Thursday 7th December 2023

(5 months, 2 weeks ago)

Lords Chamber
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Motion to Take Note
Moved by
Baroness Jenkin of Kennington Portrait Baroness Jenkin of Kennington
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That this House takes note of the importance of safeguarding children in schools.

Baroness Jenkin of Kennington Portrait Baroness Jenkin of Kennington (Con)
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My Lords, I thank all noble Lords participating today and those—five or six, I think—who have had to scratch from the debate due to travel issues. I am especially sorry that the noble Baroness, Lady Meyer, was taken ill overnight and is unfortunately unable to be with us.

The importance of safeguarding children is well established and considered vital in underpinning the operation of a safe and functioning society in the UK, so there should not really be any need for us to have a debate about its importance at all in 2023. As a country, we should be able to protect all children from harm both outside of school and, especially, within it. We have in place the protocols, mechanisms and routines. Schools should be able to facilitate children to explore ideas about themselves and the world in ways which do not harm them, but children today find themselves facing a tidal wave of troubles and challenges: poor mental health, body image issues, violent pornography and online bullying for starters. Our children are unhappier than ever. What has gone wrong?

The Government’s definition of safeguarding encompasses a holistic range of measures that must be met to ensure children are safe, healthy and able to flourish. Working Together to Safeguard Children defines safeguarding as

“protecting children from maltreatment … preventing impairment of children’s mental and physical health or development … ensuring that children grow up in circumstances consistent with the provision of safe and effective care”,


“taking action to enable all children to have the best outcomes”.

Outside of the home environment, there is nothing more formative for a child than their experience at school. Consequently, parents place profound trust in schools not just to provide their child with an education but to protect their mental and physical safety too. In turn, teachers and schools take on great responsibility—one that goes well beyond the planning, preparation and delivery of lessons, the marking of work and a focus on academic development. All of those working with children in schools fundamentally shape the environment in which they grow up and are responsible to ensure this environment is, at a minimum, not harming them.

This speech starts from the belief that teachers, parents, and carers are united in wanting the best for children, but the world has changed beyond recognition since the legislative framework for safeguarding was introduced. As well-established as safeguarding protocol is in this country, it must be able to adapt in the light of new safeguarding risks facing children today.

Safeguarding is the responsibility of everyone who comes into contact with a child and their family. It is thanks to my noble friend Lady Bottomley of Nettlestone—I am delighted to see her in her place—who, as Secretary of State, introduced the Children Act in 1989, 34 years ago, during which time the world has changed beyond recognition, that we have the legislative framework for the requirements and expectations of child safeguarding in England, reinforced by subsequent legislation in 2004. Section 11 of the Children Act 2004 states that any organisation or function providing services to children is legally required to promote their welfare and to safeguard them. The Government bolstered this legislation with several statutory documents that set out safeguarding duties on schools. The Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills—Ofsted—highlighted in its 2017-2022 strategy:

“Even more important than ensuring young people are learning well is ensuring that they are safe”.

Ofsted expects every school to have a “culture of safeguarding” and a school should be deemed automatically inadequate if these measures are found to be ineffective. Even though this occurs in a tiny minority of schools, Ofsted considers safeguarding to be an utmost priority.

What does this mean in practice? It means several things. Schools are required to work closely and co-operatively with appropriate local authority partners in a local community to ensure no child is able to slip through the net. They are required to adopt an “it could happen here” mentality, which works from the fundamental premise that every adult has the potential to harm a child. Safeguarding does not accept that simply because someone appears harmless, they can be considered to be so. Information sharing is foundational to this; schools are not in the business of keeping secrets. A teacher should never promise confidentiality to a child, and the Government provide six information sharing principles for child practitioners, including accuracy, security and timeliness.

Another vital safeguarding measure is the importance of parental responsibility. The law is clear that no other body is to assume parental responsibility for a child unless the court intervenes. Although there are exceptions, parents are accepted to be the most emotionally, socially and financially invested in the welfare of their children. Those who have parental responsibility for a child should be empowered to make decisions about that child.

We clearly have the infrastructure designed to make sure we keep children safe, so why are Britain’s children unhappier than ever? According to the NHS, in 2017, one in nine children aged between seven and 16 had a probable mental health disorder. By 2020, that number was one in six. In 2022, one in four young people aged 17 to 19 reported mental health issues. One in eight children report being bullied online through social media platforms. Our mental health services for children and young people are in a dire state, with children and young people’s mental health services buckling under the burden of demand. Do the Government have any plans to develop and implement a strategy to tackle mental health in schools?

Ofsted reports that peer-on-peer sexual abuse in schools is on the rise. Sexual harassment is prevalent in schools, and is more prevalent by boys to girls. This is unsurprising, given the normalisation of sexual violence in online pornography and the role it is playing in shaping a child’s understanding of sex and relationships. As the Children’s Commissioner reported in January, the average age at which children are first seeing pornography is 13. Some 10% of children surveyed first saw porn age nine. As I am sure we will hear later in the debate, the impact of pornography on destroying young minds cannot be overstated. Anyone who doubts this should look on YouTube at a film called “Raised on Porn”, which explains the effect on a child’s brain of watching pornography at an age when they are unable to compute what they are seeing. Age verification, brought in with the Online Safety Act, should go some way to resolving this, but the normalisation of porn consumption among young people is nothing short of a safeguarding catastrophe—although I am not, of course, blaming schools for this.

Social media and smartphones have become an integral part of the lives of children and teenagers. This is 24/7: no longer are children likely to be kicking a football around the school field or chatting in the canteen at lunch. Instead, they are disassociated from the real world around them, plugged into an online world with limitless boundaries and unfettered access to potentially dangerous actors across the world. As psychology professor and expert Jonathan Haidt put it, “Childhood has been rewired”. His research suggests that social media is making children more fragile, angrier and more likely to take offence. This is having a particularly damaging effect on girls, yet some schools still allow children to walk around the school corridors glued to their smartphones.

