Sex and Relationship Education

– in Westminster Hall at 11:00 am on 25th October 2011.

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Photo of Andrea Leadsom Andrea Leadsom Conservative, South Northamptonshire 11:00 am, 25th October 2011

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mr Amess. I am delighted to have secured a debate on the important issue of what is being taught in our primary schools about sex and relationships. There is no doubt that children need to be taught about sex and how to be responsible and safe, as we try to tackle issues such as teenage pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases. However, experiences in my constituency, as well as organisations’ campaigns such as “Too much, too young,” have highlighted material being used that is completely inappropriate and that sends out totally the wrong message.

At the moment, schools often ask their local authorities to recommend material, but there is no process for sourcing age-appropriate material; instead, material that may be completely inappropriate is provided by unlicensed suppliers for use in primary schools. At a time when there is widespread concern about the sexualisation of childhood, using sexually explicit and inappropriate materials in primary school classrooms can only make things worse.

The aim of holding this debate is, first, to call on the Government to make sure that material taught in primary schools is appropriate, not sexually explicit and not exploitative of our young children. Secondly, I would like to ensure that school governors are required to be actively aware of what kind of material is being used in their schools and to take a sensible and responsible view on the matter. Thirdly, and most importantly, I want parents to be able genuinely to have their say and to be made actively aware of what kind of sex education is being taught to their children. I want there to be a system whereby parents take a decision on whether to allow their children to be taught sex education and have to opt into the lessons, rather than having to opt out as is the currently the case.

Before I am accused of putting too great a burden on hard-working parents, let us not forget that all of us with school-age children—I have three of my own—are expected to sign up proactively to music lessons and school trips. Therefore why should we not have to proactively sign up to one of the most important learning experiences of a child’s early life?

Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Shadow Minister (Education)

Notwithstanding the hon. Lady’s point about the opt-out for parents, does she think that all primary schools should teach sex and relationship education?

Photo of Andrea Leadsom Andrea Leadsom Conservative, South Northamptonshire

It should be for the schools, the parents and the governors to make that decision as is appropriate for their school. There is no one-size-fits-all solution.

Moving on, at the moment, parents can only choose to opt out of SRE, and I have been given several examples in my constituency alone of instances where parents have been made to feel extremely uncomfortable for deciding that they do not want their children to attend SRE lessons.

I am a huge fan of our Government’s localism agenda and I want to make it clear that I am not trying to change the way decision-making for SRE is delegated to schools and parents. It is entirely right that we should trust our local communities to run local services and to make the correct decisions. I also absolutely do not advocate censorship and do not want central Government dictating to every school what is appropriate. However, guidance should be given to aid local authorities, school governors and parents in finding the right material to use in SRE in our primary schools.

So what is the best form of guidance? We already have the perfect template that we can follow and implement with minimal distraction or disturbance: that of the British Board of Film Classification. That organisation does an excellent job of classifying films, videos and DVDs, and it has done so since it was set up in 1912. The BBFC gives guidance on what is suitable for certain ages in cinemas and for home viewing. It is important to note that rather than being a body of censorship, the main job of the BBFC is to guide and classify films. Statutory powers on film remain with local councils, which may overrule any of the BBFC’s decisions. Local councils can pass films the BBFC rejects, ban films it has passed and even waive cuts, institute new ones or alter categories for films exhibited under their own licensing jurisdiction.

The BBFC bases its classifications on three main qualifications. First, it considers whether the material is lawful. Secondly, it considers whether the availability of the material at the age group concerned is clearly unacceptable to broad public opinion. It is on that basis, for example, that the BBFC intervenes in respect of bad language. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, it considers whether the material either on its own or in combination with other content of a similar nature may cause any harm at the category—in other words, the age—concerned. That includes not only any harm that may result from the behaviour of potential viewers, but any moral harm that may be caused by, for example, desensitising a potential viewer to the effects of violence, degrading a potential viewer’s sense of empathy, encouraging a dehumanised view of others, suppressing pro-social attitudes, encouraging anti-social attitudes, reinforcing unhealthy fantasies, or eroding a sense of moral responsibility.

Those criteria are all directly taken from the BBFC’s categorisation of its own activities. Regarding children, harm may also include retarding social and moral development, distorting a viewer’s sense of right and wrong, and limiting their capacity for compassion. All of those things are taken into account in the BBFC classifications and I would like those criteria to be applied to the material being used in our primary schools to teach SRE. The BBFC, with its 99 years of experience, should be asked to implement such measures.

So why do I think that that is necessary? Currently, schools are teaching SRE to young children with the best of intentions. However, it has been brought to my attention by numerous people in different organisations that some of the material being taught to children as young as five is completely inappropriate. I have seen cartoons of two people engaged in sexual activity with the caption:

“here are some ways mummies and daddies fit together”.

Other images depict two cartoon characters locked in an intimate embrace accompanied by a vivid explanation, using sexual terminology, of the act of intercourse. As well as cartoons, I have been shown a video of two people engaged in intercourse with a child’s voice over the top saying, “It looks like they’re having fun”. I have also been shown leaflets given out to primary school children that give graphic definitions of orgasms, masturbation and prostitution. That is the kind of material being taught to children as young as five and there are accounts of the traumatic experiences of those children, who have been put off having boyfriends and been left thinking, “Do grown-ups really do this? It looks absolutely horrific.”

Photo of Diana R. Johnson Diana R. Johnson Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

I am listening very carefully to what the hon. Lady is saying. Has she come across some of the very good materials being used in the classroom that concentrate not on the biology of sex, but on relationships, children being kept safe, appropriate touching and things like that? For a five-year-old, that is much more important than the obsession some people have with the biology of sex.

Photo of Andrea Leadsom Andrea Leadsom Conservative, South Northamptonshire

I completely agree with the hon. Lady on that point. Of course, there is some excellent material. As I said, schools are teaching SRE with the very best of intentions. The problem is that there is no licensing regime and no sense of appropriateness of the material. A wide-range of material is used, with varying amounts of intervention and careful analysis by schools, parents and governors.

Photo of Stephen Gilbert Stephen Gilbert Liberal Democrat, St Austell and Newquay

My hon. Friend says, on the one hand, that she wants to see a national licensing system and, on the other hand, that she thinks schools should be able to decide for themselves. Are those two positions compatible?

Photo of Andrea Leadsom Andrea Leadsom Conservative, South Northamptonshire

I think that they are. I am not talking about a national licensing regime; I am simply talking about material that is used in schools being rated as age appropriate by the BBFC. By the same token, I do not know if my hon. Friend has any children, but if he does and he wanted them to watch 18-rated videos when they were only 12, that would be down to him as a parent. However, he would take such action with the clear understanding that the BBFC does not consider that to be appropriate for his children. Likewise, I will not show my seven-year-old videos that are above the relevant classification. I take the advice of the BBFC and only show my children things that are deemed to be age appropriate for them. My point is that there is no such guidance where SRE is concerned. At the moment, it is left to county councils, schools, governors and parents to make that decision. Parents and governors are often very busy and do not look at the material that is being shown to their children, and some of it is extraordinarily inappropriate.

Photo of Alison Seabeck Alison Seabeck Shadow Minister (Defence)

I apologise for missing the beginning of the hon. Lady’s speech; she may well have already answered this question. What discussions has the hon. Lady had with the BBFC about whether it would want to take on this additional work?

