Sex Education

– in Westminster Hall at 2:30 pm on 26th November 2008.

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Photo of Philip Davies Philip Davies Conservative, Shipley 2:30 pm, 26th November 2008

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Gale, and through you I thank Mr. Speaker for allowing this debate, which is important for many people across the country.

I have always thought that, for a parliamentary democracy to work, everybody in the country should feel that somebody is speaking up for them. Sex education is one of those subjects where, for far too long, we have had a cosy consensus of all the political parties and have accepted that a never-ending increase in sex education is the only possible solution to the problems of teenage pregnancies, unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases. Many people in the country are, like me, rather nervous about that and feel that it is perhaps more the cause of the problem than the solution. I intend to mention some reasons why I think sex education has failed in this country and some examples that we can learn from in other countries, and I want to find out what the Government's plans are for the future.

My starting point is that I am philosophically against sex education in schools, because in far too many cases we are taking responsibilities away from parents. Being a parent is a responsible position; it is a big thing and with it comes big obligations that parents cannot farm out to the state and things that they have to do for themselves. I am a parent of two young boys. I understand my responsibilities to my children and do not take them lightly. Part of the problem in this country is that we have a culture in which the Government basically say to people, including parents, "These are your responsibilities, but if you don't perform them, don't worry—it doesn't matter, it's not a problem—because we'll do them for you. We'll take these responsibilities away from you." That is a dangerous, slippery slope for the country to go down.

People say that some parents are not capable of teaching their children about sex education. I have no doubt that some parents find it a tricky subject, but I am equally sure that many teachers do not teach it particularly well, either. Using a minority of people who find it difficult as an example for scrapping the whole thing seems to me to be rather pointless.

Photo of Annette Brooke Annette Brooke Shadow Spokesperson (Children, Schools and Families), Shadow Minister (Education)

I admire the hon. Gentleman's total confidence in parents, which for the most part we must have, but what about children who are being abused within the family home? Is there not a case for sex and relationship education in such situations?

Photo of Philip Davies Philip Davies Conservative, Shipley

There are always children who are taken into care by the state and obviously the state has a responsibility in respect of their parents, but the example that the hon. Lady gives is not a reason for having compulsory sex education for every child, of whatever age, who goes to school. That is the direction in which this Government are taking us. If she thinks that we should treat certain individuals on an exceptional basis, I might be sympathetic to that idea, but I do not have a belief in the universal beauty and desirability of sex education in schools.

The point is that this is not all about sex education. Much of the argument is about the fact that parents should be, above all else, responsible for the moral upbringing of their children. That cannot be farmed out to the state. It is a parental responsibility. As a parent, I do not want my children to go to school to have the moral compass and values of the teacher instilled in them. That is my job and my responsibility. I want my children to go to school to learn about the things that I cannot teach them, not about the things that are my direct responsibility.

Photo of Jim Knight Jim Knight Minister of State (Schools and Learners), Department for Children, Schools and Families, Minister of State (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Schools and Learners)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way as he is being interesting and, some might argue, provocative. In the context of what he has just said, does he think that schools should have an ethos and values? If he thinks that an ethos is valuable in a school, and that religious foundations are useful in a school, should there be any moral background to that ethos?

Photo of Philip Davies Philip Davies Conservative, Shipley

I agree that schools should be given more freedom to set their own ethos, but within that freedom there should, therefore, be freedom to say, "In our school, we don't believe that sex education is desirable. We think that it should be left to parents." Then parents would, perhaps, be able to choose to send their children to a school with such an ethos. If the Minister is arguing that we should leave it to schools to set their own ethos I would be happy with that, but with it must come the freedom for schools to say that they do not want to teach sex education.

It is not just me who thinks that sex education is not particularly desirable. I have been inundated with comments from parents and teachers alike, who are nervous about the way things are going. I shall quote a couple of parents, if I may. A mother of two e-mailed me, saying:

"Failing to consult parents takes away our choice as to how we raise our children."

Another mother said:

"Education is the primary responsibility of parents, not of schools and not of governments. Parents entrust to schools those aspects of education that they can do more effectively, but PCHE and especially sex education are very delicate matters which parents have every right to give in their own way at home."

I have had many similar e-mails and letters. Even the general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, one of the largest teachers' unions, says:

"Primary school teachers are already overstretched ensuring that they can meet the demands of the current curriculum. Even if appropriate training was provided, which experience shows is highly unlikely, most teachers would feel extremely vulnerable and uncomfortable if asked to take on this responsibility."

There is no universal desire from parents or teachers for even more sex education. Many people feel that the more sex education we have had, the more teenage pregnancies, sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancies we have had. The answer to that problem is not even more sex education, but less. We have been trying this for 20 or 30 years. We might think that somebody would have said, at some point, "Hold on a minute, this is not working."

Photo of Mark Williams Mark Williams Shadow Minister (Innovation, Universities and Skills), Shadow Minister (Wales)

I apologise for missing the first couple of minutes of the hon. Gentleman's speech and congratulate him on securing the debate.

I declare an interest as a member of the NASUWT—at least, I think I am still a member—although I am not sure that I agree with my union's line on this matter. The hon. Gentleman will have read in the House of Commons Library debate pack a survey undertaken by The Times Educational Supplement that shows that 60 per cent. of primary teachers want more training and want sex education to be taught in schools. So there is a mixed message, not quite the consistent message that the hon. Gentleman suggests is being given.

Photo of Philip Davies Philip Davies Conservative, Shipley

I apologise if I gave the impression that every teacher agrees with me. I was trying to make the opposite point, which is that not every teacher agrees with the idea that sex education is a good thing. The position that is often portrayed is that all parents and teachers think that this is a universally good thing. My point is that some people disagree. I take it from the hon. Gentleman's intervention that he acknowledges that people disagree on the issue. There is not just one view.

I forgive the hon. Gentleman for missing the first minute or so of my speech; he did not miss anything of great noteworthiness. I also forgive him for disagreeing with his own union, because I often find myself in the unfortunate position of disagreeing with my party from time to time. I think we can forgive him on all counts.

I might set aside my philosophical objections to sex education in schools if I could be persuaded that there was an overwhelming case for it and that it was a roaring triumph, but the opposite seems to be the case and, at best, that indicates that sex education makes no positive difference to the things it was set up to tackle. For example, the earliest figures I have show that in 1994 there were 7,795 teenage pregnancies among girls under 16. In 2006, the last year for which I have figures, there were 7,800 teenage pregnancies in that age group, which is almost exactly the same number—it has not reduced in the slightest—and it has been even higher in the intervening years.

The number of pregnancies among under-19s was 85,000 in 1994 and in 2004, the last year for which I have information, it was 101,000. The problem is getting worse. In England and Wales, the number of abortions for under-16s in 1994 was 3,900, and in 2006 it was 4,700; for under-19s in 1994 it was 29,600 and in 2006 it was 40,500. Surely, if sex education was such a great success, the situation would have improved as there was more and more of it.

Photo of Kerry McCarthy Kerry McCarthy PPS (Rt Hon Douglas Alexander, Secretary of State), Department for International Development

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. Has he studied the statistics in detail? I understand that a recent survey by the UK Youth Parliament showed that as many as 40 per cent. of young people said that they had received no sex or relationship education at school. Could it be that they are not being taught in sufficient detail, and that they are not being given the right education, rather than being given too much information?

Photo of Philip Davies Philip Davies Conservative, Shipley

That could be the case, but I suggest that it is not. The hon. Lady's intervention was typical of a politician. I am being distracted, but it is a worthwhile distraction. When politicians are faced with a problem, their solution usually encompasses two ingredients. First, they must be seen to be doing something. The bane of politicians is that they must be seen to be doing something whenever a problem arrives on their desk. I long for the day when a Minister says, "This is nothing to do with us. It is for other people to sort out, or for the people concerned to sort out." I am sure that the Minister will not indulge me with that response today. The second ingredient is that their proposals should not offend anyone. The hon. Lady has fallen into the typical politician's trap of wanting to do something and not wanting to offend anyone. Sex education is a perfect example, because it looks as if we are doing something, and it does not offend anyone to suggest that we should have more of it.

