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 7:15 pm on 24th April 2019.

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Photo of Lord Agnew of Oulton Lord Agnew of Oulton The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education 7:15 pm, 24th April 2019

My noble friend makes a good point. I will certainly encourage the department to do that. We are all aware that this is a big change. As the noble Lord, Lord Watson, said, it is the first change in two decades. We are dealing with a whole new set of phenomena out there, in the shape of social media and the internet, which we are now starting to tackle head-on. It would be absolutely appropriate for us to review that, so I will certainly take that back to the department.

The noble Lord, Lord Curry, raised a number of points. I will start on sex education with what is covered in relationships education at secondary level and how we know what a child can be withdrawn from. This is at the core of the right-to-withdraw issue. I know that there is some concern from noble Lords about that right to withdraw, but it is absolutely clear that a parent has the right to withdraw other than in exceptional circumstances. My noble friend Lord Farmer was worried that we have not defined those circumstances, but it is extremely difficult to do so, because we are not dealing in a commercial world here. We are dealing with human beings and their emotions, and with different reactions to similar situations. I can assure noble Lords who are worried about the right to withdraw that the guidance is statutory. It cannot be ignored by schools; they must have regard to it and have a very good reason to set aside anything that is in the statutory guidance. Again, we have tried to strike that difficult balance to address the rights of the child and the rights of the parent. We are clear that parents remain the primary educators of children and we absolutely want to stick to that line.

The noble Lord, Lord Curry, also asked about religious groups. We have engaged with the whole spectrum of religious schools. It is of course worth remembering that we have at least 6,000 state-funded religious schools in this country and they have been a very important part of the stakeholder engagement. We have had strong support from the Catholic Education Service, the Church of England and the Board of Deputies. It has been a long process, but I believe we have got to a point where those groups are broadly happy.

The noble Lord, Lord Curry, was also concerned, as some other noble Lords were, about teachers expressing their own views. The noble Baroness, Lady Massey, made an insightful comment in her speech at the beginning about teaching alongside a nun, who obviously had strong views about sexual relationships but she acknowledged that it was still her duty as a teacher to provide an objective and unbiased education on those subjects. That is a very important point: all of us are prejudiced in some form or another, but when teachers are teaching, they have to put aside those personal views and try to give as unbiased an opinion as possible.

My noble and learned friend Lord Mackay raised some important and technical issues, and I will certainly not try to take him on in matters of law. Just to take one or two issues, regarding faith freedoms, in all schools when teaching these subjects the religious background of pupils must be taken into account. Schools with a religious character can build on the core content by reflecting their beliefs in their teaching. In developing these subjects, we have worked with a number of faith bodies, as I have just mentioned, and schools can also consider drawing on their own expertise when delivering those subjects.

My noble friend Lord Farmer was also concerned about the “exceptional circumstances”. I have tried to address that and am very happy to continue dialogue with him on it, as we learn more about it. It is perhaps worth restating that a number of schools will start to teach this on a voluntary basis in September of this year. We already have about 1,000 schools which have signed up to the pilot; we expect that to increase and we will learn from their experiences in the process.

The noble Lord, Lord Liddle, made supportive comments for which I am grateful. It is worth restating that the core of this is relationships, which is where we should start. There is no reason why teaching children about the diverse society that we live in, and the different types of loving and healthy relationships, cannot be done in a way that respects everybody’s views. Schools should ensure that the needs of all pupils are appropriately met and that all pupils understand the importance of equality and respect, in particular respect for difference. The new guidance is clear on the teaching about LGBT relationships expected in secondary schools and encouraged in primary while retaining the flexibility for head teachers to respond to the needs of their own schools.

My noble friend Lord Hodgson asked about the blurring of subjects, which I tried to address. Our view is that they complement one another. As I mentioned in my opening remarks, schools will be expected to consult parents, to explain the structure of their curriculum in these subjects and to get feedback. We have also said that we expect schools to refresh that periodically so that new parents arriving in a school are also included in those discussions.

The noble Lords, Lord Morrow and Lord McCrea, are clearly passionate Christians, and I absolutely respect that. Again, as I tried to say earlier, this is about trying to strike a balance. While we are respectful of the Christian community—as I mentioned earlier, we have had strong support from both the Catholic Education Service and the Church of England—we also have to respect other members of our society who have different views. I have tried to provide some reassurance that the guidance is statutory, so it cannot just be ignored.

On providing the legal evidence, unfortunately the convention to reveal legal advice is in the gift of the Attorney-General and is not for me, but there is a bigger point here which was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Scriven: it is about the rights of the child as well as those of the parent. That is a difficult balance to achieve. As I mentioned in my opening comments, the Catholic Education Service estimates the number of children withdrawn under the right to withdraw at the moment to be 0.01%, so we are talking about an extremely small cohort in the overall number of children in our system. If that number were to go up, clearly we would need to look at it. My noble friend Lord Elton asked about an appeal body if we see an increase in the number of appeals. We would certainly keep that under close consideration.

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Watson, for his broad support for this statutory instrument. He asked a specific question about academies’ complaints procedures. I reassure him that it is an absolute requirement that every academy has at least two parent governors on the governing body of individual schools. They are there to deal precisely with his concern about any sense of remoteness. Beyond that, a parent can of course write. It is a requirement that all academies have a complaints procedure which is on their websites, so a parent can go down that route. If they are still unsatisfied at the end of that—this applies to everything and not just to this issue—they can take the matter up with the ESFA, which is essentially the regulator of academies.