Photo of Andrea Leadsom Andrea Leadsom Conservative, South Northamptonshire

I confess that I have not spoken to the BBFC. If the BBFC’s responsibility for rating a particular type of output was changed, I am certain that, as a licensing authority, it would be happy to do that. In a previous parliamentary inquiry on internet porn, the BBFC talked about what it could do to help in relation to inappropriate websites. It would be willing if it was asked, appropriately resourced and paid, so I do not consider that that is an issue. However, the hon. Lady makes a fair point that I will take up with the BBFC if the Minister of State, Department for Education, Mr Gibb is minded to respond in a positive way.

I, and many parents who have contacted me, find that such material, shown to children as young as five, completely inappropriate. What should we be talking about in SRE lessons?

Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Shadow Minister (Education)

The hon. Lady has cited specific material that she has seen. Will she tell us how prevalent the use of that material is, who produced it and what schools it is used in?

Photo of Andrea Leadsom Andrea Leadsom Conservative, South Northamptonshire

The hon. Gentleman will forgive me for not citing schools, because some are in my constituency and, as I have said several times, schools are teaching SRE with the best of intentions. There is no intention to harm, but I have talked to head teachers in my constituency who have said that they feel that the guidance they have been given is lacking, and that they would have appreciated more instruction on what is age appropriate in this very sensitive area.

Headmasters raised a separate issue, which is that many teachers find it extremely difficult to go through this type of material with very young children. They find it easier to provide something that, in response to the hon. Gentleman’s question, is often produced by television stations. For example, Channel 4 has provided some sex and relationship education, as has the BBC. However, such material is not licensed, so it is left to the discretion of schools, which feel ill-equipped to make the decision, as to what is appropriate for a seven-year-old. The hon. Gentleman will know as well as I do that, unless one happens to have a seven-year-old, which I do, one cannot really project oneself into a seven-year-old’s shoes very easily and decide what is appropriate for them. It would be far more helpful to have guidance from an organisation such as the BBFC, which has been providing guidance for 99 years.

Photo of Annette Brooke Annette Brooke Liberal Democrat, Mid Dorset and North Poole

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate. Does she agree with me that the starting point ought to be about training teachers? I would not want my grandchildren to have sex and relationship education given by people who were not qualified to do so. Training teachers has to be the starting point. It would then follow that the best packages of education would be chosen.

Photo of Andrea Leadsom Andrea Leadsom Conservative, South Northamptonshire

My hon. Friend makes a good point. That is a significant concern for some schools. They lack confidence in knowing for sure what material is appropriate for each age group. I do not need to explain to the Chamber that that varies with age. What one might show a 13-year-old is vastly different to what one might show a seven-year-old. This is what I am trying to get at—the specific point about age-appropriate material. From the contact I have had, that is a big concern for schools and parents.

Photo of Diana R. Johnson Diana R. Johnson Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

My experience is that in the best schools head teachers buy in experts who know what is age-appropriate and bring in the relevant materials. Is that the hon. Lady’s experience? I saw a very good Catholic school in south London use such expertise not long ago. That would fit with the Government’s agenda around schools buying in services and getting the best expertise they need.

Photo of Andrea Leadsom Andrea Leadsom Conservative, South Northamptonshire

The hon. Lady makes another good point. That could certainly be one way of addressing the problem. However, I still advocate an easy and uniformly good way of dealing with the issue, which is to have some sort of classification of material from which all schools can benefit. As we know, some schools are more engaged with this issue than others. Some head teachers are more knowledgeable than others, and some governing bodies are more proactive than others. We need a level playing field, so that all schools have access to good advice without having to go out and seek the experts. Schools have said to me that access to experts is simply not there. When they talk to their county council about what to do on this subject, it often has no real advice for them, other than to point them in the direction of unlicensed material.

Photo of David Simpson David Simpson Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills)

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate. It is an excellent idea for outside bodies to come into primary and secondary schools. In Northern Ireland, we have an organisation called Love for Life, which is approved by the health service and the education board to go into schools to teach children about relationships. However, it does not go into primary schools to deal with the explicit details to which she has alluded. Bringing in an outside body is one way of doing it, as I am sure she will agree.

Photo of Andrea Leadsom Andrea Leadsom Conservative, South Northamptonshire

I agree that that has some merit and is worth consideration. Equally, there is a counter argument that for very young children in primary schools, it is a fundamental principle to have one teacher for almost every subject. When introducing such an enormous topic as sex and relationship education to very young children, there is a case for sticking with the teacher pupils know and are often very fond of. To bring in an outside expert, no matter how sensitive and well informed, could be counter-productive in primary schools.

What should we be talking about in schools? We are talking today about sex and relationship education. I agree completely that, when we deal with the issue of teenage pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases, our schoolchildren have to be aware of those issues and how to prevent them. Sex education is vital. However, relationship education is equally, if not more, important, particularly at a young age. Nowhere in the material that I have seen has there been any emphasis on building relationships. We should be teaching children primarily about relationships. We should be teaching them about emotions and responsibility. Our children need to understand that as well as fun, happiness and contentment, sex and relationships can evoke other feelings, such as jealousy, sadness and guilt. Our children need to understand that sex is almost always better when you are in love, or when you are in a committed relationship. Unfortunately, a lot of what is being taught at the moment does not address those issues.

Finally, I want to consider who needs to have a say in what our children are being taught. I am concerned about the number of constituents who have said to me that they had no idea what was being taught to their children, and that when they found out they were horrified. I have three children. I allowed them to go to their RSE lessons and I have no idea what they were taught. I put my hand up to being a busy mum who was invited in one morning, on a work day, to watch what the children would be watching and who did not take the school up on the opportunity. The expectation that all parents have is that school knows best—it knows what it is doing, is best placed to do this, and that that is great as it gets me out of that extraordinarily awkward conversation.

Many parents have told me that they were completely horrified when they finally found out what their children were being taught. I believe that schools are acting with the best of honourable intentions, and I am not about to lay the blame at head teachers’ doors. Parents must share the responsibility, and there must, therefore, be better communication with them. They need to proactively know what their children are being taught on such a sensitive issue. Only parents can decide whether their child is ready to be taught about this subject. All of us who are parents and grandparents know that children mature at very different ages, and something that one seven-year-old finds funny and entertaining and is mature enough to deal with might not be appropriate for another.

Parents often simply trust schools and assume that they know best. That is no bad thing, but we must help schools to make the best decisions. Teachers and governors must make the decisions about whether material is appropriate, just as parents must be aware of what their children are being taught. We have the assumption that if parents are uncomfortable with the material they can opt out of SRE lessons for their children, but there should be the assumption that parents opt in, particularly for primary school children. Parents have to opt in to music lessons, school trips and even school lunches; no one assumes that they can take a child rock climbing or to a music concert without explicit consent.

Photo of Annette Brooke Annette Brooke Liberal Democrat, Mid Dorset and North Poole

I am concerned that a child living in an abnormal situation, with abuse taking place, will not know what a normal situation or normal touching is. If we have an opt-in, is there not a danger that such a child will have a prolonged life of misery?