If the damage is so clear, why are we not seeing this as a safeguarding issue? I welcome the Secretary of State for Education’s pledge to issue guidance cracking down on smartphone use in schools. Can my noble friend the Minister say when this guidance is likely to be published?

As well as the proliferation of poor mental health, porn and social media, many schools are adopting an ideological approach towards sex and gender, and issues around identity. This is leading to a violation of trust between parents and teachers. According to a report by Policy Exchange, 69% of schools are not reliably informing parents when a child experiences gender distress at school and 25% of children are being taught that they can be born in the wrong body. As Dr Hilary Cass has said in her interim report into services for gender-distressed children and young people,

“social transition … is not a neutral act”.

Some schools are breaking the safeguarding rules by legitimising withholding vital information from parents, promising confidentiality to children and compromising single- sex spaces—most vital for both sexes in navigating the trials and tribulations of puberty.

Ultimately, schools risk usurping the roles of parents when it comes to navigating highly sensitive cultural issues such as sex, race and gender. Schools have an obligation to remain politically impartial when teaching these issues, but we know they are not always doing this. Statutory guidance exists but many believe it needs to be stronger. Can my noble friend confirm whether this guidance is under review and likely to be updated?

I am sure we all understand the pressures on teachers, who have an enormous responsibility in discharging safeguarding duties as well as providing an academic education. The way that closing schools during the pandemic has devalued the education system in the collective consciousness of the public has resulted in a sense that school is an optional extra, with huge numbers of society’s most vulnerable severely absent from it and parents willing to take children out of school for reasons such as politics and holidays. Will my noble friend consider enabling schools and academy trusts to issue fixed penalty notices for poor attendance?

Again, I do not underestimate the pressure that teachers are under, so is my noble friend aware that teachers are being called up for jury service with no concern about the impact on both them and the children they teach? Would she consider raising with colleagues in government whether teachers could be exempt from jury service during termtime, or guidance created for the courts to ensure teachers are not taken out of schools at critical times, leaving children untaught for lengthy periods?

Like many noble Lords, I hear from parents and teachers asking, “How can we let children be children?” For my generation—I think I am still just below the average age in your Lordships’ House—that is what we were. We read Ladybird books; we learned to read from Janet and John; our crazes, or our social contagions if you like, were potty putty, gonks and hopscotch. The most edgy thing we did in the break at school was to play kiss chase. That was about as extreme as it got. Thankfully, for my children’s generation there was no social media. I am not suggesting for a moment that people of our generation, and my children’s, did not experience bullying, violence and abuse, but thankfully they escaped the online world that children, their teachers and their parents have to navigate today. Quirky children are like quirky adults; they should not be bullied or picked on for being different. Whether it is for red hair, sexual orientation or being gender non-conforming, they should be supported to be themselves as they develop from childhood to adulthood.

I know that my noble friend the Minister will share all our concerns about the well-being of our children in schools. We cannot afford to drop the ball on safeguarding, even if that means admitting that mistakes have been made. Society is constantly evolving, and issues which previously did not exist, or may have been thought harmless or negligible, should now be re-evaluated in the light of safeguarding duties. Children deserve to be children and to grow and mature in school, knowing that they are safe from harm. They are already paying the price and it must stop.

Baroness Morris of Yardley Portrait Baroness Morris of Yardley (Lab)
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My Lords, I very much welcome this debate and congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Jenkin, on securing it and introducing it so effectively. She started by talking about the importance of safeguarding children. Whatever else we disagree on today in this Chamber, I think we would all accept that that is vital and that we have an obligation to ensure that it is as effective as possible. I agree with the thrust of her arguments completely. I take the view she does on many of the issues facing society and schools now. In the time I have, I want to take up just one or two points.

It is important to remember that, although awful things still happen, safeguarding in schools is far better than it was when I started teaching. We know now what risks children have and the truth is that, for many children, schools are the safest places in their lives. Huge progress has been made and we ought to acknowledge that, because it is an extra burden on teachers. Theirs is a skilled job; you have to learn to do it. I was teaching during that period of having to learn to do it, and it is not easy because it is about changing your culture. By the time you get to an adult, it is quite difficult to change that. One of the ways in which that culture has been changed over the last 20 to 30 years is in having a partnership between government and schools, where society has decided what it wants to accept and Governments have passed legislation and issued guidance so that schools have a framework in which they can make decisions. Without being complacent about what still needs to be done, that is why it has improved.

I want to take up the issues where, as the noble Baroness, Lady Jenkin, said, we have not got it right. We should not dismiss them, so I will comment on one briefly. What happens with online risks is terrible. I do not know how schools deal with them, given the tightly knit communities that they are, but at least now we have agreement in adult society that we must do as much as we can to change that and offer protection for children. We have the beginnings of a legislative framework whereby that can happen.

I want to move on to the issue of sex and gender and self-ID for children in schools. Why do we have no adult agreement for what we want for our children on that? We do not have the legislative framework or the guidance which gives that secure framework against which teachers can make their decisions. The good we have achieved has been through guidance, legislation and adults agreeing what is best for children, which is not happening on whether children and people should be able to self-identify their sex and whether schools should support them.

While we are dithering about issuing guidance and wondering what we should do on this difficult issue, teachers are picking up the pieces every day in their schools. It is not just the odd school or one school in 10: these difficult conversations are taking place in every school. Children are growing up asking themselves these questions and teachers are trying to discharge their responsibility to help them without a framework to guide them. They are dealing with issues such as whether schools should have single-sex spaces in changing rooms, when a male pupil identifies as a girl and wants to access a safe space. They have to decide on sports issues, where weight and stature matter, so we have single-sex sports. They have to decide whether children can change their pronouns and whether they should advise a child to refer to a gender identity clinic. They even have to make decisions as to whether they should keep that a secret or talk to a parent.

