Relationships Education: LGBT Content — [Peter Dowd in the Chair]

– in Westminster Hall at 4:30 pm on 18 March 2024.

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Photo of Peter Dowd Peter Dowd Labour, Bootle 4:30, 18 March 2024

I would like to inform Members that the parliamentary digital communications team will be conducting secondary filming during today’s debate for its series of procedural explainers—welcome.

Photo of Elliot Colburn Elliot Colburn Conservative, Carshalton and Wallington

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered e-petitions 630932 and 631529 relating to LGBT content in relationships education.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dowd. Let me begin as usual by reading out the prayers in the petitions. The prayer in e-petition 630932 reads:

“We believe kids shouldn’t learn about this at an early age. I am sure there are many parents who do not want their or other children taught about LGBT in primary school.”

The petition closed on 12 July 2023 with 249,594 signatures, including 490 from Carshalton and Wallington. It did receive some attention because of the person who started it, so I want to clarify that they were a UK resident and that the Petitions Committee therefore felt it was appropriate to schedule this debate on the petition.

The prayer in e-petition 631529 reads:

“We believe kids should learn about this at an early age. I am sure there are many parents who want their and other children taught about LGBT issues…There is a petition to remove this content, which we believe is discriminatory. LGBT people exist, they have the same rights as the rest of us and kids should know them…without judgement or issue. Despite what their parents might believe.”

The petition closed on 20 July 2023 with 104,920 signatures, including 151 from my constituency.

In their replies to the two petitions, the Government stated that they had no intention of revising their guidelines, but they have since commissioned a review of relationships and sex education, or RSE, as I will refer to it throughout the rest of the debate. Today I want to make the case for why we should not go backwards and allow a return to the days of section 28, and to make the positive case for an inclusive, age-appropriate RSE curriculum. This is a policy the Government should be proud of rather than backing away from.

First, I want to share a little of my own story. I was at school before mandatory RSE and certainly before LGBT+ inclusive RSE. I came out very early in my secondary school career at Carshalton Boys Sports College to a few select peers and staff who I trusted. If that had happened in the days of section 28, I would of course have had to be turned away by my teachers and told to shut up about it. Instead, I was part of a school that was well ahead of its time and that not only taught us about healthy relationships and safe sex, but made sure that that teaching was inclusive of all identities, including LGBT+ people like me. I want to be clear: it was not some graphic exposure of how to have sex or the various things that people might want to do with each other behind closed doors; it was simply about the fact that LGBT+ people exist and can form loving relationships with each other just like any other person and about the precautions they should take, but it was also about how to access specific advice and support if we needed it. That was it.

I now want to set out the current framework for RSE in England, and I want to thank the House of Commons Library, Brook, the Sex Education Forum and others for their helpful briefings in advance of today’s debate. The Government’s RSE guidance of 2019 advises schools to plan a developmental and age-appropriate curriculum. Relationships education is therefore approached in ways that are relevant to the age and maturity of the pupils. For example, teaching about “Families and people who care for me” in primary school can be an opportunity to talk about the fact that some people have two dads and some have two mums.

Key messages taught throughout relationships education include that people do not have to conform to narrow stereotypes and that discrimination, bullying and prejudice are harmful and wrong. Indeed, that principle is woven throughout the British values element of school teaching, the aim of which is to encourage and foster respect, kindness, equality and inclusion. Those are British values: they are intrinsic to the ethos of most schools, and families are supportive of them.

Primary schools are not required to teach sex education or explicitly teach about LGBT+ issues; it is more about families and relationships. Parents also have the right to withdraw their child from the sex education part of RSE up to the age of 16.

The Government ask for a whole-school approach from our schools as a vehicle to deliver strategies to tackle violence against women and girls, sexual harassment —which, as we know from Ofsted reports, is rife—peer-on-peer abuse, bullying, forms of hatred such as racism and religious abuse, and much more. My concern is that removing LGBT+ content from relationships education would conflict with the existing obligation on schools under the public sector equality duty and the community cohesion duty and undermine the Government’s strategies to deliver on both.

Photo of Paul Blomfield Paul Blomfield Labour, Sheffield Central

I thank the hon. Member for the way in which he has introduced the debate, which was made more powerful by his sharing his own experience. Some 512 of my constituents signed the second petition, and I am sorry I cannot stay for the whole debate, but I want to pick up on the point the hon. Member just made. Does he recognise the significant academic research demonstrating that, where we have LGBTQ+ inclusive curricula, there are higher levels of safety for individuals, lower levels of bullying in school and lower levels of adverse mental health reporting?

Photo of Elliot Colburn Elliot Colburn Conservative, Carshalton and Wallington

I am grateful to the hon. Member for that intervention, and I absolutely agree with him; in fact, that is the part of my speech I am moving on to, so I am grateful to him for giving me an opening. It is true that research has found that LGBT+ inclusive curricula are associated with reports of greater safety for individuals, lower levels of bullying at school and fewer reports of adverse mental health among all young people, irrespective of their gender identity or sexual orientation. That was set out in a report by Goldfarb and Lieberman in 2021.

High-quality, inclusive RSE is vital for children and young people to live safe, healthy and happy lives, and that can be demonstrated by young people themselves. Young people who took part in the Sex Education Forum’s research told us that their relationships education is not sufficiently inclusive of LGBT+ people, with 38% reporting that their RSE failed to provide any or adequate information about sexual orientation, and 44% reporting that it failed to provide any or adequate coverage of gender identity and information relevant to trans people.

I will share a couple of quotes from some of those young people. One of them said:

“We need to be told more about LGBT…I am a lesbian and growing up I never knew you could have sexual diseases” from same-sex activities

“until the age of 15 when I started myself”.

Another said:

“Educate children on the LGBTQ community and same sex relationships. There will be someone in each class that it’ll be relevant to and children” should learn

“to be more accepting. Queer people have and always will exist and children” should be taught.

In addition to learning at school, children learn about relationships from their families, communities and wider media. The Sex Education Forum surveyed more than 1,000 young people between the ages of 16 and 17 and found that they were more likely to have learned about LGBT+ identities from social media, at around 30%, than in school, at just 25%. Parents were identified as the main source of learning for just 4% of respondents.

That leads me on to a key point that I want to make. Rather than going after LGBT+ identities as part of their review into RSE, I urge the Government to focus on the quality of the content, the resources available to schools and the training available to teachers to provide RSE in a safe and age-appropriate way. Again, research back in 2018 demonstrated that only 20% of teachers said they felt extremely confident in delivering inclusive RSE, with 10% reporting that they were not confident at all. A later survey, conducted in 2019 by the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and the National Education Union, found that almost half of teachers said they did not feel confident delivering statutory RSE.

Since RSE became statutory, the Government have invested about £3.2 million of their planned £6 million in implementing the statutory RSE curriculum. However, that is only a fraction of what schools say they need to be able to do so safely, which sits at a best estimate at around £29 million. The voices of those children and teachers are clear: they need the tools to be able to deliver this effectively and appropriately, and I hope that that is what the Government’s review will focus on.

I want to address some of the criticisms surrounding an inclusive RSE policy, especially in the area of parental oversight and engagement and the appropriateness of materials used in the classroom. A number of the statements the Government have made recently about parents’ right to see RSE materials suggest that the issue is somehow new, but that is not the case. Schools have always been encouraged to share RSE resources with parents and carers.

Photo of Andrea Jenkyns Andrea Jenkyns Conservative, Morley and Outwood

I have a constituent whose school will not show the materials. It will show a summary, but not the actual materials, so she has taken her child out of that school. I agree that we need complete transparency and that parents have a right to that. Does my hon. Friend agree?

Photo of Elliot Colburn Elliot Colburn Conservative, Carshalton and Wallington

That is absolutely appropriate. If the school has done that, it is contrary to current Government guidelines. I do not disagree with my hon. Friend at all.

The Government’s own statutory RSE guidance outlines obligations for parents and carers to be consulted on the development and review of schools’ RSE policies. It explicitly states that, as part of that process, parents and carers should be able to see “examples of the resources” that schools will use. Many schools should ask parents and carers to come in, view the materials and have a chat about the context in which they will be used. That is there in black and white, so if that is not happening, it absolutely should be called out. I do not think anyone would disagree that parents have a right to know.

With regard to the accusations of extreme, inappropriate, highly sexual material or similar, there simply is not the data to back up many of those claims, and that includes a lack of statistical data on complaints that have been escalated to the Department for Education. Many teaching organisations and people representing education unions, for example, have said that they have struggled to find any evidence of a widespread problem.