Photo of Andrea Leadsom Andrea Leadsom Conservative, South Northamptonshire

My hon. Friend makes a fair point, but the problem with it is that we are saying that to catch the small minority for whom sex education might make a difference to what is going on at home we must inflict potentially inappropriate SRE on all children. I have quite a degree of knowledge of, and have had a great deal to do with, such situations through my nine-year chairmanship of the Oxford Parent Infant Project, a charity that has helped families in potentially extremely dangerous situations for many years. Simply forcing these children to have sex and relationship education at school will not make the difference—turning them into whistleblowers or giving them the ability to stop what is going on at home—and the harm done by inappropriate material could outweigh that potential. We should not inflict that type of material on all our children for the sake of, what I consider to be, a vain hope.

I want to see all material used in sex and relationship education in primary schools licensed and given some kind of classification, and school governors and teachers deciding what is appropriate to teach on that basis of that guidance, and I want parents to be given the appropriate information and the final say on whether and when their child should opt in to SRE.

I would be grateful for the Minister’s thoughts, first on whether a classification system that used the BBFC’s certificates could be implemented for SRE material in primary schools, to ensure that the material was suitable and conveyed the right message and had a guide to what age it was suitable for. Secondly, I would like to hear his comments on a commitment to provide clear guidance to schools that would ensure that not just sex but relationship education was properly taught, including the discussion of emotions and consequences, and of the benefits of love and committed relationships. Thirdly, I would like to hear his comments on a requirement that governors and teachers work together to decide what material is appropriate, and on having a cast-iron guarantee that parents will be properly informed of the full facts about what their children are taught, and be allowed to make the final decision on whether it is the right time for their children to opt in to SRE, rather than their having to opt out. I look forward to his response.

Photo of Diana R. Johnson Diana R. Johnson Shadow Minister (Home Affairs) 11:24 am, 25th October 2011

I have listened to Andrea Leadsom with interest, and feel that the ideas of a licensing regime and of parents opting in to sex and relationship education ought to be discussed. However, I am not convinced that that is the way to go on this important subject, and I am concerned about examples being cited of inappropriate information or resources being given to very young children. I have yet to be given explicit details of the schools, areas, teachers and materials involved, but I am open-minded, and if that evidence is available I would like to see it. Many comments are made, but where is the evidence that this is a problem in schools? I am concerned that we are not looking at the actual evidence. We should trust our teachers; our teaching profession is better educated and better resourced than it has ever been, and in most of our schools, most of the time, really good work is going on, especially in primaries. Teachers, on the whole, do their best, and use appropriate resources.

In the previous Parliament, there was an opportunity to make personal, social and health education compulsory in all primary and secondary schools, which would have ensured that the subject was given proper consideration and that resources followed. PSHE teachers could have been expected to be properly trained and have the necessary resources to deliver that part of the curriculum. In the last few months of the previous Government, I was the Minister trying to take the measure through Parliament and I was disappointed because we ended up with the Conservative party refusing to back what was a very sensible proposal. There was a specific issue with sex education, but, as the hon. Lady mentioned, there is the opportunity for parents to opt out. A parent can withdraw a child up to the age of 18, and the Government must consider the legal anomaly that that creates, because at 16 a young person can have lawful sexual relations. I hope that the Minister comments on that when he deals with the hon. Lady’s suggestion of opting in, because there is a knock-on effect.

Photo of Andrea Leadsom Andrea Leadsom Conservative, South Northamptonshire

On a point of clarification, I am looking for an opt-in in primary schools, for children up to the age of 11, and I share the hon. Lady’s concern about an opt-out up to the age of 18.

Photo of Diana R. Johnson Diana R. Johnson Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

I am pleased to hear that because this whole area needs to be considered carefully. I am disappointed that the Government have so far turned their face away from addressing the important issue of teaching to produce rounded individuals, rather than narrowly focusing on the academic side. Our schools play an important part in educating children in the issues they will face as they become adults. I accept that the hon. Lady is dealing with primary schools in this debate.

Photo of Annette Brooke Annette Brooke Liberal Democrat, Mid Dorset and North Poole

I concur with the hon. Lady. I supported her in her desire to strengthen our PSHE, and during that time I found it bizarre that the teaching of the mechanics of sex was compulsory in the science curriculum but that the teaching of sex and relationships, which must be taken together, might not happen. Does she share my concern?

Photo of Diana R. Johnson Diana R. Johnson Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

I pay tribute to the hon. Lady, who has long championed PSHE and children being given the information they need to make safe and good choices.

The hon. Lady is absolutely right: young people are taught the mechanics of sex under the science curriculum, but important issues such as relationships, confidence and saying no are not dealt with. In debates in the previous Parliament, the Minister, who is a decent and honourable man, took a close interest in this area. I hope he will say whether the Government are minded to include this in their review of the national curriculum.

In the good schools I have visited, parents and governors are very much involved in this issue. Parents can look at material and see what goes on in PSHE classes, and we should build on that rather than thinking about an alternative licensing regime.

Photo of Alison Seabeck Alison Seabeck Shadow Minister (Defence)

On access to information and a classification, the Sex Education Forum’s website is accessible to teachers, parents and governors. It sets clear criteria on relationships and the appropriateness of material, including whether it is age-appropriate. Does my hon. Friend recommend that people visit the site as a starting point?

Photo of Diana R. Johnson Diana R. Johnson Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

My hon. Friend makes an important point. I think that that resource is well used by the teaching profession, and if people are struggling it is one of the websites people can visit.

I visited a Catholic school in south London. Its head teacher was fully engaged with parents, and as a Catholic school it has to ensure that particular sensitivities are addressed. He reassured parents and governors that what was happening in the school was good and fine and that the children were benefiting from it. PSHE is taught throughout the school. Children in the class I visited were given different items of clothing, and an expert who had been brought in was discussing which bits of clothing people would wear. It was fun, interesting and educational, but it had a serious point because they were discussing parts of the body and what clothing was used to cover them. It was age-appropriate and it allowed children to name parts of the body without embarrassment—without sniggering and laughing. The lesson was well organised, and the Catholic church and that school should be congratulated on their approach to SRE and PSHE.

The Department of Education might consider spreading that practice around other schools, but it is important that we begin in primary schools by talking to children about the key issues of relationships, keeping them safe and giving them the confidence to make wise choices. I agree with the hon. Member for South Northamptonshire about inappropriate materials not being used, although I am a little unsure about whether that happens. Most schools do their best and use appropriate material. Teenagers tell us that they wish they had received information much earlier about being confident about their bodies, about relationships and about what is acceptable. A survey recently conducted by one of the big charities showed that a high number of young women were in violent and verbally abusive relationships. I am greatly concerned that we are not giving our young women the confidence to say, “I am a valued human being and I won’t put up with this behaviour.”

Photo of Andrea Leadsom Andrea Leadsom Conservative, South Northamptonshire

I strongly agree with the hon. Lady: we cannot teach the mechanics of sex without teaching the relationship that goes with it. She gives an example of what happens if children are led to think that sex is fun and everyone does it without their being told that there are inappropriate sexual contacts; that they can end up feeling used, dirty and awful about themselves; and that somebody can deliberately put them in that position.

Photo of Diana R. Johnson Diana R. Johnson Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

I think we can agree on that point.