I completely understand that this is not an easy issue for adults, but we should not leave it so that we create such uncertainty for teachers. Many teachers have their own views and are conflicted in what they should say to the children in their charge. Even where the national curriculum says something that I think is straightforward, such as that there are two sexes and children should be taught that in biology, some teachers now do not know if they should be doing that because of the lack of guidance and the advice they are getting. Teachers are dealing with pressure groups, which have opposite ideas to each other, and are essentially taking the legal risk. They are the ones at risk of being accused by parents of teaching things that they do not want their children to learn because, within adult society and government, the framework has not been presented to them.

For young people, growing up is a difficult time when your body is changing. We have been all through it—our children and grandchildren are going through it—and it is not easy. Many young people have a very difficult relationship with their body, but they should not be encouraged to think that changing their sex is an answer to those dilemmas.

Yet in the last 10 years we have seen the number of girls who have been referred to a gender identity clinic going up from 32 to 1,740, while the number of boys has risen from 40 to 626. I do not know why that is happening, although I have read the theories and I can hazard a guess, but I know that those children are in someone’s school and have teachers in charge of their pastoral and academic well-being, yet we are not giving them the guidance to make effective decisions.

My own view is that sometimes you think, “Well, let’s go for a halfway house and permit social transitioning but not”—as I think we will not do now, following the Cass report—“refer children for puberty blockers”. But, once you start children on that journey, you may cause them psychological damage. We also know that the children who are referred to gender identity clinics are statistically far more likely to have mental health issues or be on the moderate to severe autism spectrum. Also, children change their minds. Thank goodness they do—it is part of growing up—so we should not make them commit and then enforce that commitment so that it is difficult to change their minds later on.

It is not just the children asking these questions, wondering whether they have been born into the wrong body, who are suffering because of our lack of providing a legal framework; it is every child in the school. If safe spaces and sports are changed, every child is affected by that.

The last thing I want to say, as strongly as I can, is that guidance is needed, and I hope the Minister can say it is being issued today. As strongly as I feel about children not being encouraged to change sex, I feel equally strongly than children must be listened to, whatever they say and whatever view they express. They must be taken seriously and supported. They must not be bullied, no matter how they present themselves, and links with parents must be maintained wherever possible. I genuinely hope that guidance is issued soon, and that very quickly adults can give guidance to teachers on how they deal with the next generation.

Baroness Brinton Portrait Baroness Brinton (LD) [V]
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My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Jenkin, on securing this important debate, and I thank her for her comprehensive introduction. It is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Morris of Yardley. In her time as Secretary of State she put children at the heart of education, and she is right that safeguarding today is much better than it was in the past.

Safeguarding has a set of specific meanings regarding the protection of children and vulnerable adults from abuse, neglect and harm, defined, as the noble Baroness, Lady Jenkin, mentioned, in the Children Act 1989, including protecting children from maltreatment; preventing the impairment of children’s physical and mental health or development; ensuring that children grow up in circumstances consistent with the provision of safe and effective care; and taking action to enable all children to have the best outcomes.

Ofsted describes good safeguarding practice as

“the culture a school creates to keep its pupils safe so that they can benefit fully from all that schooling offers. A positive and open safeguarding culture puts pupils’ interests first. Everyone who works with children is vigilant in identifying risks and reporting concerns. It is also about working openly and transparently with parents, local authorities and other stakeholders to protect pupils from serious harm, both online and offline, and about taking prompt and proportionate action”.

The Times Education Supplement’s guidance sets out the seven core issues that school governors and staff need to keep at the forefront of their minds when considering safeguarding. They are: child sexual abuse and CSA material online; child-on-child sexual violence and harassment, which sadly is growing worse; extremism and radicalisation; domestic abuse; adverse childhood experiences; trauma; and, last but not least, mental health.

Some 30 years ago, I held the portfolio for education and libraries on Cambridgeshire County Council. That summer, my new safeguarding responsibilities were brought home to me in a shocking case at one of the county’s primary schools. A caretaker had been grooming and abusing girls in years 5 and 6 but, when parents complained to the head, the response was, “No, no, our lovely caretaker could never do this”. But he had. As word went round the community, more and more former pupils and their parents came forward. The caretaker pleaded guilty, but many more children were abused because of preconceptions by those who should have protected them and investigated the first complaint. I tell this story because too often our own prejudices can miss something key that merits, at the very least, investigation and listening to the child. That is why over the years I have welcomed the strengthening of safeguarding.

School must be a place of safety for children. Sometimes that can mean safe from their parents too. One of the hardest things to do is to hear about or suspect child abuse or child sexual abuse from within the child’s home. Parents are not automatically involved in safeguarding reports regarding their children, as it is recognised that families are not automatically a safe environment for children, with some one in 14 children experiencing sexual abuse at the hands of their parents or guardians.

That is why we need mandatory reporting for abuse. Children cannot stop abuse; adults can. The 13th recommendation of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse was for mandatory reporting, which would bring us nearer to the vast majority of other nations. A recent survey of 62 nations found that 80% of those participating had some form of mandatory reporting. Sadly, the Government’s response to the IICSA recommendations set out a very weak form of mandatory reporting. With no statutory offence for failing to report, it is not clear who will have the power to investigate or even to talk to the Disclosure and Barring Service.

These and other proposals are too weak to have any effect on reporting rates, so I ask the Minister why the Government are not following the examples particularly of Australia, Canada and others where adults in schools report that they are now more confident in raising suspicions to ensure investigation because of mandatory reporting frameworks. Mandatory reporting helps professional adults responsible for children by giving them a clear framework for taking action. By the way, this is not just a schools issue; it should cover regulated activities such as sports. We are seeing far too many scandals outside schools.

I turn to the safety of children who are LGBTQ+ and the proposals by some, as mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Jenkin, to add a statutory notification to parents of any issues relating to their child. Experts say that creating an environment where a child is expected to suppress part of their identity is increasingly regarded by medical practitioners as harmful. Allowing exploration in safe environments away from predetermined outcomes—also known as “affirmative therapy”—is almost always beneficial. And by the way, if the child wishes to walk back from their initial feelings, they can do so without any harm. To ban it might cause further problems.