Photo of Elliot Colburn Elliot Colburn Conservative, Carshalton and Wallington

I suspect that I will come on to both Members’ points. I will finish this point, and if they still want to intervene, I will gladly give way.

Many of the examples that have been used come from other jurisdictions—one is from the Isle of Man, and many are from the United States of America—and others are anecdotal claims that have not been backed up with any evidence. Indeed, in the case of the protests outside schools in Birmingham, a High Court judge ruled that what was being taught in schools was being grossly misrepresented.

That is not to say that sometimes things do not go wrong, and I will come to that, but the research suggests that the opposite is often the case: schools are not teaching young people key aspects of the curriculum, rather than going to the other extreme. The Sex Education Forum’s polling of young people aged 16 and 17 found that basic mandatory aspects of the curriculum, such as healthy relationships and how to access sexual health services, are frequently missed, with close to three in 10 young people saying they had not learned how to tell, for example, whether a relationship is healthy.

When providing a universal service such as education, it is naive to think that things sometimes do not go wrong, and I acknowledge the comments from the chief inspector of Ofsted that that has happened on occasion. There may well have been occasions where inappropriate things have been said or brought into classrooms, which is not acceptable, but there is a framework in place to deal with that, and we do not have to jump to erasing LGBT people entirely.

Photo of Stephen Doughty Stephen Doughty Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs and International Development)

The hon. Member is giving a characteristically powerful and important speech. I, too, have seen myths going around in my own constituency, in Wales, about what is allegedly being taught in schools, and they are simply not borne out by the facts. Does he agree that the important thing is for parents, or indeed anybody else, to speak with schools? My schools have been working with families and across school clusters to ensure that parents are involved and understand what is going on. Of course, parents can also often access the information online—for example, the Welsh Government’s curriculum is there for everybody to read online. It is important to base discussions on the facts, not on the myths that are circulating.

Photo of Elliot Colburn Elliot Colburn Conservative, Carshalton and Wallington

The hon. Member is absolutely right. It comes back to the point I have been trying to make throughout: there may well have been occasions where things have gone wrong, but that is where we need to ensure that schools engage with parents and carers, fulfilling the statutory guidelines and allowing parents and carers to see the curriculum and help develop it. We also need to have these discussions based on fact.

Photo of Nicholas Fletcher Nicholas Fletcher Conservative, Don Valley

I thank my hon. Friend for what he has said so far. He has said that there is not enough evidence of this material. Will he meet me later this week so that I can set out all the evidence we have? I have also shared it with the Department for Education, because to say it is not out there is completely and utterly wrong. It is out there, and in my speech I will be mentioning all the different companies that are sharing it. I am afraid some it is completely abhorrent.

Photo of Elliot Colburn Elliot Colburn Conservative, Carshalton and Wallington

I am always happy to meet my hon. Friend. We sit on the Petitions Committee together and I am sure we can happily have that chat. To clarify, I am not saying that the material is not out there. I think I have made that clear in my speech so far, but I apologise if I have not. I want to be crystal clear that with a universal service that everybody gets, such as education or health, it is inevitable that sometimes things go wrong. What I am saying is that there is no statistical data to back up the idea that this is a widespread problem, so rather than trying to erase LGBT people from existence in schools, we need to look at why teachers do not feel confident delivering such material and why, on occasion, people sometimes invite inappropriate stuff into the classroom. I agree with my hon. Friend that if material is not age-appropriate, it should absolutely not be in our classrooms. The point I was trying to make was about ensuring that schools feel confident delivering the information and that parents feel empowered, but I am always happy to meet my hon. Friend.

Photo of Lloyd Russell-Moyle Lloyd Russell-Moyle Labour/Co-operative, Brighton, Kemptown

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there is often a conflation between all the material an organisation might produce and the material that is used in schools? Disney produces adult movies as well as children’s movies; the children’s movies have children’s content and the adult movies have adult content. An organisation might produce adult materials and children’s materials. Just because an organisation produces a range of materials does not mean that is evidence they are being used in schools. The evidence is what teachers are doing and what children are reporting, which is broadly positive.

Photo of Elliot Colburn Elliot Colburn Conservative, Carshalton and Wallington

I absolutely agree with the hon. Member, who makes a good point. Many people who produce children’s content might also produce adult content. For example, many authors write books that are aimed at adults and books that are aimed at children; that it is not unusual. Any assessment needs to reflect what is going on inside the classroom. We need the DFE to be well equipped so it has the expertise needed to ensure that any complaints that come forward can be thoroughly investigated, and that it has adequate resources in place to deal with issues when things go wrong, which is inevitable in a universal service. I would like to hear more from the Minister about that.

I will bring my remarks to an end by focusing on the societal change from the days of section 28 to where we are now. Section 28 was the ban on the teaching or “promotion”, as it was called, of LGBT+ issues. Since those days, we have been allowed to marry, to obtain a gender recognition certificate and to adopt, and we have gained many other hard-won rights. What does that mean in practice? It means there will be LGBT+ people at the school gates dropping off their much-loved children. Are we seriously suggesting to the Government that a child will have no ability to discuss why someone has been dropped off by two mums or two dads at the school gate? Of course not. Are we seriously suggesting in a digital age, when LGBT+ people are allowed to go about their lives out of the closet and in the knowledge that the state has protections against discrimination in place, that there is a way of preventing children from finding out that LGBT+ people exist? As we saw in the data, more children find out from social media than they do from schools or their parents.

It would be next to impossible to hide from children the fact that LGBT+ people exist. The Government think so, too. Their guidance for gender-questioning pupils explicitly said that it was not appropriate to continue to ask schools to hide a student who was questioning their gender from a parent because it would be next to impossible for that parent not to find out anyway in the digital age. If the Government agree with that when it comes to gender-questioning pupils, they have to be consistent and agree with that when it comes to LGBT content in the RSE curriculum.

When such content is done right, it has benefits for all. It tackles discrimination, promotes healthy relationships and reduces poor mental health. In his reply, I hope the Minister will offer a categorical assurance that the review will be focused on materials and training, and not on erasing LGBT+ people from existence. I can tell the Minister and the House quite clearly, as I am sure many others will, that no matter how hard some people might try, we are not going back in the closet. We exist, and there is nothing extreme about knowing we exist. In the RSE review, the Government should commit to examining why teachers lack the confidence to teach the subject, invest in materials to support the teaching of the subject, and not try to erase LGBT+ people from existence in the eyes of the students that teachers are there to look after.

Photo of Peter Dowd Peter Dowd Labour, Bootle

I remind Members to bob if they wish to be called. I also ask Members to address the Chair.

Photo of Sarah Champion Sarah Champion Chair, International Development Committee, Chair, International Development Committee 4:50, 18 March 2024

It is always a pleasure to serve under your guidance, Mr Dowd. I thank Elliot Colburn for his very reasoned speech and for sharing his own experiences; it was a very powerful way to open the debate.

When I was first elected, I was focused on trying to prevent child abuse and putting child protections in place. I set up a campaign called “Dare2Care” with about 40 organisations, charities and survivors of abuse. We looked at how we could keep children safe. The one thing we all felt to be the most powerful was relationship education from primary school age. I was incredibly proud —I think it will probably be my biggest achievement—that in June 2017, we got cross-party support for making relationship education mandatory from primary school and for making sex and relationship education mandatory from secondary school. I know that that is already empowering children.

What we are talking about with RSE, particularly in primary school, is teaching children to respect themselves and respect others. That is what we are discussing today, because relationship education is about equipping all children to be safe, to recognise abuse and exploitation, and to know how to report it and seek help.

LGBTQ+ people, children particularly, must be recognised and included in the same way as heterosexual people are in relationship education, quite simply because LGBTQ people exist. They will experience relationships, sex and emotional connections good and bad in the same way as everyone else, and they have the right to be educated on the joys and dangers that come alongside those things. Avoiding mentioning the very existence of LGBTQ people in front of pupils and denying them the access to relationship education that their peers will get does nothing to safeguard them. It also does nothing to protect them from the hatred that, appallingly, seems to be getting worse and worse in this country.

I want a UK—a world—that is tolerant and respectful, and that appreciates and celebrates difference. To exclude that leads us to a very dark place. We know that from our recent history, because there are distressing echoes of section 28. Section 28 was repealed in 2003, because parliamentarians understood the great harms caused by the legislation and the chilling effect and discriminatory culture that rippled out from it. Those lessons from section 28 have informed successive Governments’ policies ever since, and they inform the cross-party support for LGBTQ+ inclusivity in guidance on relationships, health and sex education. They informed a generation of teachers who want to do better by their pupils and a generation of parents who want their children to access LGBTQ+ education.