My contention is that sex education is not working. For 20 or 30 years, there has been more and more; I am sure that even the hon. Lady will concede that there is more sex education in schools now than in 1994, but that the problems have got worse. Clearly, it is not helping. It may not be as universal as she would like, but given that there is more sex education now, one would expect the figures to show an improvement.

Photo of Kerry McCarthy Kerry McCarthy PPS (Rt Hon Douglas Alexander, Secretary of State), Department for International Development

I accept that there has been an increase in sex education in schools, although the figure I cited shows that it is still not as prevalent as some of us would like, but is not the issue what children are taught? If facts about reproduction are taught in isolation and not in the context of relationship education, they may fall on deaf ears and not be translated into children's own lives. I understand that the Government want to roll out more relationship education rather than just the bare facts of reproduction.

Photo of Philip Davies Philip Davies Conservative, Shipley

I understand that, and the hon. Lady's desire, which all politicians have, to offer painless panaceas to improve everything without anyone having to go through pain to get there. Unfortunately, things do not work like that, and I shall come to what happens in other countries to illustrate for the hon. Lady why I believe that she is wrong.

Photo of Maria Miller Maria Miller Shadow Minister (Children, Young People and Families)

Referring to the hon. Lady's previous intervention, the Youth Parliament's research shows that for too many people sex education has not been in the context of relationships. That was the main point of the report. Does my hon. Friend agree that if a school chooses to talk to its students about sex education, it should always be in the context of relationships so that it can be properly considered and taken in by young people?

Photo of Philip Davies Philip Davies Conservative, Shipley

I certainly take my hon. Friend's point, but my contention is that for 20 or 30 years, since we embarked on the path of sex education, we have been told that the only problem is that it is not being taught properly—that it is good in itself, but that it is not taught very well. We keep tinkering with it and changing it, but the situation keeps getting worse. Everyone must have their own line in the sand for concluding that it is not working. I would like to know where every hon. Member's line in the sand is, and how long they will wait, while the problem is getting worse, before they come to the inevitable conclusion that sex education is not working and that perhaps we should try something else.

Things have not only got worse with teenage pregnancies and abortions; they are even worse with sexually transmitted diseases. Since 1997, the incidence of chlamydia has risen from 72 cases per 100,000 of population to 166 cases per 100,000 in 2004. During the same period, the incidence of gonorrhoea has risen from 22 to 37 cases per 100,000 of population, and for syphilis it has risen from 0.27 to 3.81 per 100,000 of population. The incidence of sexually transmitted diseases in the UK is getting worse, although the figure for syphilis is better than in Holland, which is always held up as a paragon of virtue by those who are obsessed with sex education. I shall talk about Holland shortly.

The incidence of HIV/AIDS has also risen massively over the past 10 years. In the UK in 2006, young people aged 16 to 24, who have been filled with sex education from the word go, made up 11 per cent. of new HIV diagnoses, 65 per cent. of all chlamydia diagnoses, 55 per cent. of all genital warts diagnoses, and 48 per cent. of gonorrhoea diagnoses in clinics. The people who have had the most sex education are suffering most from sexually transmitted diseases, which strikes me as hardly a great triumph for sex education in schools.

Photo of Kerry McCarthy Kerry McCarthy PPS (Rt Hon Douglas Alexander, Secretary of State), Department for International Development

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way again. He is being very generous with his time. Will he refer to the evidence that shows a direct correlation between the increase in sex education in schools and the increase in the statistics that he gave? It seems to me that many other factors could be equally or more to blame, particularly the increased sexualisation of our popular culture and what we see on television. Is there any evidence that sex education is the problem, rather than a solution?

Photo of Philip Davies Philip Davies Conservative, Shipley

The hon. Lady makes a fair point; she is right to say that other factors are important, but my contention is that sex education is making no impression, so perhaps other factors should be brought into play. During the first 20 minutes of this debate, we seem to have gone from saying that sex education is good and will help the situation to saying that things might be even worse if we did not have sex education, which is rather startling backtracking in such a short period. I am pleased that I seem to be making progress with my argument that sex education is not good and only prevents things from becoming even worse. That is a novel position for the governing party to take.

In the teenage birth league, the UK is second of 28 nations, and only one place behind the USA, but Italy at 23rd and Holland at 25th are the fourth and sixth lowest for teenage pregnancies, and I shall refer to them in more detail shortly. In this country, the average age at which people first have sex has fallen, which indicates that sex education is not a great triumph. Of all the OECD nations, we have the second highest number of young people living in single parent families, whereas the Netherlands is 14th and Italy is the lowest.

Of all OECD nations, the UK has much the highest percentage of 15-year-olds who report having had sexual intercourse. The percentage of 15-year-olds who used a condom during their last sexual intercourse is much lower in the UK than in virtually every other OECD nation. I have no idea what people are being taught in sex education, but on every possible indicator of what they may be taught this country is failing badly, not just by itself, but in comparison with every other country.

On teenage births and teenage mothers, the estimated percentage of 20-year-olds who had a child in their teens is 3 per cent. in Italy and Holland, but 13 per cent. in the UK, which is higher than any country except New Zealand. That is hardly a great advert for sex education in the UK, and things seem to be getting worse. I concede that even at that point we could say that sex education is failing only in the UK, but that it is a good thing, although we do it badly, and that other countries do it far better.

Holland is always held up as the great shining example of sex education being a triumph, because the argument is that Holland has lots of sex education at a very young age, and the level of teenage pregnancies is very low. That is absolutely true. However, the proponents of sex education never mention that Italy has almost no sex education in its schools yet it has low levels of teenage and unwanted pregnancies. Rather than just cherry-picking the figures that we want to sustain our arguments, it would be more useful to consider what Italy and Holland are doing because both countries clearly do things right in a way that we do not. Sex education is not a triumph in relation to Italy and Holland because although one country has lots of it, the other has hardly any.

I have tried to consider some of the things that Italy and Holland have in common, and it strikes me that other things in the argument are more important. For example, family structure is much tighter and divorce rates are much lower in Holland and Italy than in the UK. Dutch children are five times less likely to live in a family headed by a lone parent than in this country. The OECD looked at the percentage of families that share a meal together several times a week and the percentage of children who benefit from just talking to their parents several times a week. The percentage of 15-year-olds who eat at least one meal a day with their parents is only 65 in the United Kingdom, but the figures are 90 per cent. in Holland and 94 per cent. in Italy. The UNICEF report on the well-being of children ranks the Netherlands as the best place for children to grow up. Italy comes seventh in that report, after all the other Scandinavian countries. The UK ranks as the worst place to grow up. Other factors, such as the things Italy and Holland have in common, seem to be far more important than sex education.

Something that Italy and Holland have in common but that we do not share with them is their benefit structure and the amount of money they pay single parents. It may not surprise people to hear that we are far more generous than Italy or Holland in our support for single parents. If we really want to tackle the issue of teenage and unwanted pregnancies it would be far better—although it may be tougher and more uncomfortable, which is why politicians shy away from the matter—to consider the implications of our tax and benefit system. Too often that system rewards people for living on their own and puts teenage mothers at the top of housing allocation lists. It strikes me as perverse that through the housing allocation and benefits that we pay, we reward behaviour that we are trying to discourage. Surely, the tax and benefit system ought to reflect the fact that we try to discourage certain behaviour.