The Government’s own safeguarding guidelines, Keeping Children Safe in Education, say:

“The fact that a child or a young person may be LGBT is not in itself an inherent risk factor for harm”

and that LGBT children have protection from bullying and harassment under the Equality Act. It also says:

“Risks can be compounded where children who are LGBT lack a trusted adult with whom they can be open”.

If children and young people think they will automatically be outed to their parents, they may be less likely to confide in a trusted member of school staff, especially if they fear their parents having a hostile reaction. The NSPCC guidance on safeguarding LGBT children and young people states:

“You should discuss options with the young person and their parents or carers (as long as this does not put the young person at risk of harm)”.

In conclusion, the Government have taken some good steps forward on strengthening safeguarding and guidance, but we must find a way to truly protect our children and young people through strong regulatory practice and ensuring that we continue to put children at the heart of safeguarding.

Baroness Bottomley of Nettlestone Portrait Baroness Bottomley of Nettlestone (Con)
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My Lords, I also warmly congratulate my noble friend Lady Jenkin on initiating this important debate. It is a pleasure to speak after two other such distinguished Peers, the noble Baronesses, Lady Morris—whom I have greatly admired for a long time—and Lady Brinton, who made incredibly important points.

I was not going to raise transgender issues, gender dysphoria and all the rest today, because I always know who I disagree with and there are very few people I agree with—but I entirely agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Morris. So, if asked for my views, I shall simply send people her speech.

Children need a stable, loving environment with consistent adults and long-term care. They need control as well as care and, of course, this should primarily come from the family. But for so many it does not, so the school has a pivotal and changing role. As has rightly been said, the expectations on teachers and head teachers have grown monumentally. Forty years ago, I used to work with Peter Wilson, who later ran Young Minds. We provided training sessions—I was working at the Maudsley—for teachers in inner city schools coping with children in devastating situations, with behaviour they could not understand and parental interventions that seemed to be absent. These teachers thought their job was to teach and were trying to get their heads round the right way to intervene and understand what was happening, how they could be helpful and what they should do.

Now, there is much greater clarity with all the safeguarding rules. The role of the school and the guidance provided are definitely a big step forward. Initially I was sceptical: when responsibility for children went from Health to Education, I was very uncomfortable. At Health, I worked hand in hand with the noble Lord, Lord Laming, and his predecessor, Sir William Utting. As a Minister, I knew exactly what the social services inspectors were thinking and what was happening on the ground. I had to appear to give evidence at the Lambeth children’s inquiry the other day. I referred to the social services inspectors who came to the top of the office meeting every week. Now at Education it is a much more fractured relationship. You have a Children’s Commissioner, but it is not the same as sitting at the same top table and understanding on a daily basis.

Reference has been made to the Children Act. I pay tribute to our colleague, Lord Mackay, as well as to the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Hale, who I worked very closely with in her early days. She was a force on the Children Act. The Act has stood the test of time and I wondered why. I am able to share this. Every Government in every party have new initiatives, new programmes and new soundbites and, were the Government to change next year—which I think is most unlikely—I hope any incoming Government will not feel they have to start again and rebadge everything in their terms.

What is needed for legislation is consistency. The point about the Children Act is that an extraordinary civil servant, Rupert Hughes, had years of consultation with charities, local authorities and others, and took through the legislation. Then my job was largely the implementation, which was a lot of standing instruments and supplementary measures, again consulting with the same people. They had all been on the journey; they could see what had happened and would meet regularly together. In the health service, people despair because they think have found an answer and then the whole thing crumbles because of a new initiative or a new plan.

In praising those with whom I worked, I also really celebrate what is happening now. I greatly admire the effort and commitment at the Department for Education. Various themes come through. Social work is a wretched job: nobody thanks you for suggesting to a parent that they might be abusing a child. Nobody thanks you for leaving a child with parents who were abusing them. This is desperately emotionally draining and difficult and social workers are subject to ritual abuse whenever they get it wrong. So the work on the front line of trying to improve careers and support for social workers is fundamental.

Health visitors—the only people who legitimately can see children at home, take their clothes off and make sure they are physically well—play a crucial part. It is all about the early years. What did the Jesuits say? “Show me the child at seven and I will show you the man”. Turning a blind eye, waiting, delaying and hoping it will be all right means that damage goes undetected, unseen and neglected.

Of course, bringing up children is incredibly difficult. I see that with my grandchildren. I do not know how I ever was a mother; I probably was a very bad mother. My grandchildren have grandparents and uncles and aunts and a lovely place where we can go on holiday and be together. It takes a village to bring up a child—yes—but a lot of people do not have a village: they do not have a grandparent, a husband or a consistent neighbour. I simply cannot emphasise enough what we all need to do to help young parents cope. Margaret Harrison started Home-Start, a wonderful organisation. Lord Keith Joseph—the man who made me a Tory, for what it is worth—believed in the cycle of deprivation: that is what he talked about. What did he say about education? He said that the closest thing you have in education to a magic wand is the quality of the head teacher. That must be right. The responsibilities and the leadership they have are absolutely enormous.

I wanted to touch on mental health. It is a huge problem and we have to give it greater focus and understanding.

One-fifth of children leave school without even the most basic qualifications and too many are excluded. Education is your passport for the future: if you cannot read and write—and all magistrates like me will know the number of children in court who simply cannot read the oath—you do not have a hope going forward. We need to make sure that we give better alternative provision to those who are often slung out of school because they are an absolute nuisance and left to wander the streets. Those who need education most are getting it the least.

I want to commend the Online Safety Act, but I dare not. I would like the noble Baroness to have another debate on the subject, so that we can all say the things that we really wanted to say—but congratulations to her again.

Lord Farmer Portrait Lord Farmer (Con)
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My Lords, I also join with everybody in congratulating my noble friend on securing this vital debate and on her excellent and clear opening speech. It is certainly an honour to follow my noble friend Lady Bottomley of Nettlestone.

Safeguarding in schools is highly complex and varied and I will touch on only two areas today, relating to the need for neutrality in our education system. Neutrality implies tolerance of a multiplicity of views; it is therefore precious but fragile and should itself be safeguarded.