Those who seek to exclude LGBT content will argue that it is not appropriate or necessary to teach it to primary-aged children, but I wonder what they actually think is being taught. Why is it so scary to them? Why do they not trust teachers in this respect? In key stage 1, being LGBTQ+ inclusive is as simple as acknowledging different families, parents, carers and other family members who may be lesbian, gay or trans. Those people and families exist, and children in our school communities need to know that any family that provides love, security and care is a valid family.

If children already know that they are gay, as many adult LGBTQ+ people say they did right back in the early days of primary, they need to know that all the safeguarding messages in school are for them, too. No child should be excluded, made invisible, or made to feel that they are “other” or not deserving of support from a trusted adult, because that opens the door for exploitation and their abuse.

By key stage 2, when children are going through puberty and studying it, they will have their own questions about the relationship between their bodies and sex. Opponents of inclusive LGBT+ education claim that it sexualises children, but that reflects a very narrow view of LGBTQ+ people. We cannot read through a briefing from the anti lobby without hearing about particular sex acts, as though being LGBT+ and being highly sexualised are synonymous—the total of someone’s identity.

That also reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of inclusive relationship education. The lessons that I have campaigned for have always been about helping children to understand the core values that underpin healthy relationships: mutual respect, self-respect, kindness and trust. It is also about knowing how, where and when to seek help with safeguarding and mental and physical health. The lessons are not pushing an evil agenda to corrupt young minds. They are preparing all children for the world as it is, where LGBTQ+ people exist and relationships happen, and also the world where it is dark, with some pretty awful haters out there.

It would be a travesty in this place if we were to unlearn all that we saw during the horror of section 28 and go back to a place of suspicion and hatred, which would leave our LGBTQ+ young children feeling alone and fearful once again. We must ensure that the current generation of young people leaving school—all young children leaving school—have the tools, skills and support that they need to be safe, happy and respectful, not to tolerate hate and extremism, and to engage in healthy relationships that enable them to thrive in our society.

Photo of Adam Holloway Adam Holloway Conservative, Gravesham 4:57, 18 March 2024

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dowd. There are impassioned calls for the Government to remove LGBT content from the primary school curriculum and equally impassioned calls that children of 11 and under should be taught about LGBT relationships—the two petitions we are debating today. They reflect real anxiety over this hugely sensitive issue. Feelings run very high, and understandably so. Some worry about exposing young children to age-inappropriate material and foisting adult preoccupations on them, while others feel strongly that some children will not be able to make informed decisions about health, wellbeing and relationships without developing an understanding of LGBT issues at a fairly young age. I will make a few brief points on the issue, which chiefly relate to the teaching of transgender ideology.

My points are informed by a very unhappy experience in my constituency, where an academy trust developed a syllabus designed for primary school children promoting transgender ideology. The ideas at the heart of the teaching materials that were proposed and the manner in which the matter was handled caused massive upset among the parent body and a catastrophic breakdown in trust. We all have loads of WhatsApp groups, and the busiest WhatsApp group that I have is the group in my constituency, which the parents have entitled “protect our children”.

Thankfully, there has now been a resolution of sorts, with parents rightly being put back in control of what their primary-age children are taught, but the episode has impressed on me the need to remember that our understanding of transgender theory is by no means settled and that there is not a consensus of opinion.

Photo of Andrea Jenkyns Andrea Jenkyns Conservative, Morley and Outwood

As the mother of a primary-age schoolchild, I do not want him or other children, straight or gay, to learn about sex full stop. I also do not want young children in primary school to be taught about changing gender. I have no problem with whatever people want to do when they are older—life is short; be happy—but does my hon. Friend agree that we need to protect the innocence of children and their childhood, especially at primary school age?

Photo of Adam Holloway Adam Holloway Conservative, Gravesham

Indeed, as well as respect parents. Because the long-term emotional consequences of transition are not properly understood, we should be careful about teaching contested concepts to young, impressionable children. We would not be doing right by the majority of parents if we failed to acknowledge that the idea that sex is assigned at birth is not a universally held view, but the complexities of explaining that to children aged 11 or under are pretty obvious. I also struggle to see how that issue could be taught honestly and objectively without explaining that there may be other reasons why a person feels uncomfortable about themselves or their body. Teaching that to primary-aged children is clearly hugely problematic. Instinctively, for those reasons, I feel that the complex issue of transgender ideology has no real place on the primary school curriculum.

It is, however, unrealistic to think that issues relating to gender will not crop up—of course they will. Some children will question their gender, and many will meet transgender adults. Where primary schools feel that such education does need to be included—which will not be everywhere—we need to support teachers in navigating the sensitivities, and to ensure that schools are safe places for everybody. Therefore, the Government need urgently to issue clear and prescriptive guidance on content, and as anticipated in the current review, take a firm grip on the materials that schools use.

I would prefer that what was taught reflected the fact that there is a divergence of views on the issue of transgender. However, at primary school level, what is taught about that need not go much further than emphasising that the choices people make should never be the subject of unkindness. The emphasis on parental engagement with the curriculum is welcome. Communication and trust between parents and schools is important, but while it is sensible to let parents see what their children will be taught before lessons are delivered, and while a parental opt-out may be useful, children are bound to discuss the topics among themselves. The focus must be on teachers getting it right and ensuring that the message primary-aged children receive is not confusing, age inappropriate or sexualised.

Photo of Lloyd Russell-Moyle Lloyd Russell-Moyle Labour/Co-operative, Brighton, Kemptown 5:02, 18 March 2024

I rise to support the second petition, but it is important that we recognise the concerns of those who signed the first petition. I hope those concerns can be allayed.

Let us remember what we are really talking about: age-appropriate education for children. It is not the first time that people have deliberately used age-appropriate education to try to ban wider education; in fact, that is one of the ways that section 28 was introduced. People will remember “Jenny Lives with Eric and Martin”, a rather dull and boring book about a little girl who goes and has ice cream and walks through a park with her two daddies. That was one of the books that caused the furore when it was stocked by the Inner London Education Authority and it was suggested that it should be in schools. I do not think anyone in the Chamber would now suggest anything other than that the book is appropriate for children aged three to five, as it was designated at the time.

The book was rather dull and boring, as these things should be in many respects. People’s boring and dull lives in all their different aspects and orientations need to be explained to children, and we can see that if we look through children’s libraries in schools at the moment. There is the fantastic “And Tango Makes Three”, where two father penguins are raising a penguin child, which is actually a true story based in a zoo. There is “What Does a Princess Really look Like?”, which is for nought to three-year-olds, and is about how anyone can be a princess if they want and how everyone is flawed. The book ends with the father and the child realising that we are all flawed, but we are all striving to be good people. “Love Makes a Family” contains pictures of loving families in all their diversity—mixed race families, where the grandparents are raising the children, and so on. From “’Twas the Night Before Pride”, which is four to eight-year-old appropriate, children can learn about why people of all different backgrounds celebrate Pride. There are other books for older age groups.

Those books are in school libraries. Would I give “’Twas the Night Before Pride” to a two-year-old? No, because it is stated quite clearly on the book’s cover that it is appropriate for four to eight-year-olds. The same is true of teaching materials; we use different materials and different levels of education for different ages. However, I am afraid that there is no starting point where children need to start to realise that there are lots of different families, or to realise that gender and sex are important dividing points in society.

I think that children in lower primary school—infant school—generally should not be divided very much by sex at all. At that age, they should be taught, “Actually, you can be anything you want. You can play with any of the toys you want. You can do all of the sports activities that you want.” We should have almost no gender-specific activities or separation at that age, and I think that it is a great shame that we now see adverts for Lego that are gendered, whereas only 30 years ago they would have no gender attached to them. I think that we have gone backwards in many respects for infant and lower-primary-school age groups.

That does not mean that we should be blind to differences. It does not mean that we should not say, “When you get older, sometimes, girls and boys do separate off and do different activities,” but that that should be dealt with in an age-appropriate way. Of course, when we talk about bits of the body, as well—children of a very young age are curious—that should be described in an age-appropriate manner.