I wonder how many 16-year-old girls, in a misguided way, choose wrongly— perhaps because they have problems in their relationship with their parents and do not like living at home. They think that pregnancy is the solution to their problems and that they should leave home because they will get priority housing. In effect, they are probably lining themselves up for a lifetime of misery and poverty, but the tax and benefit system does not indicate that that will be the case.

I ask all hon. Members to read an enlightening article by Alice Thomson called "Sex Education: Why the British are Going Dutch", in The Times on 24 November. The article is about sex education in Holland and why Holland has low rates of teenage pregnancy. I shall highlight a few aspects of that important article. Alice Thomson refers to Laura Watts,

"a British mother who has lived in the Netherlands for the past ten years," who

"thinks that the lower rate of teenage pregnancy there may have more to do with family structure than with sex education. Dutch children are five times less likely to be living in a family headed by a lone parent, divorce rates are far lower and fewer mothers are in full-time employment."

Laura Watts thinks:

"It is the family that makes the difference. Parents leave the office by 5pm in Holland and eat dinner with their children at 6pm."

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate and on producing such compelling evidence on the subject. The point he made about teenage pregnancies in New Zealand concerned me because my teenage daughter is there at the moment. Has he considered the lack of male role models in the education system—particularly in primary schools? Not long ago, I visited a primary school in my constituency and of 50 teaching staff, only one was male. Will the Government's proposals to increase sex education in primary schools not be counter-productive if there are no male teachers in schools?

Photo of Philip Davies Philip Davies Conservative, Shipley

As ever, my hon. Friend makes a valid and telling point. As he knows, I do not agree with the idea of giving people jobs based on their gender. I want the best people to be recruited to the teaching profession irrespective of whether they are male or female—as should be the case in any other profession. It is certainly of interest that although the Government are obsessed with having equal numbers of men and women in every single profession, they are not bothered that there are far more women primary school teachers.

Photo of Maria Miller Maria Miller Shadow Minister (Children, Young People and Families)

My hon. Friend mentioned the importance people in Holland put on having mum and dad at home for dinner time and he said that was a vital part of building a stable family life. Does he share my concern about recent comments made by the noble Lord Mandelson in the other place that the Government are considering walking away from their commitments to flexible working? That is the sort of policy that would help families achieve the balance that my hon. Friend is talking about.

Photo of Philip Davies Philip Davies Conservative, Shipley

I understand my hon. Friend's enthusiasm and if it were just a matter of sex education, I would have much sympathy with her point. However, I am conscious that many businesses are struggling in the current economic climate. I am not a big fan of adding huge amounts of red tape to a business's bottom line when it is struggling. It is understandable that businesses might want to shy away from such measures at the moment, but I accept the point that if we were simply looking at sex education, flexible working would certainly help.

The article in The Times goes on to make the telling point:

"The Dutch Government still penalises single mothers under 18, who are expected to live with their parents if they become pregnant. Until six years ago the Government gave them no financial support."

Perhaps people should reflect on whether the operation of the benefit system in Holland is a more important factor than providing lots of sex education in explaining why there is a low rate of teenage pregnancy in that country.

A lady called Mena Laura Meyer, who produced the seven-part documentary series "Sexy" for Dutch TV last year, says that sex education is the least relevant aspect of the country's success in having lower levels of teenage pregnancy than other European countries. The article in The Times ends:

"Maybe, instead of expecting schools to teach children morality and the missionary position, the British should adopt a few other Dutch lessons. Employers could encourage staff to go home at 5pm for a family supper," which was something my hon. Friend Mrs. Miller mentioned. The article continues,

"parents could discuss contraception with their children, and the BBC could ask David Attenborough to turn his attention to human reproduction."

Although I am not entirely comfortable with all those suggestions, they are probably all better than having a never-ending supply of sex education in our schools.

It would not be so bad if standards in our schools were so high that teachers had nothing but sex education to worry about. However, I am afraid that anything but that is true. The Government should be ashamed of the literacy and numeracy rates for school leavers. Some 2,500 pupils failed to achieve functional adequacy in English, and just under 3,500 failed to achieve functional literacy and numeracy. Surely, the Government should concentrate on ensuring that people can read and write when they leave school, rather than taking every opportunity to fill their heads with sex education, which is clearly making no difference whatever. As one parent said:

"We entrust our teachers to provide our children with a sound education in traditional subjects, not instruct them on explicit sexual matters, which they can neither cope with physically nor emotionally. With failing standards in reading and writing upon leaving primary school, the Government should concentrate on using valuable lesson time on improving the literacy skills of our children."

That is a very good point.

Photo of Mark Williams Mark Williams Shadow Minister (Innovation, Universities and Skills), Shadow Minister (Wales)

I have a bit of experience in this matter. Is the hon. Gentleman really suggesting that over a school year, five or six one-hour sessions in which a school nurse delivers broad-based sex and relationship education will undermine the teaching of other curriculum subjects? He has used words to the effect that the curriculum is full of sex education. The assumption that it is being taught every week or every day simply is not correct. It is taught in a cross-curricular manner, through the existing science curriculum and through personal studies and relationships and sex education. Huge amounts of the school day or week are not being spent on sex education.

Photo of Philip Davies Philip Davies Conservative, Shipley

Given the hon. Gentleman's experience and knowledge of the subject, I am sure that he will acknowledge that it is not the only extra-curricular activity that schools are being invited to do. They are invited to teach children about healthy eating. They are told that they have to teach children about community cohesion. The Government are placing all sorts of burdens on schools that take them away from their core job of teaching children the subjects parents want them to learn about when they are at school. Schools should not be teaching kids about things that parents are more than capable of teaching them. If we want parents to take responsibility for bringing up their children, we have to give them that responsibility. They will never take it on while the state takes it away from them.

Photo of Kerry McCarthy Kerry McCarthy PPS (Rt Hon Douglas Alexander, Secretary of State), Department for International Development

I perhaps should have asked this question at the beginning of the hon. Gentleman's speech. I am not clear exactly what he means by the term "sex education". Does that cover other aspects of relationships as well? I think the stance he is taking is that it should be parents who give all sorts of moral guidance to their children. In that case, does he think that schools should not be teaching them about such things as bullying, drugs or alcohol abuse? Is he saying that it should be only about history, geography, maths and English? Where is the border?

Photo of Philip Davies Philip Davies Conservative, Shipley

I think that the hon. Lady is being rather disingenuous. Of course, bullying is something that takes place in schools, so it is right and proper that the school makes clear what its bullying strategy is.

Photo of Philip Davies Philip Davies Conservative, Shipley

The hon. Lady is presumably admitting that sex education is not a great triumph if by her own admission sex is taking place at school. Presumably about five minutes after a sex education lesson is the likeliest time for it to take place. She is not providing a great advert for the success of sex education.

Voice, the education professionals' union, has said that

"it is essential that there is parental support for the way that schools deal with these sensitive issues...Schools...are being required to take on more of the responsibilities that really belong to parents, blurring the boundaries between education and social service...Schools are expected to compensate for parental shortcomings".

That surely is no way to go.

However, the Government—despite all the evidence that sex education is not really making any difference and is not making a great deal of difference in countries that claim that it is—insist on giving more and more sex education to younger and younger children. We hear that 14-year-old girls could be taught about their right to have an abortion. That is an idea from the Family Planning Association, to which I think the Government are sympathetic. They want to make sex education compulsory. That certainly is not the case in Italy and I do not believe that it is the case even in Holland—even the Dutch have not gone so far as to make it compulsory. The Government want more school-based clinics to administer jabs that can make girls infertile for up to three months.

Surely the message that the Government should be sending is that it is against the law to have sex under the age of 16—that should be it. We should not be saying that it is okay to have sex under the age of 16, so we will give young people all the tools that they might need to sort themselves out while they are indulging in it. Surely the Government cannot think that is a good message to give young people. What kind of leadership or strategy is that? It is totally offensive to most people.