Starting with the school strikes against the action in Israel and Gaza, I declare my interest as the Christian vice-chair for the Council of Christians and Jews. It was founded in 1942 by Archbishop William Temple and Chief Rabbi Joseph Hertz when the Holocaust was devastating European Jewry. Her late Majesty the Queen was patron throughout her whole reign.

These strikes raise serious safeguarding concerns, with hundreds of children leaving the security of school, in lesson time, for political protests in towns and city centres. Parents and teachers have very little control over who children meet or what they are exposed to, despite schools’ legal safeguarding duties set out in DfE statutory guidance, Keeping Children Safe in Education. Large crowds and a politically charged atmosphere mean that any school authorising pupils to attend a protest during school hours cannot be fully in control of the risks to safety and welfare.

Schools also risk breaching the Prevent duty, which requires them

“‘to help prevent the risk of people becoming terrorists or supporting terrorism’. This includes safeguarding learners from extremist ideologies and radicalisation”.

Allowing children’s exposure to potentially genocidal or anti-Semitic slogans such as

“From the river to the sea”

without countervailing views, is the very opposite of safeguarding or good practice, which requires schools to maintain political neutrality.

Ideas must be introduced and then discussed in the round of their historical and political complexity. This is how lesson time on these highly vexed issues should be spent. We need young people to be interested in and well-informed about politics. Stating political positions as self-evident facts intimidates learners and shuts down debate. Can my noble friend the Minister inform the House whether guidance requires ideological issues to be introduced in a well-rounded and nuanced way? Is her department investigating how, precisely, children became involved in these school strikes, how they were made aware of and then joined public protests outside the school gate?

Similarly, is the department investigating how extreme trans ideology, which presents schools with significant safeguarding concerns, was allowed to be adopted as fact, when it too is far from neutral? Teaching children, including in early primary school, about gender fluidity further entrenches the sexualisation of childhood, conjoined as it often is with “sex positivity”. The fact of the legal age of consent seems to be ignored despite the key safeguarding reasons underlying it. Our zeitgeist is deeply rooted in the notion that the development of sexuality is indispensable to identity. This is not some fundamental human truth but the idea of Sigmund Freud. To quote Keynes,

“ideas … both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else”.

The education system should be a bulwark against pernicious ideas evolving into domineering and bullying ideologies, and not simply affirm both them and the young people persuaded by them.

I am not using the word “ideology” as a slur against a way of thinking that is simply different to my own, but in the Althusserian sense, that

“Ideology represents the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence”.

Extreme trans ideology states, “I am what I feel, irrespective of my biology”. It is the epitome of expressive individualism and detached from reality. I draw a key distinction between gender dysphoria, where sufferers and psych professionals know there is something wrong, and ideological dispositions held, for example, by bodily intact males who intend to remain so but feel they are female and aggressively demand to be treated as such. Schools should not consider themselves bound by the individual’s desire to have this imagined reality validated, even if parents are on board with it. Parents cannot dictate how schools are run for the sake of their child: a decision to affirm a child’s chosen rather than biological identity affects the whole school. Other children can feel or even be genuinely coerced into affirming an individual’s imagined reality. It confuses young children and stifles the development of older children’s critical capacity. Elsewhere, their education requires them to be led by facts and evidence, but in this particular area feelings trump all else.

The potential for harm to the young person who wants to socially transition is a major safeguarding concern. Social transitioning is the first step on the road to physical and pharmaceutical changes that will last their whole lives and are often deeply regretted.

I end where I began, with the need for neutrality. Dr Hilary Cass, as we have heard, concluded that “social transition” is not neutral but a major psychosocial intervention that may affect whether a child’s gender distress disappears or becomes long-lasting. In this age of affirmation, the ideologically driven imperative to be kind has blinded schools to their foundational safeguarding responsibilities. Will the DfE guidance make that clear?

Lord Sandhurst Portrait Lord Sandhurst (Con)
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My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for obtaining this important debate. My focus today is on sport. I speak as a father and grandfather of girls and boys who are and have been active in sport. In making this speech, I am grateful for the great help I have received from the charity Women in Sport.

Sport develops important fundamental movement skills. It shapes attitudes towards physical activity. Sporting activity is essential if we are to turn our children into adults with healthy lifestyles. Today, we too often fail in this. We must do better or we will have a lot of fat, unhealthy adults. To effect this, we must start at primary school level. There, teachers and coaches must recognise that there are important differences, even at that age, between the sexes.

Even before puberty, the evidence is plain that boys have a physical advantage. Innate testosterone gives speed, strength and stamina. Young boys will generally—not always but generally—be slightly faster and stronger than girls, and that applies throughout the primary school age bracket. To avoid demotivating girls, primary schools must recognise and act on this, giving girls the chance to compete against other little girls. At secondary level, the biological impacts of puberty really kick in. Boys grow much taller, stronger and with greater cardiovascular capacity than their female classmates. For girls, the physical changes of puberty often create embarrassment and awkwardness; periods become a barrier to being active.

As if that were not enough, in mixed sport, girls simply lose the chance to win, to build self-esteem and even to have safe sport. Teenage mixed sport damages confidence and, worse, risks physical health. To safeguard girls, they must be offered proper female sporting opportunities. Differences in sporting performance and in strength between boys and girls mean that girls will not win races if they do not have their own. In team sports—football, hockey, rugby, cricket—it becomes a safety issue. In secondary schools, girls must not have to share their changing rooms with boys, including, if necessary, trans-identifying boys. Teenage girls must have privacy.

It is a stated aim of all the sports councils funded via DCMS to try to get more girls active and to keep them active. Mixed-sex sport in schools undermines that goal. The ChildWise Monitor Report of August 2022 found a significant gender gap in access to sports. For example, only 33% of girls aged 11 to 16 said they play football in school, compared to 63% of boys. Single-sex sport is fundamental to fairness, to safety and to participation. Mixed-sex sport can have an adverse impact on girls, even in primary schools.