To ignore differences in that sense is actually to raise our children to be oblivious to what is appropriate—to what parts of their or others’ bodies are appropriate to show or to touch. If we do not get that across, we create children who are less safe, because when people then do have inappropriate relationships with them, they have not been taught that that is wrong. If we just talk about it in the sense of “mummy and daddy,” then we also set up a relationship danger, where we are not explaining to children that, “As you get older, your older brother and sister, and your older aunts and uncles, might also have different forms of relationship that are healthy and that are safe.” Therefore I do think it is important that that is done.

Where I think we have gone wrong, particularly in this area, is in the lack of proper guidelines when relationships education was rolled out initially. When some of the Birmingham protests were happening, we expected teachers to engage with the community without proper, clear guidelines from the Department for Education about what was and was not appropriate. Teachers had to go to bat for what were often very sensible policies without the defence of, “We are following the national guidelines.” Those guidelines have now been out for a little while, and it is perfectly sensible for those guidelines to be reviewed from time to time to make sure that they are still working.

I also think that that parents should be encouraged to see the text of the work in all aspects of education. In maths and in English, we should not have secret education, where we say to parents, “Oh, well, you want to know what literature your children are studying at the moment? No, I am afraid you can’t do that.” We should be open about it: “Here’s the book that we are studying, and here are the resources.” That is partly because we want to encourage parents to go on a learning journey with their children. We know that children perform best in schools when the parents are working at the same pace with the children. That sometimes means the parents learning as well. When I have taught nieces and nephews or worked with other younger children, and I have tried to help them with maths, sometimes, I learn as much as them. They do long arithmetic nowadays very differently to how I did it. It is perfectly acceptable to say that, as a minimum, we expect parents to see the resources. I do not think that is unusual. We should not be targeting LGBT specific RSHE in that discussion, but talking about it as a wider school community.

There is also a case for schools to ask parents to come in to learn about the RSHE the school is providing. I actually think we should encourage schools to offer those activities for wider parts of the curriculum as well. We know that children from highly educated backgrounds often have an advantage because their parents are able to engage easily in the curriculum, while parents who do not have that same academic background might not be able to do so. Schools inviting people in to engage with that is therefore something that we should encourage.

Photo of Stephen Doughty Stephen Doughty Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs and International Development)

My hon. Friend is making some important points. Does he agree that additional safeguards can be put in place? In Wales, the curriculum specifically says that material has to be “developmentally appropriate” for young people. We have to take into account not only age but knowledge, maturity, additional learning needs and physiological and emotional development to ensure that materials are provided at the right stage for every young person.

Photo of Lloyd Russell-Moyle Lloyd Russell-Moyle Labour/Co-operative, Brighton, Kemptown

I totally agree. We also need to be clear that these considerations should apply not only if there is a trans child at the school; they are of wider importance. I remember this issue at my primary school, not with relationship education but with education around different religions. My year group was almost exclusively of a white and Christian background, but we learned about Buddhism and Hinduism, with all the different festivals. There is a danger of thinking that we should teach these things only if there happens to be somebody in the class with a gay family member, or an older sibling who is transgender. I benefited hugely from the school trips we took to the synagogue, even though I think I am right in saying that there were no Jewish children at my school. It was really important for me to understand the different backgrounds that different families have, and then, when I went to secondary school and mixed with a bigger group of people who were from different groups and had different backgrounds, I understood where they were coming from.

I want to touch briefly on a point I made in an intervention earlier. I think we have got waylaid in this conversation by condemning organisations that produce different age-specific materials. It is quite right that sex and relationship-based organisations that specialise in the subject will produce materials for adults and materials for children, and on their website they will publish all those materials. It is totally right that they will do that. It is, of course, totally wrong for a teacher to pick adult material and use it for activities with younger people. When we had this debate last time, I remember several Members on the opposing side of the argument reading out a number of rather adult activities, but when we got to the bottom of it there was no evidence that those activities had been run in any primary school in this country. To this day I have seen no evidence that schools have run those activities.

I am sure the exception will prove the rule in the sense that the outrage of one example out of the 100,000 schools across our country will be one where it needs to be age-specific, but that is why we need a better system for the Department for Education to share the books, educational resources and organisations that it recommends. Diversity Role Models is one organisation that does great work. It recently released a set of great cartoons that touch on all these different issues, which it launched only a few weeks ago at the Disney headquarters here in London. That is the kind of thing the Department should be signposting. It would ensure that teachers and parents have that reassurance, but most importantly that children can learn about the glorious diversity of the world they are growing up in, and that when they get to the right age, they are equipped and prepared to keep themselves safe and to have a happy and wonderful life.

Photo of Peter Gibson Peter Gibson Conservative, Darlington 5:14, 18 March 2024

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dowd. I congratulate my hon. Friend Elliot Colburn on leading this debate on behalf of the Petitions Committee in his usual exemplary manner. Both the petitions that prompted the debate were clearly very popular. On the one hand, there are those who want to see LGBT content on school curriculums, and on the other, those who do not. In Darlington, one petition was signed by 211 people, and the other by 293 people.

I know how alone I felt as a gay teenager growing up—like I was the only one. I was scared of people knowing and of what exactly it would mean for me if they did. LGBT issues were not discussed at school and sex education, such as it was, was largely confined to some lessons in the biology lab. Thankfully, that has improved and, although not perfect and still somewhat controversial, sex, relationships and LGBT issues are taught in the context of a range of issues. These issues should be taught at an appropriate age. The material used should be appropriate, too, and subject to the inspection and approval of parents.

I welcome this debate, which in my view is timely, coming so soon after the debate on the private Member’s Bill proposed by Lloyd Russell-Moyle, and the debate that we sadly did not have on Friday on the Bill proposed by my right hon. Friend Elizabeth Truss. I have spoken openly many times about my support for lesbian and gay people and those with gender dysphoria. This debate is an important opportunity to set out, in the context of what it is appropriate for children to know, my views on these issues. I passionately believe that children should not be subjected to conversion practices, just as I do not believe that children should be medicalised. However, particularly while we are discussing what it is appropriate to tell young people, those who are experiencing gender dysphoria should be able to access appropriate counselling, challenging conversations and support, free from legislation preventing them from having such care.

While I am putting these matters on the record, on a topic that to my mind should not be a political football, I believe it is possible to stand up for the protection of safe spaces for women so that they are safe and comfortable, at the same time as having respect for those with gender dysphoria. I also believe that women should be entitled to compete in sports with other women. For the record, I respect trans people and want them to be free from discrimination, but I respect women, too, and they are entitled to have their spaces in which they are safe and comfortable.

The language of respect, tolerance and understanding is so important for young people to hear. If we do not teach our young people that people in society are LGBT, how will they have the understanding and knowledge to navigate these issues for themselves in society? Surely we want our young people to be tolerant and understanding and to have respect for everyone—core British values. We are unlikely to achieve that by keeping them in the dark.

Our children live in our communities, where families come in all forms, shapes and sizes. But the one thing that ensures that young people have the best upbringing is that they grow up with love. People in our communities, and indeed in our children’s families, are LBGT, and to my mind it is right that children learn about the society in which they will grow up and live, in an age-appropriate way. The point made by Stephen Doughty about that being developmentally appropriate is entirely right too.

It is a fact that young people have sex and experiment. We should not ignore this, but address it head on. We must ensure that schools have the resources needed to educate young people about how to have sex safely, so that we are more likely to be able to deal with the worrying rise we have seen in sexually transmitted diseases. If we had taken that approach in the 1990s, we might not have seen the extent of issues that we did with HIV. Although I commend the Government for all they are doing to bring about zero transmissions of HIV by 2030, improving and extending safer sex education is a key part of fulfilling that objective.

We have sadly seen increases in hate crimes and discrimination towards LGBT people. Hate and discrimination come from ignorance and intolerance. If we tackle those issues with education and understanding, we set the groundwork for reductions in those problems in the future.

Photo of Stephen Doughty Stephen Doughty Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs and International Development)

The hon. Gentleman is making a characteristically powerful speech. Of course, it is not just hate crime in society that matters; does he agree that it is also about what is happening in schools for young LGBT+ people? A 2021 study by Just Like Us found that 91% of LGBT+ young people would have heard negative language about being LGBT+, and that they were twice as likely to have been bullied. Inclusive education is a critical way of tackling that.

Photo of Peter Gibson Peter Gibson Conservative, Darlington

I could not agree more. Tackling homophobia, transphobia and bullying in our schools is absolutely key, and educating people about those they will meet in society is absolutely key to that.