The Minister is trying to slide compulsory sex education into our schools for children as young as five without proper consultation of parents, despite his promise in a letter to CARE—Christian Action, Research and Education—that

"there will be a full public consultation on any substantive recommendations made by the steering group, so that the full range of views and interests are taken into account".

That consultation did not take place. Many parents felt excluded from the process.

Photo of Jim Knight Jim Knight Minister of State (Schools and Learners), Department for Children, Schools and Families, Minister of State (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Schools and Learners)

I will set this point out more clearly when I respond to the debate, but we have put in an additional consultation process by setting up an expert group. However, no changes can be made to the curriculum without full and proper consultation, and we are still some way away from that taking place.

Photo of Philip Davies Philip Davies Conservative, Shipley

I hope that when the Minister responds to the debate, he will confirm that he will meet people and organisations that are not as enthusiastic about sex education as he is, to have a balanced consultation and to get a balanced representation of views. Rather than cherry-picking the people he wants to get responses from, he needs to meet some of the people who are concerned about more and more sex education in schools.

Let me quote the words of a few parents. One parent sent an e-mail to say:

"I can hardly believe that anyone, let alone a Government, would plan to enforce sex education on children in Primary Schools without any consultation with parents. This to me is abuse of the position they hold and will only encourage children much younger to experiment with sex...It's time for us as parents to stand up for our children. They are being robbed of their innocence and childhood."

Another parent said:

"I am horrified they are thinking of teaching SRE to five-year-olds without even asking parents what they think."

Another said:

"It's ridiculous that parents aren't given the chance to have their say. I will never allow my child to be exposed to SRE at such a young age, it will do more harm than good."

One parent said that they were "seriously considering home schooling" as a result of the plans. Do the Government really want to encourage that? Another parent said:

"It is scary that the government has failed to involve parents in this. It seems to be part of a general thrust by them to by-pass parents."

Another said:

"I think it's absolutely preposterous that parents haven't been consulted. This takes parental powers away and we should have the final say."

I have two children: one is five years old and the other is three. I certainly do not want them to be given sex education at the age of five—perhaps in the future, when that has not worked, the Minister will want to extend it to three-year-olds. The never-ending insistence that sex education is the only way forward is completely barmy, completely senseless, completely mindless. There is no evidence at all from anywhere in the world that it will help. The problem will continue to get worse, not better, until the Government accept that it is things such as family breakdown and the benefits system, not a lack of sex education in schools, that are driving the increased levels of teenage pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases. The present Government always go for the easy option, where they can look as though they are doing something without offending anybody. Well, if the Minister persists in insisting on more and more sex education in schools for younger and younger children, particularly at primary school, he will find that more people are offended by that than he thinks. It is time for the silent majority to make their voices known to the Minister.

Photo of Graham Allen Graham Allen Labour, Nottingham North 3:07 pm, 26th November 2008

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Gale, and a great pleasure to hear Philip Davies, who is known in the House for speaking his mind and being forthright, and long may that continue. None the less, certain responses need to be made when he states a particular view—a view with which I certainly disagree. He has given the Government strong advice today, and I am reminded of Oscar Wilde's saying, "Advice is the most precious gift of all because it is often given by those who need it most themselves." In talking about the facts of life, the hon. Gentleman may need to hear one or two facts of life from what is perhaps another planet for him—my constituency of Nottingham, North.

Nottingham, North has the highest number of teenage pregnancies not only in the UK, but in the whole of western Europe. That is a very serious problem to us. In my constituency, 218 teenage girls had a baby two years ago—the latest period for which figures are available. About 60 per cent. of babies are born out of wedlock in my constituency, which is a very high number; I think that the national average is 46 or 47 per cent. So, in many senses we are looking at a different world from the nuclear family that I suspect was the example that the hon. Gentleman had in mind.

Photo of Graham Allen Graham Allen Labour, Nottingham North

I will give way, but I must apologise, Mr. Gale, in that I need to leave the Chamber fairly swiftly after completing my remarks. I will not extend them as I normally do by giving way too often.

Photo of David Davies David Davies Conservative, Monmouth

I appreciate that. I wonder, as the hon. Gentleman has mentioned it, whether he thinks it a good or bad thing that so many people in his constituency are born out of wedlock.

Photo of Graham Allen Graham Allen Labour, Nottingham North

It is a real thing, which means that policy makers need to take account of it, whatever judgments we make of people. I do not judge any hon. Member in this Chamber for their own family arrangements and I think it is important that we ensure that where, as in this case, a majority of people are born out of wedlock, that is taken into account as we discuss policy.

What we really need is what the children of the hon. Member for Shipley have, which is social and emotional capability. They have that because he and his partner have provided love, care, attention and nurture for them, and they perhaps do not need assistance of the sort that many other children might need.

For example, if the hon. Gentleman were a single parent, or if, sadly, he passed on and left his wife in that situation, it would be a tougher call to ensure that those young people got the education they needed. I am sure he would manage it, but let us imagine for a second a young girl living on her own in one of the working class estates in my constituency, with no extended family and trying to raise a young baby. She clearly would not have the same advantages that I and the hon. Gentleman have had. There are times when assistance is needed.

That point leads me to the next part of my argument, about why sex and relationship education has a role to play.

Photo of Philip Davies Philip Davies Conservative, Shipley

Does the hon. Gentleman accept, given what he has just said, that parents should have the right to have their children opt out of sex education in schools, if they feel that it is not right for their child?

Photo of Graham Allen Graham Allen Labour, Nottingham North

I believe that in many places parents can do that, and schools can too. It should happen by consent. In my city, we are interested in putting together a broader package—not just sex and relationship education, and indeed not just personal, health and social education, which includes the broader relationship possibilities that are taught. We are interested in putting together for the 11 to 16-year-olds a life skills agenda, so that they can be socially and emotionally rounded people.

If someone has all the relevant social facilities—the ability to interact and converse, to resolve arguments without violence and to establish clear relationships, as well as an understanding of what it is like to have a family or a baby—that can be life-changing and life-moulding. Someone with those facilities can do well in life even without great qualifications. I think that great qualifications follow from them. If someone has the currency and vocabulary within them for such social interaction, the rest happens. Such people can create a good family and hold down a job; they will have attainments and, I hope, would go to university or college.

I know about the problems in this context from my constituency. One aspect is that we have the lowest number of people who go to university. That is not because of some innate problem with the people in my constituency. It is because often they do not get the chance to make good some of the disadvantages that they suffer, in their early years in particular.

It is important that sex and relationship education and other such education are given age-appropriately. The hon. Member for Shipley left in the air an inference that a five-year-old is taught the basics of reproduction. That is not and will not be the case. I feel that such education is very important, and I know that it must be done at an age-appropriate level. That means on occasion—perhaps in a constituency such as mine, with 218 teenagers having a baby in one year—that there is a need for them to know about abortion, contraception and the long-acting injection that can provide defence against pregnancy, and about chlamydia and sexually transmitted diseases.

If those people do not know about those things, they will, out of ignorance, make wrong life choices and there will be more little ones growing up like those the hon. Gentleman talked about. They will be in a similar position and the problem will worsen.

I agree that we should not be complacent about sex and relationship education. It has its deficiencies, but that is bad sex and relationship education. The hon. Gentleman's argument would be much stronger if he were urging better and improved sex and relationship education, which would benefit people. It is part of broader social and emotional development.