The Government’s national curriculum review of primary education should consider whether this subject should be formally included in the curriculum. I do not want to pre-judge the Minister, but I suspect he will say that it will not be. The vast majority of people accept that giving good information to primary school children can help to deal with problems in secondary school. The rate of teenage pregnancy in my constituency is still too high and there are too many young people in inappropriate relationships. Let us start to deal with this issue early and let us get it right for our young people.

Photo of Stephen Gilbert Stephen Gilbert Liberal Democrat, St Austell and Newquay 11:36 am, 25th October 2011

It is a pleasure to serve again under your chairmanship, Mr Amess, following our many deliberations on the Committee that considered the Localism Bill.

I congratulate my hon. Friend Andrea Leadsom on securing this important debate. Although I am not a parent, I am an uncle to two children and a godfather to two more. I think we all agree that good parenting is about protecting childhood and preparing children for the future. I should like to explain what that future might be as some young people grow up.

Last year, young people—who form just 12% of the population—accounted for half of all sexually transmitted infections in the UK. Twenty-five per cent. of sexually active 15 to 24-year-olds test positive for chlamydia; 75% of 16 to 24-year-olds report not using condoms when they have sex; in 1990 the proportion of women who reported first intercourse before the age of 16 was about 10%, but 10 years later the figure had doubled to 20%. The equivalent figures for men were 20% and 27%. Teenage pregnancy in the UK has been reducing in recent years, but we still have by far the highest levels in Europe.

Far from trying to move away from teaching sex and relationships, the Government should be doing a lot more to embed this, if Members will excuse the pun, in the curriculum. We talk a lot about the three Rs—reading, writing and arithmetic—but there is a fourth R that is equally important if we are to create happy and confident young people: relationships.

We know that good SRE gives children confidence. It teaches them about their body—how it changes as they grow up—and it gives them the self-awareness and confidence to start to combat some of the sexualised imagery and body fascism prevalent in so much of our media today. It helps to safeguard them by equipping them with the skills to negotiate safe sex and decent relationships—to understand, as my hon. Friend Annette Brooke said, when their relationship would not be considered normal and, at an extreme, when it might be considered abusive. It also helps them later, through biology lessons and other parts of the secondary school curriculum, to understand how to negotiate the kind of safe sex that will help to stop them from becoming one of the statistics we have all read about. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire that SRE must be appropriate and sensitively delivered and that we must ensure that schools do not use inappropriate material, but I cannot agree with the “Too much, too young” campaign, whose tips on actions for parents at the back of its campaign material include seven ways of monitoring their child’s SRE, but do not include one positive way of talking to children about relationships and the consequences of unprotected sex.

That is quite ironic. Mr Amess, you may remember that The Specials had a number one record in 1980 called “Too Much Too Young. I will not sing it, but it ends with the following lyrics:

“Ain’t you heard of contraception

D’you really wanna programme of sterilisation

Take control of the population boom

It’s in your living room

Keep a generation gap

Try wearing a cap.”

In the 1980s, when teenage pregnancies were rising significantly, that political song of the time said to a generation that relationship counselling and education needs to be embedded much further into the curriculum.

Photo of Andrea Leadsom Andrea Leadsom Conservative, South Northamptonshire

On a point of information, what do those song lyrics say about relationship education? Absolutely nothing, surely. That is a complete trivialisation and part of the problem, not part of the solution. There is no relationship guidance in those lyrics.

Photo of Stephen Gilbert Stephen Gilbert Liberal Democrat, St Austell and Newquay

I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s point. I am trying to make the point that the consequence of not embedding relationship guidance at primary school level leads to the consequences of teenage pregnancies and the rise in sexually transmitted infections that so damage our society. We have to make this a continuous process, which is why I agree with Opposition Members who asked the Government to put the programme on a statutory basis.

It is a shame that debates such as this perpetuate some myths. The first is that sexual relationship education does not work. It does work, when it is established, properly resourced, appropriate and embedded in the curriculum. The second is that it leads to young people engaging in more sexual activity. All the evidence is to the contrary. Continuous, proper sexual relationship education actually helps people better negotiate the point at which they want to take part in sexual activities.

We have the notion, mentioned by my hon. Friend, that parents are excluded from the process, that somehow they do not have the opportunity to monitor and consider what their children are exposed to. Most surveys suggest that eight out of 10 parents think that their children should be receiving sexual relationship education. I think 0.04% choose to opt out at the moment.

Photo of Andrea Leadsom Andrea Leadsom Conservative, South Northamptonshire

I have to make the point again. I do not want to show one-upmanship—having three kids to my hon. Friend’s none—but the fact is that most parents now work. Therefore, when the school invites them in on a Monday morning to come to see what the children are to be taught—when they have an important meeting with their boss—the tendency is to think that school knows best and to let it go ahead. I agree with my hon. Friend in principle that parents have the chance, but in reality life gets in the way. That is why it is important to ask parents to engage and not just, by default, go along with whatever is being taught.

Photo of Stephen Gilbert Stephen Gilbert Liberal Democrat, St Austell and Newquay

Again, I think my hon. Friend is trying to find disagreement where there may be none. As I said earlier, I think the materials should be appropriate and they need to be monitored. I like her suggestion of a classification system. However, I do not like her suggestion that parents could opt out of something that is so important and such a fundamental part of being a fully functioning human being in the 21st century.

Photo of Alison Seabeck Alison Seabeck Shadow Minister (Defence)

We are exploring a very important point. As the mother of two daughters—one of whom went on to teach in primary school and was responsible for sex education—I think it is important that we can trust our teachers to understand what is going on in the classroom and what the children can cope with. As a busy parent, I did not get to the Monday morning meetings either; I trusted my daughters’ teachers. Now we have access to the worldwide web, and there are very good sites to which parents could be pointed by the school, saying, “This is what we intend to teach your children. If you cannot come along, look at the internet.” A vast number of parents—certainly the working ones—would have access to a computer and be able to do that.

Photo of Stephen Gilbert Stephen Gilbert Liberal Democrat, St Austell and Newquay

The hon. Lady makes an eloquent point. The explosion and proliferation of modern technology make such supervisory duties much easier for all of us. In future, perhaps she will be able to do so in the Chamber from her iPad.

Photo of David Simpson David Simpson Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Communities and Local Government), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills)

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the research papers with which we have been presented include an article from The Times Educational Supplement of 13 May 2011, which makes it clear that almost six in 10 parents do not think that sex education should be taught to children at school?

Photo of Stephen Gilbert Stephen Gilbert Liberal Democrat, St Austell and Newquay

There are occasions when hon. Members have to say, “On that point I have to disagree.” Why would one not teach geology? Should parents be given an opt-out from geology or from history? If we are to create happy, confident, rounded citizens, we need to be embedding sexual relationship education from the earliest possible age. Of course, we need to do so in an appropriate way; it must be suitably delivered, well resourced and properly monitored. However, we must move away from the “No sex, please, we’re British” attitude, which has so damaged individuals and segments of our society. We need to demystify sex and relationship education. We need to see it as a spectrum and I think we need to move it on to a statutory basis. I will be interested to hear the Minister’s views on that. Rather than the three Rs, we should think of a fourth R: relationship and sex education.

Photo of Pamela Nash Pamela Nash Labour, Airdrie and Shotts 11:46 am, 25th October 2011

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Mr Amess.