Teaching our kids that LGBT people exist does not and will not make them so, but it may help those young people who are questioning who they are, and who they are going to be, not to feel so isolated and excluded. To my mind, it will also increase the understanding, tolerance and acceptance of those around them. I have spent a great deal of my time in schools in my constituency, and some schools in Darlington are doing some fantastic work in this subject area, for which I commend them. I particularly highlight the work of Wyvern Academy with its alliance group, which provides mutual support under the guidance of teaching staff.

In conclusion, I believe it is right that we teach our children about the world that they will become citizens of—as is appropriate to their age—free from conversion practices, free from medicalisation, and underpinned by appropriate and robust counselling. We will help to improve tolerance, understanding and acceptance; we will help to reduce hate and discrimination; we will help to reduce sexually transmitted diseases; and we will underpin British values of individual liberty, mutual respect and tolerance of others.

Photo of Ben Bradshaw Ben Bradshaw Labour, Exeter 5:22, 18 March 2024

I left school just over 10 years after homosexuality was decriminalised, and there was certainly nothing like LGBT affirming or inclusive sex and relationships education. Consequently, I did not know anyone at school who was openly gay. I certainly did not come out as gay until after I left school and found the relatively safe space of the University of Sussex, and I was fortunate enough to have a very supportive family and group of friends. I was therefore very moved when I visited one of my local schools in Exeter a few weeks ago. I was invited by a group of LGBTQ+ students for their weekly safe-space hour, when they get together and talk about their lives, feelings and so forth. It was an extremely moving experience for me because I thought of all the people of my generation who had been through experiences at school and who would have benefitted from living in a more enlightened age.

Of course, section 28, to which a number of colleagues have referred, was very much a backlash against the increasing visibility of lesbian and gay people after decriminalisation at the end of the 1960s. What is happening now, with the backlashes we are seeing against LGBT inclusive and affirming education in schools, is something rather similar—that visibility has continued, particularly when it comes to trans and non-binary young people. I just hope that we will resist the backlash, because some of the arguments that I am hearing now are very similar to ones that I heard back then—that we can make somebody gay or lesbian.

Now, people are saying that we can make somebody trans, and that it is an ideology. That phrase has been bandied around in this debate a number of times already, and it puzzles and upsets me. Being trans is not an ideology; it is who they are. It is something innate. Gender dysphoria is a condition that has been recognised for decades, if not hundreds of years, in human society. I worry that we are going back to pathologising and demonising people who simply want to be themselves, and young people in particular deserve the right to be respected and supported.

Although I am delighted to say that these days the vast majority of families are supportive and affirming of their children and other young LGBT people in general, we know that sadly some still are not. I do some work with an LGBTQI charity that works with young homeless people. Thirty per cent of young homeless people in this country are LGBTQ+, having been rejected by their families for being open about their sexual orientation or gender identity. Those young people need a safe space in school, and what schools have so brilliantly provided in recent years is that safe space. I have to say that whenever I pick up feedback or criticism about SRE in schools, particularly from young people themselves, it is that it is not affirming or inclusive, is not of good enough quality or is lacking altogether. The criticism I hear from young people shows that we need to build on what we have achieved and treat everyone with respect.

As I prepare to leave this House after 27 years, having come in at a time of moral panic about gay people and having myself been part of some of the fantastic progress made in this country in becoming a more tolerant, accepting and humane place, it saddens me that the consensus has somewhat broken down in recent years. I hope that the election this year will help to draw a line in the sand and that we can move on to a more hopeful and optimistic future in which not only all our young people, but everybody in this country—whatever their sexual orientation or gender identity—is supported and treated with respect.

Photo of Nicholas Fletcher Nicholas Fletcher Conservative, Don Valley 5:26, 18 March 2024

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dowd. I thank my colleague on the Petitions Committee, my hon. Friend Elliot Colburn, for his opening remarks.

Currently, up and down the country, we have schools teaching our children that girls can be boys and boys can be girls. It is hard to believe, and that is the issue that I will specifically focus on today. Let me start with an analogy. If we told our children that two plus two equals five enough times throughout their education, would we be surprised if some—not all but some—started to believe it?

Photo of Sarah Champion Sarah Champion Chair, International Development Committee, Chair, International Development Committee

We do trust teachers to teach that two plus two equals four, so if we trust them in that respect, why do we not trust their judgment in all respects?

Photo of Nicholas Fletcher Nicholas Fletcher Conservative, Don Valley

I thank the hon. Member for her contribution. I will come back to my speech—I do not want to spoil the flow of it, as it were. From what I have heard, the consensus here is that what we are teaching children should be transparent and age-appropriate. I believe it should also be grounded in truth. There have been remarks from lots of people here saying that the literature being shown to our children is not there and that there is no real evidence of it. Members are literally burying their heads in the sand on this issue. If they did not and they actually worked with myself and maybe the Department for Education and looked at all the evidence I have, maybe we would not have to go on social media and say, “Look what our kids are being taught. This is abhorrent,” and then somebody jumps on my page and so on and so forth. If all the adults in the room sat down with the Minister and said, “Look, this is what is happening”—I have examples in my folder, but we cannot show pictures in debates.

Photo of Adam Holloway Adam Holloway Conservative, Gravesham

I will give an example. One primary school in my constituency was using a book that included a picture of a grandfather in a gimp suit.

Photo of Nicholas Fletcher Nicholas Fletcher Conservative, Don Valley

I thank my hon. Friend. There is so much evidence out there of bad actors in this field, and I will come on to them.

I thank Sarah Champion for her earlier intervention. Would we be surprised if some—not all but some—children started to believe that two plus two equals five, especially when told by one of the main influences in their life, their teacher? We could put that together with many on social media also saying that two plus two equals five. Then, let us say, that people start wearing lanyards saying that two plus two equals five. Perhaps they do not really believe it, but they think it is a kind thing to do in order to make people who believe that two plus two equals five feel included. Then, let us say that the same people start putting two plus two equals five on their email footers for similar reasons. That thought gets compounded further when perhaps an irresponsible broadcaster through one of their main soaps has a storyline where an adult tells a 12-year-old that it is okay to think two plus two equals five. Then, let us say, that private businesses start putting posters up, again saying that two plus two equals five, and that there are flags flying down the high street saying two plus two equals five.

Then, let us say, some people start to stand up and say, “No, it doesn’t. Two plus two equals four. Let’s tell the truth.” Let us say that those individuals are called bigots and are silenced by venomous individuals on social media. If that scenario took place, would we be surprised that we would have thousands of young children believing that two plus two equals five? That is exactly where we have got to through teaching gender identity in our schools. Should our children be exposed to material that states they can be a boy or a girl depending on how they feel? No, they should not.

I agree 100% with the petitioners who want to remove such content from our schools. Children should not be subject, under any circumstances, to unscientific ideological material that leads to harm. I believe there is nothing more abhorrent then misleading the young, and it must stop.

Photo of Stephen Doughty Stephen Doughty Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs and International Development)

I seek a point of clarification. The hon. Gentleman says that he agrees with the petitioners, but the petition explicitly calls for the removal of LGBT+ content. Is it just the T that the hon. Gentleman wants to remove, or does he want to remove all LGB content as well?

Photo of Nicholas Fletcher Nicholas Fletcher Conservative, Don Valley

It is the T that I am discussing today, but I believe that the sexualisation of our children should stop within schools—all of it. I do not think there is any need for it, especially in primary schools. I genuinely do believe that there is absolutely no need for it.

Photo of Lloyd Russell-Moyle Lloyd Russell-Moyle Labour/Co-operative, Brighton, Kemptown

I am very interested in the hon. Gentleman’s analogy, but it is a bit unclear. Is he saying that we should not teach what two plus two equals at all? In other words, is he saying that we should not teach anything around relationships, including straight relationships and that there are parents, mothers and fathers? Or is he saying that he wants that to be taught, but that the only outcome he wants is that people have to be straight? That is what is not clear.

Every book, whether it be Enid Blyton, Harry Potter or whatever, mentions relationships and we talk about them when we teach literature to children. In primary schools, children are taught about how a hen lays an egg, and the egg hatches—

Photo of Lloyd Russell-Moyle Lloyd Russell-Moyle Labour/Co-operative, Brighton, Kemptown

It would be great to know what the hon. Gentleman wants: only straight, or nothing?

Photo of Nicholas Fletcher Nicholas Fletcher Conservative, Don Valley

I thank the hon. Member for his speech. I said right at the beginning that I would be speaking specifically about trans, and what I was trying to say is that I believe there is an untruth there. Two plus two equals four, but we seem to be teaching that two plus two equals five when it comes to gender. I believe that boys are boys and girls are girls, and that they cannot change sex.