One of my criticisms of past Governments would be that they sometimes saw such education as merely a matter of the physical and reproductive, not as a question of relationships and the social interactions that are needed to develop effective people. Speaking as we are in the wake of the Baby P episode and the news of the family in Sheffield this morning, we are clearly not yet raising young people to be effective parents and to optimise their parenting ability. Heaven knows that not only do we need a short-term strategy for resolving the difficulties in particular processes and in particular cases, but that hon. Members need a strategic view on how to ensure that in generations to come we reduce the number of those one-off cases, and allow people to benefit and flourish as individuals, so that they can realise themselves as effective parents.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman on parental responsibility to this extent: there are those who cannot exercise the responsibility that he clearly does, and I hope everyone in the Chamber does, and we need to ensure that it is possible for everyone to do so. What is good enough for him and for me is good enough for the kids who are having children in my constituency. The help that they need is not just SRE and education on making good life choices.

Those young people, or young mothers—the hon. Gentleman talked about parents, and I do not mean to pick him up linguistically, but in my experience it is often more correct to talk about one parent—can benefit incredibly from having a one-to-one relationship with a health visitor who teaches them how to raise their child in a loving way, and teaches that child how to get the best out of school. That takes a little bit of money early on.

The hon. Gentleman may know that I am a disciple of early intervention. A pound spent in the early days is worth £100 spent later on. Primary SEAL—social and emotional aspects of learning—enables young people who do not get the relevant learning at home to learn the basics of how to get on in life and what to do socially to make the best of themselves.

I have one minor criticism of the Government, but I must preface it by saying that this Government, and above all the Minister, have done incredible things in the relevant area. The criticism relates to the space that schools and head teachers need to teach the subject effectively. If they teach SRE and social and emotional development effectively, they will be able to improve their scores. It is not a matter of either/or. It is not possible to crank up achievement without doing something with the raw material and helping youngsters to get better socially and emotionally so that they have the ability to learn.

I ask the Minister to think carefully about ensuring that when we introduce PHSE—I hope it will be called something that mums can understand, and I suggest life skills, not SRE, PHSE or any of the acronyms that we have to confuse people—heads know that they have the space within the curriculum to cover it effectively. That would be a fantastic contribution.

Are parents adequately trained? Are teachers adequately trained? I must agree that no, often they are not. We need to spend much more money on ensuring that teachers are comfortable in talking about sexual intercourse, contraception, abortion or relationship-building, rather than knocking out a few things on the photocopier, handing them out and sending the kids home early. That is no good for anyone. Equally, parents, too, sometimes need to feel a little more relaxed so that they can talk spontaneously to their children about such matters.

The hon. Gentleman threw in several ideas that would complement what the Government are doing. It is not a matter of either/or. By all means, let us see whether we can get David Attenborough to do a documentary. I do not have a problem with that. Perhaps the Minister can take that idea away and ask Sir David to do a video. We are doing a great video with single mums in Nottingham, funded by One Nottingham, the organisation that I chair. We are going to do one for absent fathers too.

Why should not absent fathers know that there is a consequence, and a benefit consequence, to their actions? Perhaps we have gone in the wrong direction in the past six months in letting people off the hook. That word of mouth has gone and young people—young boys, certainly—have been allowed to think that there is a free hit here. If they think there is no free hit, there is more likely to be the self-discipline, even after a few drinks, that most people manage to achieve.

I am outstaying my welcome, Mr. Gale, so I shall finish on this note: the choice put in hon. Members' minds by the hon. Gentleman—he made his case honestly and forthrightly, and should be respected for doing so—is between education and ignorance. From my standpoint, I believe that the more people know and the more they understand, the more they will make the right life decisions. The less they know and the less they understand, the more likely it is that my statistic of 218 teenage mums in a year will go up rather than down.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman does not lose his edge, but I hope, too, that he understands why, in this instance, some of us strongly disagree with him.

Photo of David Davies David Davies Conservative, Monmouth 3:21 pm, 26th November 2008

I am grateful to have the opportunity to follow two interesting speakers. The first was my hon. Friend Philip Davies, who bravely raised an important issue. The second was Mr. Allen, who may have put his finger on the core of the problem. However, I shall try to put it in a slightly more tactful way than the hon. Gentleman.

There certainly is a problem in our society at the moment, with young women's pregnancies being caused by young males—as we heard, not always once but sometimes on multiple occasions. The children are effectively being brought up by the state. Those who are parents can imagine how difficult it must be for young, inexperienced teenagers to bring up children on a deprived council estate.

I always try to avoid using the term "single mother" or phrases such as "out of wedlock". They are rather emotive, and I assume that all hon. Members would agree that it is completely unfair to stigmatise someone who happens to be a single mother. There are all sorts of reasons for women ending up as single mothers. Indeed, most single mothers do an extremely good job in bringing up their children. We are not talking today about single mothers; we are talking about a particular problem that is confined to deprived estates, where people are having more than one child.

People make mistakes. Women can become pregnant because of one-off mistakes. We should not be too judgmental about that, either, as I suspect that many in this room will have been in the position of waiting for a phone call to find out if they were about to become parents rather sooner than expected. That is life. That is reality. However, some young people living in deprived areas think that it is perfectly reasonable, acceptable or even normal to have one child after another, often by different fathers. That is unacceptable, and society needs to be able to say something about it—and not only to those young women but very much to the young men. That is the sort of problem that we are trying to address today.

The question is whether more sex education in schools is the answer. It is obvious from the trade in statistics that we heard that more sex education is not the answer. There is no statistical evidence to suggest it. Kerry McCarthy asked what the link was between less sex education and lower pregnancy rates. That question needs to be directed at the Government. They will not be able to show a link. The hon. Member for Nottingham, North spoke of the increase in under-age pregnancies and babies being born out of wedlock in his constituency, but the reality is that there is far more sex education now in his constituency than there was 20 years ago, so the answer is not more sex education.

Photo of Evan Harris Evan Harris Shadow Minister (Science), Innovation, Universities and Skills

I am sorry to have missed the start of the debate, although I watched Philip Davies on the annunciator screen, and I congratulate him on securing this debate.

Is David T.C. Davies saying that the answer to the problem of unwanted teenage pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases is more ignorance? That is the opposite of what is being proposed, with more information being given through sex and relationships education.

Photo of David Davies David Davies Conservative, Monmouth

No, the answers to dealing with more teenage pregnancies and sexually transmitted disease were eloquently put by my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley. We need to look at the benefits system, the over-sexualisation of society and changing the culture in which we live, and not simply employing more sex education workers to do what they presumably have not been doing very well for the past 20 years.

Photo of Philip Davies Philip Davies Conservative, Shipley

Dr. Harris made the same point as Mr. Allen—that it is either more education or more ignorance. That would make sense if we were starting from the year dot and trying to decide whether or not to introduce sex education. However, we have had sex education for 20 or 30 years and the problem has got worse, which indicates that what the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon proposes—more sex education or more ignorance—is not the real choice.

Photo of David Davies David Davies Conservative, Monmouth

I agree with my hon. Friend. As far as we can tell, there is no link between sex education and a reduction in teenage pregnancies, abortion or under-age sex—unless the hon. Gentleman can enlighten me further.

Photo of Evan Harris Evan Harris Shadow Minister (Science), Innovation, Universities and Skills

I think that there is evidence, and I am sure that we will hear of it in some of the summating speeches. More information and age-appropriate language early on—before the giggle factor prevents us transmitting that information—equips young people to resist peer pressure to have sex. We live in the society that we live in, and I regret some of its factors as much as the hon. Gentleman. However, given where we are, surely we must equip young people with knowledge and self-confidence; more ignorance is not the way forward, given the society and the media that we have today.

Photo of David Davies David Davies Conservative, Monmouth

I would be interested to go down that route, talking about Liberal Democrat policies and the sort of culture that we live in and how it may or may not benefit us. However, Mr. Gale, I suspect that you would stop me.

I am not against having some form of sex education in secondary schools, although I might differ slightly from my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley on that question. My big concern is sex education in primary schools. As a father of three children under the age of 10, I think it completely inappropriate that primary schools should be expected to provide it.