I start in the unusual situation of agreeing with everything said by Stephen Gilbert. I congratulate Andrea Leadsom on calling the debate, which is crucial and timely. It is right to discuss the matter now while the Government are reviewing the PSHE curriculum.

I also speak in the capacity of chair of the all-party group on HIV and AIDS, which has long campaigned for mandatory sex and relationship education at primary and secondary level. Its members are drawn from all political parties and we are extremely concerned about the rising levels of HIV infection in the UK, and the subsequent impact on public health. It is predicted that in 2012, the number of people in the UK who are HIV-positive will hit 100,000, a quarter of whom are unaware of their status. New HIV diagnoses in young people have risen by 48% in the past decade. That is horrendous.

My generation just missed the extremely successful Tombstone campaign in 1986. When I speak to my friends about HIV, it is not at the top of their list of priorities; they do not think it can affect them. The Minister recently told the Lords Select Committee on HIV and AIDS in the UK:

“When you have a survey that says one in four children are not taught about HIV, which is a deadly disease which can be simply avoided and simply caught, a lack of knowledge in this area is unforgiveable in our school system.”

A basic knowledge of HIV is essential to all our young people. HIV sadly remains a highly stigmatised condition, with the National AIDS Trust finding that one in three people diagnosed with HIV have experienced HIV-related discrimination. Research has shown a strong association between poor understanding of HIV and stigmatising attitudes. Good, comprehensive sex and relationship education would help to improve understanding of HIV, dispel myths and thus reduce stigma.

Lord Fowler’s recent Committee in the House of Lords reported that current policies to tackle HIV in the UK are “woefully inadequate”. One in four young people did not learn about HIV at school, which was condemned by the Minister. Young people simply are not learning the facts about HIV and AIDS, and that has to change if we are to make any headway in reversing the number of new infections.

I shall move on to the “Too much, too young” report, already mentioned. The hon. Member for South Northamptonshire is a known supporter of the report, which she launched earlier this year. Unfortunately, many of its claims are at best alarmist, if not simply false. The campaign suggested that children as young as five are being shown explicit cartoons and taught about sexual pleasure. If we look at the small print in the report, which I have with me, it is clear that the majority of that imagery is actually suggested for older children. I have found no evidence that younger children have seen such material. The sexual health charities that I have spoken to, including the National Aids Trust, the Family Planning Association, Brook and the Terrence Higgins Trust, are not aware of any school where that has taken place. Furthermore, they would never endorse that type of teaching.

All schools currently have the right to decide which resources to use when teaching children about sex and relationships, and have the right to consult parents and governors to decide which materials should be used. The suggestion that the materials that have been referred to are used as a matter of course, or that sex education campaigners would like materials to be imposed on schools is misleading and misrepresents the excellent work that many of those organisations do in campaigning for comprehensive, high-quality and age-appropriate sex and relationship education for all children.

We might like to live in a time when children did not grow up so quickly and their “innocence” was preserved until a later stage in life, but unfortunately that era, if it ever existed, is long gone. Children are curious about sexual relationships. We cannot and should not shield them from all the influences of the modern world. If they want information, they will find it from another source: teen magazines, the internet and gossiping friends in the playground.

In a survey by UNICEF and the Terrence Higgins Trust, three quarters of young people said that they used the internet to obtain information about sexual health. That risks children receiving inaccurate information. My fear about the suggestion by the hon. Member for South Northamptonshire of opt-in sex and relationship education is that many children would miss out. They would not receive sex and relationship education at home; indeed, they might be in a damaging and abusive situation at home.

I have no interest in promoting specific sexual behaviour or introducing concepts to children before they are ready to hear about them. Children are naturally inquisitive and will ask when they are ready to be taught. Primary school sex and relationship education is essential for laying the foundations to ensure that, when old enough, young people receive good sex and relationship education that gives them the information they need to make the right decisions to protect their health and well-being. Given that we have the highest rate of teen pregnancy in western Europe—it is falling, but slowly—it is clear that we are not getting that right, so I welcome the current Government review.

I want to raise a point about homophobia and the positive role that sex and relationship education at an early stage can play in tackling homophobic bullying, which has never been more prevalent in our schools than it is today. A recent YouGov poll found that nine in 10 secondary school teachers and 40% of primary school teachers have witnessed children being subjected to homophobic bullying in their schools. In addition, 75% of primary school teachers have reported hearing the word “gay” shouted as an insult in the school playground. Such words are used commonly by children, without comprehension of their true meaning, as a form of abuse. If children are not taught from a young age about the different possibilities of relationships and about the normality of same-sex relationships, it is not surprising that they grow up with those prejudices. To become active, appropriately behaved citizens, children must learn at that age about the possibilities of different relationships.

As pupils generally start puberty at the later stages of primary school, it is important that schools have an open and intelligent approach to same-sex issues. Basic HIV education should be taught in an environment where same-sex relationships are normalised, not stigmatised or off-limits.

In a recent report by Stonewall, a London primary school teacher is quoted as saying that

“the younger it is addressed…the more receptive the children are to believing that other ways of life are acceptable. You don’t have to shove it in their faces, just teach them that some people have other ways of life and it is just as normal as the ways of life they are familiar with.”

Photo of Andrea Leadsom Andrea Leadsom Conservative, South Northamptonshire

There is an age below which children have no concept whatever of sex, so I cannot agree with the hon. Lady. A four or five-year old has no concept of what on earth sex is about. Until children are pre-pubescent at the very least, they cannot get their heads around it, so to talk to them about different sorts of sexual relationship would be entirely pointless and probably quite frightening.

Photo of Pamela Nash Pamela Nash Labour, Airdrie and Shotts

I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention, but her earlier remarks showed how strongly she feels about the importance of relationship education and how sex and relationship education should be paired together. I suggest that homosexual relationships are separate from sex education and sex.

Photo of Alison Seabeck Alison Seabeck Shadow Minister (Defence)

We must also bear it in mind that there is an increasing number of single-sex families of all types. The children of those families will be in school and therefore it makes sense to talk positively about relationships in that context.

Photo of Andrea Leadsom Andrea Leadsom Conservative, South Northamptonshire

I just want to clear this up. I am saying that people should absolutely talk about relationships, but not sexual relationships, because below a certain age there is simply no point. I agree with the hon. Lady that there is a need to talk about relationships, but there is no need to talk with very young children about sex.

Photo of Pamela Nash Pamela Nash Labour, Airdrie and Shotts

I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention, but I am not clear about the difference she is getting at between relationships of another sort and sexual relationships. My understanding from what she said earlier is that she is happy for people to talk about heterosexual relationships. I am happy to take another intervention to clarify the issue.

Photo of Andrea Leadsom Andrea Leadsom Conservative, South Northamptonshire

I thank the hon. Lady for her patience in giving way. I am specifically talking about very young children. For them, the focus needs to be on the relationship, not the sexual act. That is where a lot of the material being shown to children now is simply inappropriate, because they really do not get it. There is a point below which a child is not old enough to conceptualise what the act of sex means. I agree with the hon. Lady that it is entirely appropriate to teach that sometimes men love other men, but it is not appropriate to teach what sometimes men do with other men, for example. That is where I am drawing the line. I am saying that the relationship side can be separate from the sexual side at a very young age.