Let me quote one or two examples of what parents with primary school children have said:

“On sports day, all our races were mixed. No little girls won anything”.

“My daughter said, ‘what’s the point?’”

Olympic swimmer Sharron Davies MBE says she gets messages all the time from parents and coaches who are afraid to say anything publicly about this. School sports days are being made co-ed because they do not want the hassle of dealing with the trans issue.

I repeat that girls-only sports sessions are fundamentally important because they encourage participation. Those in authority in schools really must take this seriously and act to protect and encourage our girls. Effective safeguarding in schools includes and must include sport. This means recognising the physical differences of the two sexes and giving practical effect to what is needed.

Lord Hampton Portrait Lord Hampton (CB)
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My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Sandhurst, and I would like to introduce him to my 12 year-old daughter if he feels that girls cannot compete against boys at sports. I also thank the noble Baroness, Lady Jenkin, for giving us the opportunity to talk on such a vital topic. I can only stand here and admire the expertise in the Chamber.

To say that safeguarding in schools is important is like saying that it is useful to be able to breathe, so I assume that all noble Lords agree on this basic point. As, I believe, the only working teacher in both Houses of Parliament, I thought I would give the House my view of safeguarding from the trenches, as it were. I work in a very high-performing school in a challenging part of Hackney—which, incidentally, bans mobile phones. As Peter J Hughes, our CEO, wrote in his recent book on school leadership:

“Children in our Hackney community die. Children in our hackney community are often routinely stopped under Operation Trident. Children in our Hackney community are strip-searched and subjected to adultification in presumed places of safety. I am very aware that these are three very powerful statements, but they are true and they are every carer’s, parent’s, teacher’s, principal’s, CEO’s and community’s worst nightmare. It is something we cannot and will not ignore”.

It is against a backdrop like this that a school has get its safeguarding right. Safeguarding is everyone’s responsibility. This is repeatedly drummed into teachers, ancillary workers and students. A change of behaviour in the playground, a dirty shirt collar or a new pair of trainers can be an indicator of abuse or grooming. Every one of those has to be reported, for it could be the final piece in a jigsaw puzzle. Playgrounds are great places to spot how a behaviour has changed, a pattern has emerged, a gang has formed, or a student has been isolated by online bullying. This is the front line—the short-term reaction—but in fact safeguarding is more than that. Schools should be fun places where pupils want to learn and teachers want to teach, and can succeed in this only when we begin to get some of the 1.8 million children who, according to the Children’s Commissioner, regularly miss school back into regular attendance. On this topic, I ask the Minister to comment on the Children’s Commissioner’s call that every school should have a legal duty to report its attendance daily.

As the Government’s guidance says:

“It is about the culture a school creates to keep its pupils safe so that they can benefit fully from all that schooling offers”.

That can be as simple as not setting an essay question like “A trip to the beach” or “A walk in the woods”, because a significant amount of children will not have experienced this and they could feel isolated. We are told not to celebrate the end of term because, for many children, school holidays signal the end of any structure to their life, including a hot meal, and a descent into chaos or just sheer boredom. For the majority, this is not abuse in the classic sense; it is just that parents and carers are too busy or distracted to provide more than the basics of life without any further stimulation or companionship.

Schools are where students can receive kindness, from their friends and teachers, and build and nurture relationships. Any teacher will tell you that it is the genuine connections with students that make them go to work each day. It is also about the environment of the school. The head teacher of my school, Rebecca Warren, always talks about the broken-window syndrome, whereby if something is left unfixed, be it damage or graffiti, more serious damage will follow. We underestimate the impact that school surroundings make on students; if small damages go unrepaired, then there is a sign of a more substantial malaise in the school. I think we also underestimate the subconscious effect on students that, if the school does not care about the building, it does not care about them. This is one thing that does not require much money, just organisation. The worry is that this could be another, as yet unseen, consequence of the RAAC saga.

Safeguarding needs to be baked into the curriculum and this is where Government and schools can do more to help changing behaviours in students, thereby helping from within. There are some lessons that need to be threaded through the term, rather than just saved for PHSCE, the once-a-term day when these topics are normally discussed. Many parents and children see this day as another Inset day, particularly those who hold beliefs that are challenged by the subjects studied then. Surely they are the students who would most benefit from a balanced debate on such subjects. Tender is a charity that uses drama workshops to provide a safe space where young people can rehearse for real-life scenarios and recognise what makes something healthy or unhealthy behaviour. By using this in drama lessons that all students study, say in year 7, all students can get a deep understanding of the issues. This could be more useful than a lifetime of PHSCE days, and I would be interested to hear the Minister’s view on embedding more strategies for safeguarding and general well-being into the curriculum, rather than on drop-down days.

I have been trying to be as optimistic as I can around this subject and I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Morris of Yardley, that things have improved. There are great stories of great people doing great work but, while there are so many children living in poverty, a school is limited to what it can do. I spoke to a safeguarding lead recently who said that if they were one of these children today, particularly the boys, they would be in a gang, for so many of them feel that it is the only way they can earn money, perhaps for their family or even for a new set of trainers, because they see no other way out beyond starting to carry packages for cash. My Lords, we have a lot of work to do.

Lord Wrottesley Portrait Lord Wrottesley (Con)
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My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lady Jenkin for securing this debate and all other noble Lords for their insightful contributions. Along with my noble friend Lord Sandhurst, I would like to share a few reflections on the role that safeguarding plays in an area that goes hand in hand with the educational setting, that of sport.

Safeguarding is at the heart of what sport embodies, ensuring fair play in a safe and fun environment. For “teacher”, think “coach”. For “pupil”, think “athlete”. For “parent”—well, they are irreplaceable. I declare an interest as a parent of children who are in school and take part extensively in curricular and extracurricular sport. I also sit on the other side of the fence, in that I am on the management group of one of our highest-performing Olympic sports. I am chair of one of our sports national governing bodies in the UK and sit on the finance committee of its international federation. Alongside performance, safeguarding is at the core of what we do. In the short time we have available, I will not be able to do justice to the vital work that UK Sport and colleagues in other national governing bodies are doing in this important area. Just last week, I attended its annual PLx conference and one of the sessions was dedicated to this precise topic: safeguarding in sport. Sarah Powell, CEO of British Gymnastics, and Andy Salmon, CEO of British Triathlon, are spearheading this on behalf of UK Sport.

