex education. I think these guidelines are progress in that direction, and that is why I support them.