It is a cliché, but I believe that schools should concentrate on reading, writing and arithmetic. The statistics given by my hon. Friend are indisputable. One in five people leaving school at the age of 16 is unable to read and write properly. A report in 2005 suggested that one in three children at the age of 11 was unable to state what a paragraph was, or put commas in the right place. That suggests to me that schools are not doing properly the job that we expect of them. I went to a state primary school in my constituency, and I was able to read by the age of six. The schools in my constituency attended by my children are good, but the schools in many areas are failing. We are now expecting them to undertake sex education as well.

It comes down to the fundamental question, what are the roles of the school and of the parent? I believe that the school's role is to impart basic educational knowledge to children. It is the parents' role to decide what young children should be taught about sex, and what their young children should be taught about the facts of life. It is not only the role of the parents; it is their right. That is why I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley for raising the subject today.

Photo of Annette Brooke Annette Brooke Shadow Spokesperson (Children, Schools and Families), Shadow Minister (Education) 3:28 pm, 26th November 2008

I congratulate Philip Davies on securing this debate. However, I do not like the title, which is not a good starting point. I believe that we should never talk about sex and relationships, but always about sex and relationship education. The two must go together.

At times during the hon. Gentleman's speech, I felt that I was living in a parallel universe, but I agree with some aspects of what he said. I am passionate about supporting the family, whatever shape or size it is. Family stability and loving relationships within the family are so important, and I certainly value the aspect of a family sitting around the table and dining together. On that point, the hon. Gentleman and I do not differ.

I, too, refer to some of the stark facts. I start with teenage pregnancy rates. The United Kingdom has the highest teenage birth and abortion rates in Europe. Rates of teenage births here are six times those in the Netherlands, nearly three times those in France and more than twice those in Germany. I have said before that the Government are to be congratulated on having a teenage pregnancy strategy, which seeks to tackle the causes and the consequences of teenage pregnancy. Teenage conception rates have fallen to their lowest level for 20 years, but we have a long way to go.

Until last month, the Government had resisted a commitment to make personal, social and health education, including sex and relationship education, a compulsory part of the national curriculum. I have raised this cause at every possible opportunity since being elected. Education must be a vital part of the teenage pregnancy strategy, and I welcome the Government's conversion, at long last.

I was extremely distressed when the latest abortion figures were published. In Britain, the number of abortions performed on under-16s rose by 10 per cent. last year to 4,376. For under-14s, there has been a 21 per cent. increase, and half of all pregnancies in under-18s end in abortion. I am not an anti-abortionist, but having an abortion at such a young age cannot be a good start to life. We need more information on sexually transmitted infections. We cannot allow young people to remain in ignorance. Every statistic on most sexually transmitted infections shows that we have the highest diagnosis rate among women aged 16 to 19. Indeed, 12 per cent. of women in that age group are infected with chlamydia.

Today's question is: cause and effect—which way around? Obviously I do not support the argument that sex education has led to the current situation. We have not had adequate sex and relationship education in this country, but of course other factors are at play. However, the key is quality sex and relationship education by trained teachers who wish to do it. We also need to involve other professionals and young people.

To counter the points made by the hon. Member for Shipley, we need look no further than the United Kingdom Youth Parliament survey, which throws light on the causal relationship. Twenty two thousand teenagers were surveyed, more than 70 per cent. of whom rated the teaching of sex education in school as poor, very poor or merely average, while only a quarter said that it was good. Furthermore, nearly half said that they had never been taught about the effects of teenage pregnancy and would not know where to find their local sexual health clinic. The survey also revealed that 55 per cent. of all 12 to 15-year-olds, and 57 per cent. of girls between 16 and 17, had not been taught how to use a condom, despite a Government recommendation on that issue.

Overall, 55 per cent. of respondents said that they had been taught about teenage pregnancy, leaving just less than half who had not. Many of the young people to whom UKYP spoke while carrying out the survey felt that they knew about how having a baby could impact on their lives, but knew little about the development of a baby in the womb and about the impact that pregnancy could have on their bodies. Most alarmingly, as has already been alluded to, 61 per cent. of boys and 70 per cent. of girls over the age of 17, and 43 per cent. of all the children surveyed, reported having not received any information at school about personal relationships.

A study earlier this year by UNICEF, and further work by the National Children's Bureau and the Sex Education Forum, reinforce those points. The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children has also produced some very interesting material. A snapshot of calls to ChildLine in May 2008 showed that nearly 50 children a day call because they feel under pressure to have sex or lack basic knowledge about sexual health, relationships, pregnancy and puberty. Children as young as 12 call to talk to a counsellor because they are worried that they might be pregnant and lack the facts about safer sex, sexual relationships and peer pressure. Some girls say that they feel pressurised into having sex before they are ready.

Those callers to ChildLine, like the rest of us, live in a highly sexualised culture and are influenced by media and marketing, but they are not being equipped to deal with the pressures. Alcohol also comes into the equation. Young people sometimes use alcohol to cope and become more vulnerable as a result. Their lives are complex, and they need knowledge, advice and support to help them to avoid engaging in sexual activity that they later regret.

I declare that I am an ambassador for the NSPCC and the views that I shall put forward are not only those of the NSPCC, but very strongly mine. Children need to learn from an early age about appropriate behaviour and how to stay safe in relationships. PSHE needs to receive dedicated teaching time to enable teachers to use different strategies to help children and young people to develop the necessary skills. That should help young people to build their self-esteem and make informed choices in later life. Children and young people should be given the opportunity to gain some understanding about abuses of power and inappropriate and dangerous relationships, and learn what support is available. They need to understand why it is not appropriate to tolerate abuses of power within a relationship, and should be given clear examples of such behaviour, such as child abuse, rape and domestic abuse.

I believe passionately that sex and relationship education should begin at five. Much has been made in the press about sex education for five-year-olds—"condoms for five-year-olds!"—but I shall explain why I believe that it should start at age five. During deliberations on the Sexual Offences Act 2003 and the police parliamentary scheme, in which I participated—I spent time with the Metropolitan police's child protection unit—I learned a great deal about things that I did not know even happened. For example, a child living in an abnormal family does not know that they are living in abnormal circumstances, because they do not have a yardstick by which to measure normality. I came across an example of a child brought up in a household where pornographic material was being made and assembled. That child went out into the street and engaged in a sexual activity with a dog. I rest my case! We need appropriate education at five describing what normal touching is and what normal relationships are.

As education progresses we must emphasise qualities within relationships, such as self-esteem, self-respect, respect for others, honesty, choice and so on. We must give young people the ability to make their own choices and have the confidence to say "no". I have some more examples: one 16-year-old boy told ChildLine that he had had unprotected sex with a girl for a dare and was now concerned that he might have caught a disease. A 14-year-old girl said that her boyfriend wanted to have sex with her, but that she did not know how to do it. Another young girl rang to say that she was worried that she was pregnant after she did not dare to say "no" to sex with her boyfriend in case he dumped her.

We must not underestimate the importance of those points. Members will gather that I have been passionate about this issue for a long time. However, the answer is not just sex and relationship education, but in the whole PSHE programme. A range of health issues must be taught relative to age, maturity and understanding, including emotional and health well-being, diet and exercise, alcohol, tobacco, drugs, careers and safety. Sex and relationship education is just one part of that—but never should it be just sex education, without the "relationship".

Working with parents is vital. I would not imagine such education being introduced without full parental consultation. Schools should run individual schemes. Work force training is also vital, because no teacher should have to teach a subject on which they are not confident. Furthermore, we must make full use of professionals and young people. I commend the Government on setting up the committee. It delays the introduction of that sort of education, but this time they are right, because it will ensure that the content and any exemptions are firmly discussed.