One of the key concerns that all sports are facing, because of the complexity and jeopardy involved with safeguarding, is that coaches are losing the confidence to coach. I am sure that educators would say that teachers are also losing the confidence to teach. The issue is that all sports, whether dealing with adults or children—and not only those that have a robust regulatory framework to work within—need to become safeguarding compliant. We need to require minimum safeguarding standards for any sport, particularly those taking place in an educational or informal setting. Those of us involved in the governance of sport are committed to ensuring the highest standards of integrity, welfare and safeguarding across all sport. We are clear that anyone who does not want to abide by these standards is not welcome in sport.

We all know how important sport is to the nation, and particularly to children. Education is crucial to people’s mental health, as sport is to their physical health. I will not rehearse the arguments that place sport at the centre of our national well-being and our psyche.

At its heart, safeguarding is about the protection of people—in this case, children. However, protecting children also protects the adults who interact with them. The NSPCC Child Protection in Sport Unit’s definition states:

“Safeguarding refers to the process of protecting children and adults to provide safe and effective care”.

Governmental education institutions and sport national governing bodies need to harmonise. All international and national governing bodies have leadership roles to play, to provide and be provided with guidance and best practice, enabling convergence of policy and legislation.

This brings me on to a topic I have spent quite a bit of time on, albeit through the lens of sports governance: gender versus sex classification in sport. There are some simple concepts that I feel will help build an understanding of this sometimes complex and confusing subject. Gender can be fluid, with up to 107 identified to date. On the other hand, biological sex is essentially binary, determined at birth and known as birth, natal or assigned sex. There are further complexities in defining sex, so how do we, and should we, make sense of this complexity?

Quite simply, the key here is that within safeguarding, there has to be a protected characteristic. In sport, that is female, both from a competitive standpoint and in terms of social and environmental construct. The reason why we have biological male and female categories, not, erroneously, men’s and women’s—terms generally used in gender identification—is that females are considered to be disadvantaged physiologically. As we have heard from my noble friend Lord Sandhurst, even in amateur recreational sport, it is unfair and unsafe for them to play against biological males. Female sport, whether high-performance professional or recreational amateur, should be a protected category.

I know from personal experience what it is like for my eight year-old daughter—who, by the way, is no shrinking violet—to want to play football but to have to do so in a mixed environment where she is the only girl. Again, as my noble friend also highlighted, this acts as a huge disincentive for young girls to play sport. Trans activists will try to claim that this amounts to discrimination. My clear response to that, in the performance environment, is that trying to exploit ambiguities within classification in sport is tantamount to doping. It is a form of cheating. A person who is born a male, even if they transition pre or post-puberty, will always have a physiological advantage over a biological female. No amount of reassignment will change that.

There will always be differences that lead to unfair advantages. Allowing a biologically male trans person to play alongside natal females, unless all players consent, or allowing that person access to female changing facilities, are not safe practices. Consider when a male trans athlete causes a life-changing injury to a female player because of their vastly differing physiologies. Ask females what they feel about intact males entering intimate spaces such as changing rooms. They feel extremely vulnerable and possibly violated, and I suggest that if anyone allows this to happen, they are in clear breach of safeguarding and are promoting harm.

I am liberal-minded enough to believe that people should be able to express themselves in ways they see fit, as long as it does not have an adverse impact on other people’s enjoyment of life or, in this case, an activity in the educational or recreational setting. The key issue here is consent. People who are affected by an accommodation to allow a trans athlete to compete need to consent and not have it imposed upon them against their will by an ill-equipped governing body, or have the issue hijacked by extreme gender ideology and people with aberrant or criminal intent.

Baroness Eaton Portrait Baroness Eaton (Con)
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My Lords, I join with others in thanking my noble friend Lady Jenkin for initiating this debate. I also thank all contributors so far for their thoughtful and helpful comments and ideas on this difficult and complex subject. I particularly thank the noble Lord, Lord Hampton, for challenging us with his interesting speech. As a former teacher, I empathised a great deal with his contribution, and I thank him for it.

Safeguarding involves thinking the unthinkable. This does not mean that we always assume the worst, but that we attempt to consider all possibilities and mitigate risk where possible. We should not underestimate the role and importance that single-sex spaces play in safeguarding. A simple policy that safeguards and protects girls when they are undressing, sleeping or otherwise vulnerable is providing a single-sex space such as lavatories, changing rooms and dormitories. Yet, we are seeing numerous examples of this simple policy being ignored, often under the guise of being progressive or inclusive. A recent report from Policy Exchange found that at least 28% of secondary schools are not maintaining single-sex lavatories. This is not only a safeguarding issue; it is against the law.

Under the School Premises (England) Regulations 2012, schools are legally required to provide single-sex lavatories and washing facilities for children aged over eight, except where the lavatory facility is provided in a room that can be secured from the inside and is intended for use by one pupil at a time. If a school has changed all previous sex-separated facilities to mixed-sex without fulfilling this requirement, it is in breach of the law.

We hear of incidents such as one at a school where the police were called over allegations that female pupils were sexually assaulted in its gender-neutral lavatories. In another case, a teenage boy was arrested over four allegations of serious sexual assault at an Essex school. A newspaper reported that three of the alleged attacks took place in lavatories used by boys and girls. Also:

“A secondary school has been criticised over its unisex lavatories after a teenage girl was injured when a male classmate allegedly kicked down a cubicle door to photograph her”.