Stonewall, Mermaids and other bad actors in this field have lobbied schools into subscribing to their ideologies, which are not grounded in anything factual. We have mainstream publishers such as HarperCollins publishing school textbooks that tell children:

“Myth 1—the world is divided into men and women.”

HarperCollins actually teaches children:

“Trans women are women and trans men are men.”

If that were so, that would be the end of female-only sports.

We have Stonewall teaching children:

“Everyone has a gender identity.”

I do not, so that cannot be true. We are lying to children. We have Brook teaching that a man who identifies as a woman is

“A woman of trans history”,

or even simply, “A woman.” If that were so, that would be the end of female-only spaces. We have some teachers, who have written to me, who are too scared not to teach those lessons, when they know that what they are teaching is wrong. That cannot and should not continue.

The Department for Education has quite rightly written a letter to schools telling them to let all parents see what their children are being taught. However, we have evidence that some schools are ignoring that and continuing regardless. Parents who have been shown what is being taught have sometimes seen only part of the material, or they have had to go into schools to see it and are then told they cannot photograph or copy it. Copyright issues have trumped our children’s safety. Be under no illusion—this is happening across the country. Swindon Borough Council produced its own material for use across local schools and it is quite clearly abhorrent. A staff member from Pop’n’Olly who explains to primary school children that he is trans and non-binary claims to have spoken to 100,000 children. Jigsaw says it has worked in 7,000 schools.

In 1994, we had 12 children suffering with confusion about their body and attending gender clinics. Now, we have 5,000 on a waiting list and we ask: why? I will tell you why: it is because our schools have been captured by bad actors in despicable business making huge sums of money out of feeding our children this ideology. We should not have to put legislation in place to deal with this. We as a nation should be playing no part in this. However, if individuals are too weak or too scared to stand up and say no to this ideology, I am afraid we must legislate. We must put legislation in place to deal with this with immediate effect. In 10 to 20 years’ time, this will be the next contaminated blood scandal or Post Office scandal. I hope all who have been pushing this will be dealt with accordingly.

Photo of Peter Gibson Peter Gibson Conservative, Darlington

Will my hon. Friend clarify something for me? His views on this particular subject are well documented and well circulated. Does he believe that the diagnosis of gender dysphoria in somebody who is identifying as trans simply does not exist?

Photo of Nicholas Fletcher Nicholas Fletcher Conservative, Don Valley

My hon. Friend and I are on opposite sides of this argument. I know he does not agree with me. We have, however, both been able to speak to each other on this with respect, which I really do hope continues. I do genuinely believe that there are people out there who are struggling with gender dysphoria—

Photo of Peter Dowd Peter Dowd Labour, Bootle

Order. Could the hon. Gentleman speak through the Chair?

Photo of Nicholas Fletcher Nicholas Fletcher Conservative, Don Valley

Sorry, Mr Dowd. I do genuinely believe that there are people out there who are struggling with gender dysphoria, and I think we should treat all these people with respect and kindness. As long as we do not have biological males in single-sex spaces, as long as we do not have biological males in women’s sport, and as long as we are not indoctrinating our children with this, I have not got an issue. I genuinely believe there are people out there who are confused with this. They should be able to go to people and seek help, but I do not think they should be going to people for it to be affirmed; they should be able to have an open and free conversation about this. But there is a time and a place for it, and our schools are not the time or the place.

I and several colleagues have recently written to the Department for Education to request that parents can withdraw their child from RSHE lessons. At present, children can only be withdrawn from sex education. However, we have an industry that seems set on teaching our children that they can be the opposite sex to what they were born. They have published this material in the relationships part of their textbooks, and therefore children cannot be removed from these lessons. Parents must be able to protect their children from this ideology. They must be able to do it now, before more children are affected by this teaching. At present, we have absenteeism levels not seen before within our schools. This material is not helping.

I ask the Minister, why are we allowing this in our schools? It is a false idea with no basis in science, leading some vulnerable children to seek puberty blockers, then cross-sex hormones, then invasive, risky surgery. Those practices impact bone and brain development. They chemically castrate children. They leave vulnerable children, vulnerable young people, living with lifelong, irreversible complications.

I can see why parents would choose not to send their child to a school that is teaching this—I would not either —so what is the answer? I believe this teaching has to stop in our schools. We need to take this literature out of our schools completely, change the RSHE guidance and allow parents, as a safety net, to withdraw their children from RSHE. As a society, we should call out every organisation that is taking part in this. Individuals who are joining in with this rhetoric should stop and think, “Where does this end?” They should stop and think with regard to trans-progressive flags, the lanyards and the pronoun email footers, because where does it end for our young children when they see this? They should stop and think about fuelling confusion in society and especially in the minds of our children.

If we encounter any person who is personally struggling with this, we just need to be kind. We should not have to legislate for kindness; we should all just be decent and treat people with respect. But sometimes we also have to be cruel to be kind. Sometimes we just have to say no. Parents, teachers, every adult just needs to be strong and say no to children—no, they are not born in the wrong body.

Let me say this one more time. There are few things more dishonourable than misleading the young, and I for one will play no part in it. I hope this Department will really step up now. The Department of Health and Social Care is beginning to see the light. The Home Office is, too. I hope the Department for Education can as well.

Photo of Catherine McKinnell Catherine McKinnell Shadow Minister (Education) (Schools) 5:41, 18 March 2024

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dowd. I thank Elliot Colburn for bringing this debate forward on behalf of the Petitions Committee. As a former Chair of the Petitions Committee, I appreciate how important it is for people to have their say on the issues that they care most about, and I am glad that we are having this discussion today. It is good to be in this debate with so many of my former fellow Petitions Committee members.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friends the Members for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) and for Brighton, Kemptown (Lloyd Russell-Moyle) and my right hon. Friend Mr Bradshaw, who have spoken about their views. As hon. Members have set out, it has been a legal requirement for all primary schools in England to teach relationships education and for all secondary schools to teach relationships and sex education since September 2020, although schools were able to delay that for a year because of the pandemic. Under the legislation, primary schools can choose to teach age-appropriate sex education in addition to relationships education. Many primary schools choose to teach sex education tailored to the age and physical and emotional maturity of their pupils, but the main focus is on ensuring that children have the building blocks for positive and safe relationships, starting with family and friends, how to treat one another with kindness and recognising the difference between online and offline friendships.

The legislation provides for the right of parents to withdraw their children from sex education, while providing children approaching 16 with rights to opt in, and gives schools, including faith schools, flexibility on their approach. Schools are required to consult parents when developing and reviewing their policies on relationships education and RSE, but when and how that content is taught is a decision for schools. Importantly, the regulations provide that a school’s policy must be published online and must be available to an individual free of charge, so that parents can be confident about what is being taught. That is also important so that parents can be available to their child at home to talk about what might be being taught in school, and be prepared for any questions or discussion points that might arise with their child.

Labour has put great focus on the relationship between schools and families, and open and transparent communication on these issues forms an important part of that. Of course, these positive relationships in our education system begin with how the Government approach these things. We have too often seen a combative approach with schools, which can filter down to a combative approach between schools and families. Labour wants to see a much more positive and constructive approach to the education of our children and young people.

On LGBT specific content, the guidance states:

“At the point at which schools consider it appropriate to teach their pupils about LGBT, they should ensure that this content is fully integrated into their programmes of study for this area of the curriculum rather than delivered as a standalone unit or lesson.”

Labour agrees it is important that LGBT issues are taught as part of sex and relationships education in a way that is inclusive and respectful to all.

The Department for Education announced a review of the statutory guidance last year in the context of a variety of developing concerns, including a worrying increase in sexual harassment, violence against women and girls, developments in activities online, and a worrying deterioration in young people’s mental health. A consultation on guidance for schools and colleges on gender-questioning children also closed last week, with the Government response due later this year.

There are strong and sometimes conflicting views on these issues, as we have heard in the debate today. Teachers and school leaders have therefore been very clear on their need for guidance from Government on the approach to take when teaching young people about relationships and sex. Teachers are not clinicians, mental health professionals or campaigners. They are educators who are required to educate within a clear framework that complies with equalities legislation and ensures that all teachers feel confident and well informed about the content which they are to teach.