Photo of Maria Miller Maria Miller Shadow Minister (Children, Young People and Families) 3:39 pm, 26th November 2008

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Gale, on this important debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend Philip Davies on securing it. He always speaks powerfully on behalf of his constituents and is always willing to put his point of view, for which we should applaud him.

My hon. Friend correctly identifies the worsening problems that we face in this country, and the fact that many parents want a close involvement in this part of their children's upbringing. He referred in some detail to examples from Italy and Holland. He rightly pointed out that family structure and stable family environments can do much to help children have a better start in life and to help them make good decisions about the way in which their lives will develop and progress.

It is a shame that the Government have not paid more attention to how we can support stable family environments. There are too many policies, such as the couple penalty, which deter couples from coming together and staying together and providing the sort of stable environment about which my hon. Friend talks. I think that he makes some very important and powerful points.

Annette Brooke talked compellingly about the deterioration in some areas. In particular, she mentioned the 69 per cent. increase in sexually transmitted infections over the past decade. We have the highest level of teenage pregnancies in western Europe, and the number of teenage abortions has increased by 15 per cent. in the past five years. Those statistics should concern us all, and I echo the views eloquently expressed by my hon. Friend David T.C. Davies in his contribution.

The pivotal point of the debate is whether or not sex education works. Speaking from the Conservative Front Bench, I say that it should work. At the moment, however, there is plenty of room for improvement. For more than six years, Ofsted has been calling for sex and relationship education to be taught by teachers who know how to deliver the subject and, more appropriately, by specialists who have the sort of experience to make a difference in this area.

I know that the Minister understands the importance of the matter, and has been dissatisfied with the progress that has been made in this area. I will be interested to hear what he has to say today because he has done a great deal of work to improve an unacceptable situation. None the less, I should like him to pick up on a couple of points. I am concerned that too much emphasis has been placed on making sex and relationship education a statutory subject. It is seen as a panacea for the way in which we will improve the current situation. As my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley says, sex education is not something that will be dealt with in the same way in every school, community and family. Simply by saying that the subject will be compulsory will not make it more effective. It is a sticking plaster and something that grabs a headline rather than providing a solution.

Two or three years ago, Ofsted said that making something statutory—this was in the context of sex and relationship education—does not ensure that it is effective. That is correct. While the Minister considers a number of other measures to improve the effectiveness of sex and relationship education, I urge him not to see making it statutory as some sort of panacea that will solve all ills, because he will be disappointed.

I was quite disappointed that the recent report from the Government seemed to side step the role of parents. As my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley said, parents want to have an important role in this part of their children's lives. For many parents, it can be a difficult issue to talk about. Others, however, want to ensure that they have control over the way in which sex and relationships are talked about, particularly to young children. Like my hon. Friend, I have a six-year-old and I know that I want to talk to him about the matter in a way that is proper and right.

Photo of Philip Davies Philip Davies Conservative, Shipley

My hon. Friend will note that the Liberal Democrats, who did not want to indulge in a debate on the subject, showed that they were neither liberal nor democratic because they support making the subject compulsory. Can my hon. Friend tell me why the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole and the Minister know so much more than their constituents or I about how to bring up children and how to tell them about such things? Surely, parents should be the ones to decide what is right for their children, and not Ministers or Liberal Democrat spokesmen.

Photo of Maria Miller Maria Miller Shadow Minister (Children, Young People and Families)

I share my hon. Friend's concern that parents may feel that they are being marginalised in the process. At the moment, we are fortunate that very few parents withdraw their children from sex and relationship education—I think that it is less than 1 per cent. The Government must understand how that might change if sex and relationship education were made statutory. I know from talking to various organisations that in cases in which the issues are a little sensitive—either for cultural or any other reasons—ways are found to ensure that children have the information that they may require. If the subject is made statutory, will that flexibility still be there? I will be interested to hear what the Minister has to say about that. The last thing that he wants to do is to push more parents than currently is the case towards excluding their children from such discussions.

It is important that we understand the concerns of the teaching profession when it comes to sex and relationship education. Too many feel that there is inappropriate, or insufficient, training to be able to undertake the roles that they are all too often given in school. I urge the Minister to consider the work done by organisations such as Relate in developing good, solid, very professionally developed course work that can be delivered in a way that will help children to understand such important issues.

I urge the Minister to reassure us about the role of parents within this process, and pick up on some of the points that my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley has made. Will he also talk about the importance of age- appropriateness? I probably share the concerns of the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole that some of the media coverage on the matter has been less than helpful. Perhaps the Minister should shoulder some of the blame for that. It is important that the media is on our side and working with us. A great variety of briefings went out to various newspapers at the time of the Government statement, and there was a great broadness of interpretation as to what would happen. I know that the Rose review will consider the content of sex and relationship education. I hope that the Minister can reassure us that that will not include primary school-age children being exposed to inappropriate sexual material, because that is very important.

I should like to pick up on the importance of relationships in sex education. In her intervention, Kerry McCarthy mentioned the Youth Parliament. It is important to ensure that sex education is delivered in the context of relationship education. That is something that has been lacking and has been picked up in the Youth Parliament's work. It is important that we have a good structure for young people in this country to learn about appropriate behaviour.

In the past couple of weeks, the headlines have been talking about the increasing problems of inappropriate behaviour. There has been a worrying increase in the numbers of children who witness domestic violence, and who are abused and neglected. There is a powerful argument for parenting skills to be included in the sort of relationship education that we are talking about. That argument was put powerfully to me by a group of students who were studying children's care in education at Basingstoke college of technology. I ask the Minister to consider in detail the proposals that they have put forward.

Time is running out, so I should like to end by applauding the contribution of Mr. Allen. He had to leave to be in a meeting elsewhere. As always, he made a very powerful case for the importance of earlier intervention in such cases.

In closing, I should like to say that my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley is right to question whether we are being effective in what we are doing here. He is right to make us debate and consider in detail some of these issues. I urge him always to challenge us and to bring his thoughts on such issues to the fore. It is right that all communities have a different approach. We must ensure that that flexibility continues and that the Government instil flexibility in the systems that are used for sex and relationship education.

Photo of Jim Knight Jim Knight Minister of State (Schools and Learners), Department for Children, Schools and Families, Minister of State (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Schools and Learners) 3:49 pm, 26th November 2008

I thank Philip Davies for securing this debate. He made an interesting and provocative speech. He seemed to spend the first half arguing that higher rates of teenage pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections in this country were due to sex education and the second half arguing that low rates elsewhere had nothing to do with sex education.

My hon. Friend Mr. Allen gave a thoughtful speech based on his experience representing an area where the consequences of inadequate sex and relationship education are acute. I was particularly struck by his phrase "The more they know, the more they understand." That is the basis of our argument.

David T.C. Davies repeated some of the misconceptions about the quality of schooling in this country. Perhaps, because he does not represent an English constituency, he is not fully aware that this year, for example, 88 per cent. of 11-year-olds achieved the national standard of level 4 in their SATs in reading. Every year, 100,000 more young people leave primary school able to read, write and add up than when his party was last in power.

Annette Brooke gave a passionate speech and usefully set out the detail of what the UK Youth Parliament says on the matter in its authoritative work. Mrs. Miller made a welcome speech, and I appreciate her constructive approach. I will certainly consider the proposals that Basingstoke college of technology came up with. The new personal, social, health and economic education programme of study on personal well-being includes the roles and responsibilities of parents, carers and children, but at the moment, obviously, it is non-statutory.

Sex education is a serious subject that we should not shy away from, which is why I welcome this debate. It is the Government's ambition not only to build a world-class education and children's services system for our young people but to make this country the best place in the world to grow up. Sex and relationships are a crucial part of the process of growing up, and our approach to those relationships, the choices that we make and our ability to keep ourselves safe is what marks us as independent, free-thinking adults. All are fundamentals of any good education.

