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 7:00 pm on 24th April 2019.

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Photo of Lord Watson of Invergowrie Lord Watson of Invergowrie Shadow Spokesperson (Education) 7:00 pm, 24th April 2019

My Lords, I thank the Minister for introducing these regulations. Noble Lords have contributed to what I can fairly say has been a wide-ranging debate, and certainly a very interesting one.

These regulations relate to issues that I believe are fundamental for the human rights of everyone in the UK, both adults and those young people who have yet to achieve that status. As my noble friend Lady Massey said, they are overdue and we welcome their introduction, although they could be more robust in one important respect, as I will mention.

As the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham said, a major change in the world that young children are growing up in since the sex and relationship guidance was last updated two decades ago is the development of the internet and the spread of social media. Of course social media has benefits, but it can also have a genuinely detrimental effect on the lives of children.

Another instrumental factor in the legislation that provided for these regulations was the growing realisation and acceptance that LGBT people have human rights too and that it is not for the state to dictate the dynamics of family life. It is poignant to remember this on the day of the funeral of the murdered journalist Lyra McKee, whose life stood for treating LGBT people equally, especially in a part of the United Kingdom where those rights are currently often denied.

Many noble Lords will recall the progress two years ago of the then Children and Social Work Bill though your Lordships’ House. The key change to the Bill was made in another place, when a new clause was tabled by Maria Miller MP with the cross-party support of almost 50 other MPs, most notably my colleague Stella Creasy, who had long campaigned on the need for LGBT education. The new clause was given enthusiastic support by several children’s organisations and the Terrence Higgins Trust, which, allied to the broad base of support from MPs, led the Government to table their own amendment. So, from September next year, relationships education will be compulsory in all primary schools in England, and relationships and sex education will be compulsory in all secondary schools, with health education compulsory in all state-funded schools. That is an appropriate response to the identified risks that children and young people might face and the need to support them to be safe, healthy and manage their academic, personal and social lives positively.

By that same deadline all schools must have in place a written policy for relationships education and relationships and sex education. Schools are meant to work closely with parents when planning and delivering these subjects, but therein lurks a potential problem. There is a real concern that the Government’s structural reforms to the school system have made it more difficult for parents to have their concerns heard at a school level. The shift to academies and the removal in many cases of local parent governors gives the impression, I fear too often borne out by fact, that decisions are made by managers rather than educationalists in academy trusts that are remote from schools and their communities. That not only damages the relationship between parents and schools, but surely works against early and effective engagement in framing relationships and sex education. It matters if the person in charge of each school is not accessible to parents; that person has to have sufficient stature to carry out the consultation sought by the Secretary of State under these regulations. The Minister is very much an academies man, so I invite him to set out how the remoteness felt by many parents from those running some academies will be addressed in the context of the close working with parents when planning and delivering the subjects covered by these regulations.

We accept the need for parental choice, and understand the provision for parents having the right to withdraw their child from the sex education element of relationships and sex education—in what are still rather ill-defined exceptional circumstances—up to and including three terms before a young person turns 16. I accept what the Minister said in his introduction—that there were likely to be only a small number of occurrences of that—but in terms of contributions from other noble Lords, who can say how many parents will be either willing or equipped to fill the void in providing the sexual knowledge that a young person needs to enable them to make informed choices in their lives? In relationships education in primary schools, the focus should be on teaching the fundamental building blocks and characteristics of positive relationships, which will create opportunities to ensure that children are taught about positive emotional and mental well-being and how friendships can impact on that.

Children should also learn about different types of family make-up. The guidance falls short of requiring schools to teach the acceptance of LGBT people and lifestyles, and gives encouragement to those few schools that might wish to omit LGBT content completely, which is unacceptable. A school’s role is surely to set out different views and approaches in society, with an overall duty to tackle prejudice and foster good relations between people of different characteristics. Teachers should be actively supported in this regard, not undermined, as has happened in those schools that have recently suspended the No Outsiders programme. While the guidance is stronger on LGBT inclusivity at the secondary school stage, it nevertheless advises that sexual orientation and gender identity “should”, rather than “must”, be explored by secondary schools in a,

“clear, sensitive and respectful manner”.

I do not think that comes close to the proselytism referred to in the powerful contribution by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay. There is obviously a need to reassure parents about these regulations, not least in some faith communities. However, it must be stated unequivocally that there can be no opt-out from the Equality Act 2010. We have to ensure that all schools understand their legal obligations. It is essential that they work with their wider communities and resist any attempts to push back from the gains that we have made—often with great difficulty—over recent years.

For all the positive change that has been achieved, as my noble friends Lord Cashman and Lord Liddle said, nearly half of all lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender young people are bullied at school because of their sexuality, and half of them do not tell anyone about it. More than three in five lesbian, gay and bisexual young people have self-harmed, and the figure rises to more than four in five among trans students. We have a duty to ensure that all young people are provided with the tools they need to navigate a course through situations and events that are at best confusing or challenging, and at worst frightening. As the noble Lord, Lord Scriven, said, schools should offer a safe space.

At the point at which schools decide that it is appropriate to teach pupils about LGBT issues, they should ensure that this is fully integrated into their programmes of study, rather than delivered as a standalone unit, a fact that I was pleased to see supported by the Government, who articulated it succinctly in their response to the consultation on these regulations:

“Pupils should be able to understand the world in which they are growing up, which means understanding that some people are LGBT, that this should be respected in British society, and that the law affords them and their relationships recognition and protections”.

Ensuring that parents are involved in planning what is taught in their children’s schools as part of these regulations is important, but parents must not be allowed a veto on school policy, particularly when that policy is following the law. Recent events at schools, particularly in Birmingham, related to the introduction of the No Outsiders content in the curriculum have attracted a disproportionate amount of attention. In response to these events, the Secretary of State has written a helpful letter to the National Association of Head Teachers, stating that:

“What is taught, and how, is ultimately a decision for the school. We trust and support head teachers to make decisions that are in the best interests of their pupils”.

The only slight issue I have with Mr Hinds’s letter is that not many parents outside school gates will read a letter of three and a half pages to the general secretary of a trade union. A well-publicised visit by the Secretary of State to Parkfield school in Birmingham, standing in support of the head teacher, would have said much more than the letter.

My colleague Wes Streeting MP spoke powerfully when these regulations were debated in another place last month. He suggested that when schools are talking about the importance of having no outsiders and celebrating diversity and difference, the parents need to ask themselves who they think the teachers are talking about. As he said, it is not just the gay child at the front of the classroom. It is the Muslim children in the playground, the Christians who are still persecuted—horrifically in Sri Lanka, as we saw just three days ago—and the Jewish people who are subjected to a rising tide of anti-Semitism. I echo his pointed question:

“How dare people, in defence of their own difference, seek to stifle the freedoms and equality of others?”—[Official Report, Commons, 20/3/19; col. 1162.]

I want to finish on a practical point that I raised with the Minister when these regulations were discussed in your Lordships’ House in February. I did not get an answer then, so I am returning to the subject. We agree on the need for these reforms, but we must ensure that they are properly implemented. The Government have said that there will be £6 million budgeted for school support, training and resources. However, if that were to be spread across all of England’s 22,000-plus schools, it would amount to around £250 per school. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Russell, that the Minister cannot believe that such paltry amount will enable schools—let us not forget that many are already under huge financial pressures—with the resources they need to deliver this new curriculum. That figure simply must be increased. This is emphatically not political point-scoring. At the heart of relationships education, relationships and sex education and health education, there is a focus on keeping children safe, informed and prepared for life. We are united in wanting that aim to be fulfilled. It must not be frustrated by a lack of resources.