It is therefore right that the issue went out to consultation. I know that organisations and people with a range of opinions will have fed back to the Government. I look forward to seeing how the diversity of opinion is reflected in the final guidance. I hope to hear more detail from the Minister on the timetable for the publication of consultation responses and the final guidance.

Labour is the party of equality. The last Labour Government did more to advance LGBT equality than any other in British history, making it illegal to discriminate on the grounds of sexual orientation, allowing lesbian and gay couples to adopt and making homophobia and transphobia hate crimes. In that spirit, we must redouble our efforts to ensure that conversations are held with the utmost respect and compassion and careful consideration for those potentially affected by our deliberations and decisions. The issues should not be used as a political football in our politics, which we have unfortunately seen too much of in recent years.

Labour is keen to ensure that the school curriculum ensures every child feels represented and receives a high-quality and enriching education. Our expert-led curriculum and assessment review will look at how we will deliver a broad and balanced curriculum that reflects the whole of our society. We will learn from international best practice and expert research in doing so. That is all part of Labour’s mission to break down the barriers to opportunity for everyone.

Once again, I thank the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington for securing this debate and the constructive way in which he set out his arguments. I look forward to hearing the next steps from the Minister.

Photo of Damian Hinds Damian Hinds Minister of State (Education) 5:48, 18 March 2024

It is a great pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Dowd—in my case, for the first time—and a pleasure to be here for this well-attended debate in Westminster Hall. I thank my hon. Friend Elliot Colburn for opening the petition debate on whether lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender content should be included in relationships education in primary schools. I also thank the petitioners involved in the two petitions.

The subjects are, as my hon. Friend Adam Holloway said, sensitive. We have heard different perspectives and had a passionate but respectful and reflective debate informed by constituency experiences and, in multiple cases, colleagues’ own personal experiences, which they have shared today. I thank everyone who has taken part: my hon. Friends the Members for Carshalton and Wallington, for Gravesham, for Darlington (Peter Gibson), and for Don Valley (Nick Fletcher); the hon. Members for Rotherham (Sarah Champion), and for Brighton, Kemptown (Lloyd Russell-Moyle); Mr Bradshaw; and the Opposition spokesperson, Catherine McKinnell. I also thank those who took part through interventions.

When we brought in the relationships, sex and health education statutory guidance from September 2020, it was the first update to that guidance for 19 years. In the intervening period, a lot had changed. A lot had changed in our society, and the law had changed in important ways. Technology and new media had changed, and continues to change, both what happens in our society and what our children are exposed to in ways that continue to develop.

It is essential to support all pupils to have the knowledge they need to lead happy, safe and healthy lives, and that they are able to understand and respect difference in others. That is not just my view. It also comes from extensive engagement with teachers, parents and others: we issued a call for evidence and a consultation on RSHE back in 2018. Colleagues across the House have repeated it, including my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington who did so rather powerfully.

High-quality, evidence-based and age-appropriate teaching of RSHE can help to achieve exactly what I have just set out. It can prepare pupils for the opportunities and the responsibilities of adult life, and it can promote pupils’ spiritual, moral, social, cultural, mental and physical development. In that context, we want all children to understand the importance of respect for relationships and the different types of loving and healthy relationships that exist in our society.

In primary schools, age-appropriate relationships education involves supporting children to learn about what healthy relationships are; about mutual respect, trustworthiness, loyalty, kindness, and generosity; as well as, crucially, keeping safe both online and offline. That then provides the basis for relationships and sex education at secondary school, where pupils are taught the facts around sex, sexual health and sexuality, set firmly within the context of relationships.

We do need to strike the right balance. We do not want teaching inadvertently to fast-track children into engaging in, or exploring, adult activities, rather than enjoying childhood and being children. To teach young people about same-sex relationships does not mean teaching children in primary schools about sex.

It should focus on teaching children that society consists of a diverse range of people, that families come in many shapes and sizes, and that it is all right to be different. Some children in the classroom may, of course, have lesbian, gay or transgender family members and will rightly want to feel included in lessons about positive, healthy and trusting relationships.

Crucially, if this content is not covered in the classroom, it does not mean that children are not going to come into contact with it. Most frequently, they will either turn to their peers—in fact, they do not even have to turn to their peers; they will get it from them anyway—or to the internet. My hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington reiterated the fact that, as we all know, that can be a dangerous and distorted place. The RSHE statutory guidance is clear that it is for schools to decide at what point in their pupils’ education it is appropriate to cover content related to LGBT—

Photo of Andrea Jenkyns Andrea Jenkyns Conservative, Morley and Outwood

Eighteen months ago, when I was very briefly in the DFE, I raised with civil servants my concern over constituents not being able to see the actual materials and being shown a summary only. I was reassured then that all schools would be emailed to say that materials must be shown to parents if requested. It was not done while I was there. Can the Minister confirm whether it has been done since?

Photo of Damian Hinds Damian Hinds Minister of State (Education)

It has, and later in my remarks I will come on to this very matter. As I was saying, the statutory guidance is clear that it is for schools to decide the point in their pupils’ education at which it is appropriate to cover matters related to LGBT.

Photo of Sarah Champion Sarah Champion Chair, International Development Committee, Chair, International Development Committee

I thank the Minister for his speech, and for all the work that he has done in this area. However, there is something that I have found increasingly frustrating. All schools were meant to have the necessary training by September 2021. I think that what we are hearing today are concerns that some teachers are not equipped, so they may be drawing on their personal experiences. Without giving every teacher the training, the Minister is leaving them somewhat exposed.

Photo of Damian Hinds Damian Hinds Minister of State (Education)

I recognise that there are questions around training. In truth, it is also the case that we cannot just say, “If only there was more training then none of these issues would arise.” That is just not the case. It is something that one looks at, and I recognise the issue, and the related issues around materials and their quality. I will touch on both of those later.

The RHSE statutory guidance is clear that it is for schools to decide the point in their pupils’ education at which it is appropriate to cover matters related to LGBT. That means that primary schools have discretion over whether to discuss sexual orientation or families that have same-sex parents. Earlier, the hon. Member for Rotherham outlined what the statutory guidance says. When we talk about LGBT in primary schools it is in the context of relationships and, in particular, families. The statutory guidance says:

“Families of many forms provide a nurturing environment for children. (Families can include for example, single parent families, LGBT parents, families headed by grandparents, adoptive parents, foster parents/carers amongst other structures.)”

There is no statutory content on LGBT in the primary curriculum tables.

Similarly, it is for primary schools to decide whether to teach any sex education. The RHSE guidance does not provide a definition of what relationships and sex education should include, but it is clear that it should be

“tailored to the age and the physical and emotional maturity of the pupils. It should ensure that both boys and girls are prepared for the changes that adolescence brings”.

Primary schools that do teach sex education must set out the details of what they will teach in their relationships and sex education policy, on which they must consult in advance with parents.

Secondary schools should provide an equal opportunity to explore the features of stable and healthy same-sex relationships, and ensure the content is integrated throughout the relationships and sex education curriculum. We trust our teachers to deliver this content in a suitable and age-appropriate way, respecting the beliefs and values of all pupils in the school. Our guidance says that schools are free to determine how they cover LGBT-related contented, and

“we expect all pupils to have been taught LGBT content at a timely point as part of this area of the curriculum.”

The majority of teachers do that well, and adapt to the circumstances of their pupils.

Some people may feel that covering LGBT matters contradicts tenets of their faith. I am conscious that religious faith is itself a protected characteristic. However, schools with a religious character can teach the distinctive faith perspective on relationships, and pupils should be able to have a balanced debate about issues that are contentious. A good understanding of pupils’ faith backgrounds and positive relationships between the school and local faith communities help to create a constructive context for the teaching of those subjects. Religions teach tolerance and respect, and those subjects are designed to help children from all backgrounds and faiths build positive and safe relationships.

We worked closely with the Catholic Education Service, the Church of England, the Board of Deputies of British Jews, and the Association of Muslim Schools on the support for implementing the curriculum. I know that some of those organisations develop their own materials that align the new curriculum with their faith prospectus. There is no reason why teaching children about the society that we live in, and the different types of loving, healthy relationships that exist, cannot be done in a way that respects everyone.

I also know that some parents are frustrated that they cannot withdraw their children from relationships education, as opposed to sex education; that came up earlier in a contribution from my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley. They believe that the boundaries can be blurred with sex education, from which there is a right for a child to be withdrawn, and I recognise those sensitivities.