It is no less than part of our moral duty to teach young people how to relate one another, keep themselves safe and treat each other with respect in order to stand them in good stead for happiness and success in later life. Sex and relationship education is a vital part of that, and it is particularly important for young people growing up in the highly sexualised climate of this country in this century. Mass marketing aimed at children, a celebrity and image-conscious culture, T-shirts for girls as young as six reading "So many boys, so little time", magazines, soaps and music videos create an increasingly sexualised climate in which young people are regularly confronted with sex in some form.

It is vital that we get the other side of the story across—information about sex and relationships, advice on how young people can keep themselves safe and straight answers to their questions—so that they are well equipped to cultivate meaningful relationships and make safe choices. In the classic comedy series, Blackadder proudly declares himself to be

"a fully rounded human being with a degree from the university of life, a diploma from the school of hard knocks and three gold stars from the kindergarten of getting the shit kicked out of me".

Our children's social and emotional development cannot be as haphazard as that. By the time they get to the university of life, it is too late. It is particularly important during those years when young people are tempted to experiment with alcohol, drugs, cigarettes and other things, and when they are operating within different social situations and the parameters of peer pressure. Our education system must not shy away from the task of preparing young people for life as fully rounded human beings.

That is why, following the sex and relationship education review that I chaired and whose report was published last month, we took the decision to make PSHE statutory in order to ensure that every child benefits from high-quality education on those issues and to establish greater consistency across the country, so that those not receiving good advice at home get it at school.

Photo of Philip Davies Philip Davies Conservative, Shipley

What gives the Minister the right to know better how to bring up my child than I do as that child's parent? Why does he insist on making it compulsory? Why can he not allow parents to decide for themselves what is in their own children's best interests?

Photo of Jim Knight Jim Knight Minister of State (Schools and Learners), Department for Children, Schools and Families, Minister of State (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Schools and Learners)

As I will go on to say, parents certainly need to be actively engaged with schools in how it is delivered, but we need greater consistency because some are not getting good enough advice at home.

We need consistency to help us to make inroads in three major areas. First, we will be able to provide better-quality and more consistent advice, something that young people themselves tell us that they want. We heard from the UK Youth Parliament report that 40 per cent. of the 20,000 young people who responded on sex and relationship education rated the information that they received as poor or very poor. That is not good enough. By requiring schools to provide high-quality PSHE, we can raise standards across the board and increase the priority that it receives in schools.

Secondly, high-quality PSHE education will help us make major inroads into tackling some of the wider social issues that we face, such as rising rates of sexually transmitted diseases, obesity, aggression, violence and teenage pregnancy, the rate of which, although falling, is still high compared to other European countries. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, we want sex and relationship education to help build a partnership between parents and their children as they approach the issues. At the moment, almost a third of teens—I say this to the hon. Member for Shipley—say that sex is not discussed openly at home. We want to help parents address the issues with their children.

Photo of Jim Knight Jim Knight Minister of State (Schools and Learners), Department for Children, Schools and Families, Minister of State (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Schools and Learners)

I really do not have time, I am afraid.

I know that some people are concerned that talking about sex might give young people ideas, but the fact is that they are having those ideas anyway. There is strong international evidence that comprehensive SRE, linked to easier access to contraception when young people become sexually active, results in lower teenage pregnancy rates. That is the strategy that we have used in this country since the teenage pregnancy strategy was introduced, with good results. Our teenage pregnancy rates are at their lowest for 20 years.

I quote an academic study by Douglas Kirby last year on positive outcomes from comprehensive SRE:

"Virtually all of the comprehensive programs also had a positive impact on one or more factors affecting behaviour. In particular, they improved factors such as knowledge about risks and consequences of pregnancy and STD; values and attitudes about having sex and using condoms or contraception; perception of peer norms about sex and contraception; confidence"— crucially—

"in the ability to say 'no' to unwanted sex, to insist on using condoms or contraception or to actually use condoms or contraception; intention to avoid sex or use contraception; and communication with parents or other adults about these topics."

That is the international evidence. In contrast, there is no evidence that abstinence-only education is effective. A recent study examining the role of abstinence and contraceptive use in the decline in US teenage pregnancy rates found that 86 per cent. of the decline was due to improved use of contraception. It is also the case that children whose parents talk to them honestly about sex and relationships are less likely to have sex before 16 and more likely to use contraception when they do.

It is clearly better for our young people to get their information from parents and professionals than from their friend's ill-informed brother or the hushed rumours of the locker room. It is clearly better to rely on facts in the classroom rather than myths in the playground. Given that young people spend only 15 per cent. of their time in school, parents are clearly our most valuable partners in educating young people. PSHE needs to be a partnership between parents and schools. We want parents to have greater input and to influence the content of schools' SRE programmes.

However, it is also important to view SRE in its proper context. Our announcement was not that sex education only would be made statutory; it included personal, social, health and economic education. There has been much comment in the media and elsewhere that we are focusing on sex education for five-year-olds. That is not accurate, and it misses the point. We have always been clear that any teaching in that area must be age-appropriate. The focus in primary school is on giving children the skills that they need to develop and sustain positive relationships. Those skills will be taught in the context of relationships with family and friends, and they are the same skills that will help them to develop positive, mutually respectful sexual relationships in later life.

There is plenty more that I would love to say about what we want to do to improve the quality of delivery, staff training and so on, but time escapes me. In conclusion, as we continue to build a world-class education system, we must also create an environment in which young people feel able to discuss issues important to them, understand the risks that they face as they make the transition to adulthood and have the confidence and knowledge to keep themselves healthy and safe.

Sex and relationships are a part of life. Sex education needs to be more than just a biology lesson; it must reflect the issues that young people face, enhance their social and emotional development and be relevant to the complex issues of sexuality and different types of relationships that they face in this century. If we get it right, the lessons learned at school will stay with them for the rest of their lives. Although Euclidean geometry and the dates of the English civil war may fade from memory, the knowledge of how to practise safe sex will not.


A parent writes persuasively at: "I think if parents are to be successful in raising counter-cultural kids, they need to work out how their kids are going to survive the indoctrination offered by the school system - or else remove them from the line of fire........... At the top of my mind today is sex education. We had a parents’ evening meeting about it at my childrens’ junior school, and I was frankly outraged at what is being done.As part of this, we were shown a ‘tasteful’ video which the kids were going to see, including a cartoon couple having sex. If anyone but a teacher were to make my kids watch videos of people having sex, he would be put on the sex offenders’ register. We were also given a handout which included the claim that ‘Research has shown that sex education helps to reduce teenage sexual activity.’ When questioned the head was unable to refer me to that research - he had simply copied the quotation out of the booklet supplied with the video. To his credit he was embarrassed to admit this... On further examination, the booklet offered no reference to research to back up the claim either. Moreover the booklet was produced by Brook. Much of the research evidence I have seen suggests that early and explicit sex education is a co-factor with early sexual activity, as is the provision of the services that Brook offers. In an age of evidence-based medicine it is extraordinary that the response to the failure of the government’s sex education strategy (soaring levels of STDs among teenagers, for example) is to try more of the same.... I had a further meeting with the head, who admitted the school’s policy was a fudge, and I sent him this letter as a follow up... Dear Mr ********** Sex and Relationships Education Thank you for making time to see me at such short notice this morning, and also for the courtesy and understanding with which you discussed my concerns. As I mentioned, [my wife] and I having discussed this further, we would now like to confirm that we will be withdrawing [our children] from all parts of this programme which are not compulsory as part of the National Curriculum. I thought it might be helpful to summarise those concerns, as you mentioned you may wish to discuss them with the County Advisor. The primary concern is the ideological one. On one side there are those like me who believe that we should be educating our children for life-long monogamous marriages; on the other, those who want to see children as informed, active, consumers of sex. ...

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