Photo of Pamela Nash Pamela Nash Labour, Airdrie and Shotts

I thank the hon. Lady for that explanation. I am talking about relationships. I suggest that no images of sex between a man and a woman, between two men or between two women should be shown to very young children, of four or five. However, I do think that it is appropriate to teach young children about relationships, including same-sex relationships.

[Mr George Howarth in the Chair]

Photo of Stephen Gilbert Stephen Gilbert Liberal Democrat, St Austell and Newquay

Without wishing to continue the love-in, I agree absolutely with everything that the hon. Lady is saying. As I said earlier, I have a four-year-old nephew who, from what he has said to me, is aware or beginning to become aware of sex as well as relationships. Does the hon. Lady agree that we need to deal with the world in which we live, not the world in which we would like to live?

Photo of Pamela Nash Pamela Nash Labour, Airdrie and Shotts

I entirely agree. I have had similar experiences with the young children in my family. I have stories about comments on sex and relationships that they have made, even at the ages of three and four, that it would not be appropriate to tell here. They are inquisitive and they have that knowledge. They watch television and hear people speaking. They see people around them who are in relationships that might be different from what they see at home, and they should be taught that that is okay and why it exists.

I have been looking this morning at the UN convention on the rights of the child. Article 29 refers to the following:

“The preparation of the child for responsible life in a free society, in the spirit of understanding, peace, tolerance, equality of sexes, and friendship among all peoples, ethnic, national and religious groups and persons of indigenous origin”.

That is one of the rights of the child, and I believe that good relationship education is part of it and will prepare young people for a normal life.

Children must also be prepared to deal with their own sexuality. The high levels of self-harm among homosexual teenagers have been well documented. Again, high-quality and age-appropriate sex and relationship education will help to tackle that heartbreaking problem.

Let us be clear: sex education is not about the sexualisation of children, nor is it intended to promote promiscuity or a certain kind of lifestyle above another. Taught well, sex education is about teaching children the facts of life and how to handle their personal relationships.

The challenge we face is that SRE is patchy and inadequate. An Ofsted report in 2010 said that the quality of PSHE is poor in a quarter of schools and that teachers lack the knowledge and skills to teach pupils the subject effectively. My experience of sex education, which was not so long ago, involved an expert visiting my school and telling the 14-year-old girls in my class that they should not let boys touch them from the neck down. That was the message in its entirety, and I do not believe it was entirely adequate.

There is strong support from parents for teaching SRE in schools. A poll run by the Department for Children, Schools and Families in 2009—I am sorry these are the most recent figures I could get—showed that eight in 10 parents thought their children should receive SRE lessons, while only 0.04% had withdrawn their children from SRE. To conclude, we need high-quality, age-appropriate and mandatory SRE in all primary and secondary schools throughout the United Kingdom.

Several hon. Members:

rose —

Photo of George Howarth George Howarth Labour, Knowsley

Order. Two Back Benchers are indicating that they want to take part in the debate. I intend to call the two Front-Bench spokesmen at 12.10. If people are restrained in their contributions, it may be possible to get the remaining Back Benchers into the debate.

Photo of Fiona Bruce Fiona Bruce Conservative, Congleton 12:01 pm, 25th October 2011

I thank my hon. Friend Andrea Leadsom for raising this important issue. I congratulate her on an excellent speech on a subject that is of great concern to parents in my constituency and across the country. I welcome her positive contribution and her constructive ideas, as well as the fact that she has expressed concerns about some of the educational materials in primary school classrooms.

The debate is about how, when, where and what sex and relationship education should be promoted in primary schools. Crucially, it is also about involving parents in deciding content. Equally, it is about promoting the outcome I think we all want: a generation of young people who fulfil their potential in all areas of life, including personal relationships.

Although “Sex and Relationship Education Guidance”, which was published in 2000, gives schools guidance on working with parents, such work is not a requirement. The guidance says:

“Schools should always work in partnership with parents, consulting them regularly on the content of sex and relationship education programmes.”

In practice, that does not appear to happen, and there is no legal requirement for schools to enter dialogue with parents. Diana Johnson queried whether graphic content of the type that has been described was causing parents concern, but a group of parents came to see me in my surgery because they were concerned about the content of the sex education materials that it was proposed to use in a primary school; I think they were based on some of the media productions mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire. The parents felt there was no appropriate route for them to register their serious concerns about the content of those educational materials, so they had to come to see me about them. The opt-in requirement my hon. Friend proposes for parents would ensure that there was such a route.

My hon. Friend’s positive contribution is welcome. The previous Government should perhaps have considered rating the content that could be used in this sensitive and delicate subject. As Stephen Gilbert said, the evidence shows that this country should be far from proud of its levels of sexually transmitted disease, teenage pregnancy and relationship breakdown, and one cause among others for those things may be the lack of parental involvement in our sex education content.

We should be moving towards an environment where, as my hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire said, parents make a more active choice regarding the material they believe is fit for purpose for their child, and where they can actively opt into the curriculum. If they participate in that way, it might improve the dialogue between themselves and their children, which might be a better way forward for our society.

Photo of Pamela Nash Pamela Nash Labour, Airdrie and Shotts

I appreciate the point the hon. Lady is trying to make about parents being more involved in making these decisions in schools, but does she not agree that the children of parents who do not opt into SRE if they are given the option will be at serious risk of receiving no SRE at all?

Photo of Fiona Bruce Fiona Bruce Conservative, Congleton

If we have a satisfactory procedure, such as that proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire, schools and the responsible teachers hon. Members have described should ensure that that does not happen.

Let me add another suggestion to those that have been made. To aid parents and schools, the Government could create a website where varied sex and relationship tools and programmes could be explained. That would offer schools, governors and, above all, parents a diverse range of options. The recently launched ParentPort website is a model of how we could move forward and engage parents and others who are concerned about content. The website was recently launched by the Prime Minister as a result of the Bailey review and is aimed at helping parents to navigate the regulatory media and broadcasting framework. I was struck by the fact that within a few days of its launch about three weeks ago, 10,000 people had registered concerns. That shows the desire of many—I am sure many parents were among those who registered concerns—to have a say over such issues.

I am glad the Conservative-led coalition Government are taking their localism agenda forward. For it to be a success, an informed citizenry is required, and that is as true in respect of relationship and sex education tools as it is of any other area.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Transport) 12:06 pm, 25th October 2011

I thank Andrea Leadsom for bringing this issue before us, and I totally support her point of view. We live in an age of high teenage pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections and multiple partners. No man is judge of how people live their lives as adults, but there must be safeguards in place to protect the innocence of children and to keep them as children for an appropriate time.

I questioned two mothers about their children’s education in primary school. One was a married mother of three, who also had a grandchild, and the other was a single mother of two, who had one child in primary school. Both told me the same thing: “Teach my daughter what is appropriate touching and what is not. Do not teach my daughter about sex when she is not even old enough to stay up past 9 o’clock.” No matter what their religious background, most parents agree that primary school is much too soon to be teaching these things.

When my three boys were young, they played with their G. I. Joes—I think that was the thing at the time—and little girls played with their Barbie dolls to encourage their imagination. Now children are told that that is babyish and that they should be playing on computers and hanging about with their friends. We now have six to seven-year-old girls wanting to wear padded underwear, wearing full faces of make-up to school and wearing high heels that harm their backs, all to look like their favourite TV stars.