I also recognise that parents are the first educators of their children and may want to withdraw their child from lessons so that they can first discuss some topics with them outside school. All pupils should be taught about caring friendships and respectful relationships, and they need to understand how to keep themselves and others safe and what to do when they feel unsafe. It is important that parents know what their child will be taught in advance of it being delivered in the classroom, which is why there is a requirement on schools to publish their relationships, or relationships and sex, education policy. Schools must consult parents as they develop and renew that policy.

There has been concern, which has come up again today, over the materials that some organisations have prepared to teach relationships and sex education in schools. It is for schools to make decisions about what materials to use, and it is their responsibility to ensure that what is taught is safe and age-appropriate. For clarity, it is worth reiterating that it has long been the case in our school system that schools decide what materials they use for everything. We do not have a top-down system where some mandarin decides, “This is the textbook for such and such a subject,” and everybody learns from that. There has always been diversity, which sometimes creates challenges, but having it is a strength of our system. However, parents must have confidence that what is taught is safe and age-appropriate. We believe that transparency is the best—indeed, the only—way to be absolutely sure of that, so it is essential that parents know what is being taught in the classroom and what resources are being used.

My hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington was absolutely correct when he said that those requirements are already set out and clear. However, following concerns about things such as barriers because of copyrights, the Secretary of State has now written—twice—to all schools to remind them of the responsibility to make available materials, including relationships education materials, where parents want to see them, and that copyright law does not prevent them from doing that. We will ensure that the content of those letters is reflected in the revised RSHE statutory guidance when it comes out.

Photo of Nicholas Fletcher Nicholas Fletcher Conservative, Don Valley

The Department has written to schools, but I have evidence that they are ignoring the guidance. Will the Department write to the producers of this literature and tell them their responsibilities? There are fewer of them than there are schools, so that is probably the best way forward until we completely review what we are teaching our children and, hopefully, get in place a full right to withdraw from RSHE materials.

Photo of Damian Hinds Damian Hinds Minister of State (Education)

We think it is a good thing that there is a diversity of material to support all subjects. I mentioned that some religious organisations, for example, produce materials to support RSHE, as do many other organisations, such as commercial organisations and so on. Oak National Academy has committed to produce materials to support the teaching of RSHE in the future. Oak has had significant investment from Government, not so that it can replace other sources, but so that it can be a trusted and—from a teacher’s point of view—time-saving producer of those materials. However, we do not get involved in the production, or as a gatekeeper, of materials, and we will not do that with Oak either; it will do that independently. Our relationship is with the 22,000 schools that we have in this country and with the trusts and local authorities that they are part of; they make the decisions about what to teach with. Again, however, we think that the surest guarantee in this area is absolute transparency. That is the most important thing for everybody’s confidence in the system. As I said, the Secretary of State has already written to schools, and that will be reflected in the new guidance when it comes out.

Photo of Peter Gibson Peter Gibson Conservative, Darlington

Could the Minister provide a bit of clarity? If a school seeks to share with parents the information it will use in its classes, but the provider of that information refuses it permission to do so, could it legitimately terminate the contract with that provider, and should it do so?

Photo of Damian Hinds Damian Hinds Minister of State (Education)

I am not a lawyer; I will not start commenting on commercial contracts. However, in any circumstances, if a parent wants to see what their child is seeing in relationships and sex education, they should absolutely be able to do so.

Photo of Nicholas Fletcher Nicholas Fletcher Conservative, Don Valley

I thank my hon. Friend Peter Gibson for his comment. As I say, we agree on certain things, and it is important that we come together. I have a similar question: if parents see material they are not happy with—I have a folder full of material here that thousands have seen and are not happy with—what redress do they have? What can they do from that point forward, and what if the school will not listen?

Photo of Damian Hinds Damian Hinds Minister of State (Education)

In my experience, schools do listen. They want to listen, and they want to be in communion with their community and the parents at the school. I am not in the business of trying to create or encourage conflict; we want people to talk. We cannot legislate for everything; we cannot say that there is no circumstance in which an unsatisfactory outcome will pertain, but it is my firm belief that, when people talk to each other and try to understand each another, as a general rule, sensible ways forward can be found. Again, transparency is the key thing underpinning that. If we do not have transparency, we risk not having trust in what is actually happening.

To further strengthen the content in the RSHE statutory guidance, the Secretary of State brought forward a review of the guidance and appointed an independent expert panel to advise on the ages at which sensitive topics should be taught in the curriculum. We have also invited parents into the Department to share their experiences of school engagement and access to RSHE materials.

We are currently working through recommendations and expect to have the revised statutory guidance out for public consultation at the earliest opportunity. We are looking at how to be clearer about the distinctions between the subjects, and about the content taught in each of them, to support decisions about whether to withdraw children, including from relationships education. We will consult on those changes, and parents and other interested parties will have the opportunity to present their thoughts on the curriculum when the revised RSHE statutory guidance is published for consultation.

We know that young LGBT people are more likely to be bullied and discriminated against, and to suffer with mental ill health. The Department’s school omnibus survey of 2017 showed that after gender, being or being perceived to be LGBT is one of the main reasons why pupils face bullying. “Keeping children safe in education” is the statutory guidance that all schools and colleges must have regard to when carrying out their duties to safeguard and promote the welfare of children. Among other things, the guidance sets out how schools should protect children from harm and what to do if they have concerns about a child. In addition, all schools have to comply with the relevant requirements of the Equality Act 2010 and to ensure that topics in RSHE are taught in a way that does not discriminate against pupils or amount to harassment.

Over three years, the Department provided £3 million to fund five anti-bullying organisations to support schools to tackle bullying. That included projects targeting bullying of particular groups and projects supporting victims of hate-related or homophobic bullying. Anne Frank Trust UK has developed a “Different But The Same” project and supported nearly 80,000 young people and their teachers and schools to tackle bullying focused on protected characteristics.

Colleagues including Paul Blomfield and my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington raised the important topic of young people’s mental health. To support the mental health of pupils, the Government have committed to offer all state schools and colleges a grant to train a senior mental health lead by 2025, enabling them to introduce effective whole-school approaches to mental health and wellbeing. As at December 2023, 15,000 settings had claimed a grant, including more than seven in 10 state-funded secondary schools. The Department is also expanding mental health and wellbeing support for school and college leaders, and from April will begin funding a three-year mental health and wellbeing support package.

Our consultation on the different but related subject of gender questioning and related guidance has recently closed, and we will publish the Government response to the consultation alongside the guidance itself in the coming months. I want to reiterate today that the safety and wellbeing of children will always be our primary concern, which is why it is at the heart of that guidance. The new RSHE curriculum has been taught in schools for less than four years. We want to know what parents, teachers and, of course, pupils think, and our public consultation will give everyone the opportunity to tell us. In addition, we have sought the views of school leaders, teachers and pupils through an independent research project that has undertaken quantitative and qualitative research to look at how useful the statutory guidance is, the challenges in implementing it, pupils’ engagement, and teachers’ confidence in delivering it. The final report will be published shortly and support the review process.

The Government understand that parents are the primary educators of their children and that all will want to preserve the innocence of childhood until they feel the time is right to teach them about the society in which they are growing up. These children are our future business owners, doctors, dentists and politicians, and they need to understand and respect the diverse population of the country in which we live. The RSHE curriculum is there partly to help them to do just that.

Photo of Elliot Colburn Elliot Colburn Conservative, Carshalton and Wallington 6:12, 18 March 2024

I thank you, Mr Dowd, the petitioners and, of course, every colleague who has contributed today. You will be happy to hear that I will not take us through to 7.30 pm. I thank the Minister for his considered response and all colleagues for the calm way in which we have held this debate. I just want to reiterate, as Lloyd Russell-Moyle said, that it is important that we know about healthy but boring, although “boring” is not an adjective I would ever use to describe the hon. Member, despite the many other things we may have called each other. There is nothing extreme about knowing that different people and different kinds of healthy relationships exist.

I look forward to the Government engaging with all stakeholder groups as part of the RSE review, because it is clear from the pupils, teachers and parents who have engaged so far, in the short time mandatory RSE has been on the statute book, that there is a need to review these policies. It is good to review them and to keep them up to date, but it is clear from teachers, pupils and parents that there is dissatisfaction about how they are being implemented or not implemented. There is clearly still a lot to work through, as we would expect with any new guidance going through a teething process. I look forward to that, and to engaging with the Government on it. I will not detain us any longer, Mr Dowd.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House
has considered e-petitions 630932 and 631529 relating to LGBT content in relationships education.

Sitting adjourned.