As we know, Primark announced it was to stop selling padded bikini tops for children as young as seven, after criticism from the general public and politicians. The company, which was criticised for its £4 bikini sets, apologised to customers and said it would donate any profits to child welfare organisations. Penny Nicholls of the Children’s Society said:

“There is a big distinction between children dressing up for fun and retailers producing items of clothing that target children and encourage premature sexualisation.”

There is a clear difference, and I want to develop that point.

Last week, I attended a Prayer for Parliament and the Nation meeting in the House, as did other Members here. We were given a presentation about sex education at primary school level. It was very graphic, very physical and very technical. I am not a prude by any means, but I felt uneasy sitting watching it, and I suspect many others in the Room would probably feel uneasy, too. Thirty to 40 people were present at the meeting, and they gave examples of how their children had come home from school and told them that they could not get their heads round the sexual act; they were fearful. Let me just say, therefore, that it would be wrong to take sex education out of the hands of parents, schools’ boards of governors and teachers without the agreement of parents.

In Northern Ireland we have an organisation called Love for Life, which my hon. Friend David Simpson mentioned. It talks about not the technical details but emotional relationships; and that is what we must try to do. Love for Life in Northern Ireland has been able to affect 30,000 people in their school education. That is an example of what can happen. I urge hon. Members fully to support what the hon. Member for South Northamptonshire proposes.

Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Shadow Minister (Education) 12:10 pm, 25th October 2011

We have had a good-natured, interesting and informative debate. I am the father of a 17-year-old daughter, so I think about the issues in question as a parent, as well as a politician. I congratulate Andrea Leadsom on securing the debate. She raised some interesting new ideas, including using the British Board of Film Classification to put a kind of health warning on to materials that could be used in schools for sex and relationships education. Departmental guidance about such education is clear; Fiona Bruce read some of it out, and I wonder whether we need to nationalise—that in effect is the proposal—the classification of materials for use in schools. That seems to be the opposite of localism.

The hon. Member for South Northamptonshire said she knew of schools in her constituency that use inappropriate materials, and she went on to cite the materials, but did not say who produced them or name the schools where they were being used. There is a problem in the debate, which reminds me of the debate going on when I was a teacher in the 1980s about the teaching of homosexuality in schools, and the encouragement of children to engage in homosexuality. It was often said that that went on all over the place, and that homosexual lifestyles were being encouraged. With no evidence, the Government of the day turned that into legislation—section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988. I talked with a young male teacher who was gay, and he lived in fear of revealing his sexuality because of such legislation. If we are to have this debate, let us cite the evidence, and make that evidence clear. If inappropriate things are happening and inappropriate materials are being used for young children, that should be stopped. We can all agree about that.

Photo of Andrea Leadsom Andrea Leadsom Conservative, South Northamptonshire

The hon. Gentleman will recall that I said that I have the evidence but was not prepared to mention specific schools in the Chamber. He will know that the relationship between schools and parents is delicate. I can provide evidence, but will not do it on the record, for good reasons. He is being mischievous in suggesting that no evidence exists, simply because I am not prepared to have it mentioned in Hansard.

Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Shadow Minister (Education)

My view is that the hon. Lady should put it in the public domain. If she thinks that inappropriate practices are going on in our schools, wherever they are in the country—my or her constituency, or anywhere else—and that children are being exposed to materials that could damage them, that is an important matter, of public concern, which should be in the public record. I am sorry to disagree with her, but that is how it should be.

The hon. Lady also suggested that parents should be able to exercise an opt-in with respect to sex and relationship education. My hon. Friend Diana Johnson has pointed out that there is an opt-out, which extends to the age of 18, which is an anomaly. My hon. Friend, who was an able and successful Minister in the Department for Children, Schools and Families, tried to address that anomaly, by reducing the age to 15—although she did not quite get the relevant measure passed at the end of that

Parliament—so that children could have the opportunity of a year of sex and relationship education before reaching the age of consent and what was at that time the school-leaving age. That seemed to me to be an entirely sensible proposal, but it was lost in the wash-up, as my hon. Friend pointed out, along with the proposal to make sex and relationship education a compulsory part of the primary curriculum.

An opt-in system would be inappropriate. The opt-out is available, and it provides parents with the necessary protection if they are concerned about what their children are being taught. Some argue that there should be no opt-out, and I think that Stephen Gilbert was arguing that, but I do not agree.

My hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North said that we need to source the evidence if we are to make accusations about the material being used in schools. If there is an accusation of widespread use of inappropriate materials for sex and relationship education we should know about it. She also pointed out the danger that, if there is insufficient sex and relationship education, young women will not be taught sufficiently to be confident about themselves and their ability to take control of their relationships, whether sexual or other personal relationships. I would add—and I am sure that my hon. Friend would agree—that it is important for young men to be taught about appropriate behaviour. When I was a Minister in the Department for Children, Schools and Families, we heard a lot of evidence from charities about the effect of the more widespread availability, in the age of the internet, of hardcore pornography, and its influence on the practices of young men, and their expectations of young women in a sexual relationship. If young men see that material in their daily lives they need to be taught that that is not necessarily how a relationship should develop. That is where sex and relationship education in school can be important—in helping young people to develop healthy, good relationships.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Transport)

Is the hon. Gentleman aware of the national opinion poll, which showed that six out of 10 parents are concerned about any sex education in primary school? Those 60% of the ladies and gentlemen who were questioned suggested that sex education should start at 13. Does the hon. Gentleman accept that they too have an opinion, which needs to be taken on board?

Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Shadow Minister (Education)

I do accept that they have an opinion. I am glad that the hon. Gentleman clarified the statistic, because when he spoke earlier he did not mention that it related to primary education. I am afraid that it all depends, in such situations, on how the question is asked. I think most people would understand the appropriateness of teaching children about relationships, which is what we are talking about, at an appropriate level at primary school. I know that the Minister was not very keen when the previous Government introduced social and emotional aspects of learning, but it had a huge impact on improving relationships between children. When parents are given an explanation of what is in mind, and of the scare stories and unsubstantiated scaremongering about sex and relationship education, they will change their mind.

I pay tribute to other hon. Members on their speeches. The hon. Member for St Austell and Newquay made some important points and gave some important statistics about sexually transmitted diseases and the prevalence of sexual activity among young people. It was not necessarily wise of him to quote The Specials. I could tell him the whole lyric, which I know by heart, and it is not necessarily entirely helpful to his case, but I thank him. My hon. Friend Pamela Nash told us about her role as the chair of the all-party group on HIV and AIDS, and she too mentioned the importance of evidence in discussing the topic. She told us that the inspectorate has said that SRE is patchy and inadequate. That is not good enough, and we need to do something about it. There were also good contributions from the hon. Members for Congleton and for Strangford (Jim Shannon). The hon. Gentleman said that we should teach what is appropriate, and went on to talk about the sexualisation of young people. Sex and relationship education can help to counter such sexualisation of young people by teaching them what is or is not appropriate, and about the relevant issues. He should reconsider the issue and see the opportunity to counter the sexualisation of children.

The Opposition are disappointed that in the review of personal, social, health and economic education, the Government have made a U-turn. When we criticised the Conservatives in the wash-up for forcing the then Government and the Liberal Democrats, who supported them, to drop the sex and relationship education issue, they criticised the then Secretary of State for suggesting that they were not in favour of extending sex and relationship education. However, it turns out that they have ruled out in their review any change to the law on sex and relationship education. That is highly disappointing. There is plenty of evidence, certainly from the recent Brook study, of young people’s ignorance about sex and relationships. There is also plenty of evidence from the inspectorate about why we should do something about it.

I have praised the Minister, and I praise him again, for tackling head on homophobic bullying in schools, as we tried to do, and for being the second Minister from the Department, after me, to address the Schools Out conference. He should show the same kind of vision when it comes to sex and relationship education.

Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Minister of State (Education) 12:20 pm, 25th October 2011

It is a pleasure to follow Kevin Brennan. I congratulate my hon. Friend Andrea Leadsom on securing a debate on such an important and sensitive issue. Today’s debate has highlighted a wide range of views on the subject, and genuinely reflects the divergent views on the issue among the public and parents.

I fully understand the concerns of some parents, particularly those with children of primary school age, who do not want their children exposed to materials that they feel are harmful and show images that are simply too explicit for the child’s age. Parents want to protect their children and preserve their children’s innocence. I know that a number of hon. Members share those concerns. My hon. Friend is right when she says that we must ensure that any materials used in schools are properly scrutinised to make sure that they are suitable for young children and do not add to the sexualisation of children instead of protecting them from it, a point that was also made by Jim Shannon.

We want all young people to have high-quality personal, social and health education, including sex and relationship education. SRE is not compulsory in primary schools and we have no plans to make it so.

Although we are currently conducting a review of PSHE—I thank Pamela Nash for her welcome for that review—my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education has said clearly that its remit does not include making PSHE as a whole a statutory requirement. There will be no change to current sex education legislation or to the parental right of withdrawal from SRE. We believe that the current statutory arrangements strike the right balance and reflect the range of public views on a sensitive issue.

Photo of Diana R. Johnson Diana R. Johnson Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

Will the Government consider tabling amendments to the law on the issue of the age of 18 and the opt-out up to that age?

Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Minister of State (Education)

No. We have made it clear that we do not intend to change legislation on the matter. When children are in full-time education, the rights of parents are important in how their children are brought up.

The review of PSHE fits within the schools White Paper strategy of devolving power and responsibility to schools and of trusting professionals. The vast majority of primary schools provide SRE, and it must be done in a way that provides the right teaching at the right time.

In developing policy, we have looked at the evidence available. In 2010, Ofsted published a report on PSHE, which found that some aspects of SRE were less well taught, particularly relationships. More positively, it found that in about two thirds of the primary schools visited, teachers used a range of resources effectively, including computers and story books, to enable pupils to discuss issues without embarrassment. Previous inspection evidence reported by Ofsted in 2007 showed that schools judged as being particularly effective providers of SRE had developed successful and constructive links with a range of support services, which could advise young people on a variety of issues and respond to their needs.

Many schools draw on expert help, as was alluded to in the debate, for aspects of PSHE in which they do not have expertise, inviting professionals such as school nurses to give sex education lessons, or external organisations that use drama to explore sensitive issues. Research from Sheffield Hallam university found that school nurses were involved in the teaching of SRE in 45% of primary schools that taught it, and other external organisations were involved in 22% of schools. That research looked into different aspects of PSHE in primary and secondary schools, including SRE.

The researchers conducted a nationally representative survey with more than 900 primary schools and around 600 secondary schools. The study looked at which aspects of PSHE were taught and how frequently. In primary schools, more than 50% taught all elements of PSHE and 40% taught some elements. More than three quarters taught emotional health and well-being every week. Other aspects, such as diet and safety, were taught at least once a term by two thirds of primary schools.

Three quarters taught SRE once a year or less often, with similar coverage on personal finance, enterprise and drugs education.

The study also examined aspects of PSHE in depth with nine primary schools. It found that the schools most valued official sources of support for planning or for signposting other resources. Teachers valued resources that were easy to use, enjoyable and engaging for pupils, which responded to pupils’ needs and were relevant to the context of the lessons. One of the key aims of the PSHE review is to identify the support that teachers need to provide high-quality teaching. The use of resources and expert support for schools are critical in that regard.

I am aware of the Christian Institute’s booklet, “Too much, too young”, which was referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire. It raises the question of which teaching materials are appropriate for school children. A search of a number of the local authority websites cited in the booklet did not reveal any that had a list of SRE resources recommended for primary schools, although some had an intranet that could not be accessed externally by officials.

Local authorities tell schools about available resources in a number of ways, which may include directing them to websites where SRE resources are listed. The Sex Education Forum website has a list of resources, which includes some of those cited by the Christian Institute booklet. The Sex Education Forum website clearly advises professionals to make their own choices about which resources to use and does not endorse the resources on the list. The website also provides a list of questions to help teachers choose and use a resource.

Photo of Andrea Leadsom Andrea Leadsom Conservative, South Northamptonshire

Does my hon. Friend acknowledge that unless one happens to have a seven-year-old who has exactly the same mental capacity as every other seven-year-old, one cannot decide what is absolutely right for all seven-year-olds in a class? It is extremely difficult for an adult to decide what might terrify a seven-year-old, particularly as children are not all the same. Does my hon. Friend agree that some form of uniformity, by making better classification, would be extraordinarily helpful in decision making?

Photo of Nick Gibb Nick Gibb Minister of State (Education)

I will come to that and the other points made by my hon. Friend in a moment.

The questions on the website include the following. Is the resource consistent with the values set out in the school’s SRE policy? Is it appropriate for the age, ability and maturity of the children? Have parents been consulted? Will the resource be used in its entirety or will it be more appropriate to adapt it and select from it?

Diana Johnson asked whether such material was being used in schools, so I will talk to the Sex Education Forum and to my hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire about the materials, how their content is decided and how they are used in schools. I think the SEF, with its wide range of member organisations, including those representing children and youth, faith groups, health, parenting and families, should have a perspective on such matters. I also want to explore how the range of resources available influences practice in schools, and I will talk to the makers of BBC Active and Channel 4’s “Living and Growing” resources to understand how such resources are selected for particular age groups and how parents are involved.

My hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire and others raised entirely legitimate concerns in the debate, and we must ensure that parents are listened to. There are safeguards in place to protect children from inappropriate materials. First, governing bodies have a statutory responsibility to ensure that schools have a policy on sex education, which, as a minimum, should give information about how sex education will be provided, any sensitive issues that will be covered and who will provide it. Secondly, local authorities, school governing bodies and head teachers must have regard to the Secretary of State’s statutory, “Sex and Relationships Education Guidance”. Paragraph 1.8 states:

“Materials used in schools must be in accordance with…the law. Inappropriate images should not be used nor should explicit material not directly related to explanation. Schools should ensure that pupils are protected from teaching and materials which are inappropriate, having regard to the age and cultural background of the pupils concerned. Governors and head teachers should discuss with parents and take on board concerns raised, both on materials which are offered to schools and on sensitive material to be used in the classroom.”

My hon. Friend also proposed the licensing of materials, potentially by the British Board of Film Classification. I can readily understand her wish for materials—

Photo of George Howarth George Howarth Labour, Knowsley

Order. It is time for the next debate.