Many schools are adopting policies that replace sex with gender and set rules which require staff and young people to ignore or make it taboo to talk about a person’s actual sex if they prefer to be referred to as the opposite sex. This conflicts with safeguarding legislation and principles. Staff, pupils and parents raising safeguarding concerns about mixed-sex facilities, often introduced in an effort to get the approval of lobby groups, are dismissed as transphobic or pressured into using language that erases risk. Safeguarding systems cannot work where people are not able to speak clearly and openly about risks. Safeguarding is everyone’s business, including that of society as a whole. By not utilising a “safeguarding first” approach, we are letting down our children. Perhaps it is time for a public inquiry.

My noble friend Lady Jenkin and others have talked about how safeguarding is defined in “Working Together to Safeguard Children”. This child-centred approach is fundamental to safeguarding and promoting the welfare of every child. A child-centred approach means keeping the child in focus when making decisions about their lives, and working in partnership with them and their families.

Safeguarding and promoting the welfare of children is everyone’s responsibility. Everyone who comes into contact with children and their families has a role to play. All practitioners should follow the principles of the Children Acts 1989 and 2004, which state that the welfare of children is paramount and that they are best looked after within their families, with their parents playing a full part in their lives, unless compulsory intervention in family life is necessary.

Everyone who works with children has a responsibility for keeping them safe. No single practitioner can have a full picture of a child’s needs and circumstances and, if children and families are to receive the right help at the right time, everyone who comes into contact with them has a role to play in identifying concerns, sharing information and taking prompt action.

Advice from lobby groups regarding keeping information about a child’s distress confidential from parents, family and other agencies, and refusing to share teaching materials with parents, directly contradicts safeguarding guidance on information sharing. Fears about sharing information must not be allowed to stand in the way of the need to promote the welfare, and protect the safety, of children, which must always be the paramount concern.

Lord Roberts of Belgravia Portrait Lord Roberts of Belgravia (Con)
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My Lords, I join everybody else in thanking my noble friend Lady Jenkin for securing time for this important and interesting debate.

As a historian, I will give your Lordships a brief oversight into the history of transgenderism, as I think it will help throw some light on the current debate. For the previous 30 centuries or so before the 1960s, while there is plenty of evidence of hermaphroditism and cross-dressing, there have been remarkably few people who genuinely believe that they have become a member of the other sex from the one in which they were born. We have the Roman Emperor Heliogabalus from the early third century AD, who the historian Dio Cassius says asked his doctors to change his sex, but there is no indication that they did this for him. He had five marriages and four wives—he married one wife twice. There is no real indication that he changed his sex, although the North Hertfordshire Museum has him down with female personal pronouns.

Then, there was the very colourful Chevalier d’Éon in the late 18th century, who in 1777, at the age of 49, declared that he was a woman. That was accepted by Louis XVI and the British courts, although it was comprehensively disproven at the time of his post-mortem. In the 19th century, the female Albert Cashier fought in the American Civil War as a man. In 1952, the first actual sex change took place in America, for Christine Jorgensen. Here in Britain, it was in 1960 with April Ashley and in 1964 with the historian Jan Morris, whom I knew tangentially. The very fact that we know these people’s names and that they are well known to history is indicative of how rare this phenomenon was.

Then came the 1960s, when post-modernist thought posited that there is no such thing as absolute truth, and that if you feel something, or you think you feel something, that is your truth, which has equal validity to objective truth. The objective truth is that whatever the sexuality you choose—you have the right to choose whichever one you want—you genuinely cannot change your biological sex.

The term “transgender” did not come into existence until the 1990s, but in Britain today, normal Britons who speak about this to their GPs are six times more likely to say that they are transgender than they were 10 years ago. This has all the hallmarks of a classic example of social contagion, in which the internet, smartphones and social media, the fashion and advertising industries, various pressure groups, TV programmes and some doctors, who undertake mutilating surgery on perfectly healthy bodies, have come together to create what is, essentially, a new ideology—one not anchored in the human experience of the past 3,000 years of recorded history.

The result has been a breakdown in social structures, where men are to be found in women’s prisons, women’s lavatories, women’s changing rooms, as we heard earlier in the debate, and women’s sports—places where they do not belong and have no right to be. As with everything to do with transgenderism, common sense seems to fly out of the window.

It is our duty to help teachers safeguard children as much as possible from being unduly exposed to this historically new phenomenon, which we must of course tolerate because we are civilised people, but which ought to be extremely rare, as it has been for three millennia before our present age.

Lord Shinkwin Portrait Lord Shinkwin (Con) [V]
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My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Roberts of Belgravia for his important historical perspective.

I join others in thanking my noble friend Lady Jenkin of Kennington, not just for securing this important debate but for her courageous commitment to facilitating balanced and well-informed consideration of such vital issues as protecting the integrity of women’s sport, defending women’s and girls’ rights to safe spaces, and exposing, in many cases, the unintended consequences for women and children of the affirmation of gender self-identity, whether in our prisons or the classroom. I say “courage” because, sadly, that is essential to brave the bile and vitriol which anyone who has the temerity to challenge the cancel culture extremism seems to attract. We need only look at how JK Rowling, Maya Forstater, Kathleen Stock and Joanna Cherry KC MP have been treated to know just how true that is.

It is hard to think of anywhere where the extremism, in terms of the intensity of the battle that we have heard about during this debate going on for the hearts and minds of our young people, is more acute than in the classroom and schools. To all intents and purposes, they have become a battleground. Anyone who has been through adolescence knows that it is torment enough without the complexity of considering whether you have been born in the wrong body or should change your gender.

I am not a parent, nor will I ever be one. The very strong probability that any child of mine would have the same condition that I have precludes that possibility. Others with brittle bones make different choices and I respect them for that, but I know I am not strong enough to risk visiting on anyone the pain, shame and discrimination that I have experienced as a result of it. But an inability to speak as a parent should not disqualify me, or anyone else, from voicing concern about the threat posed to the integrity and effectiveness of safeguarding guidance by advice from lobby groups that information about a child’s distress—perhaps about their gender—should be kept confidential from parents, family and other agencies, and that teaching materials should be treated as confidential and not shared with parents. Surely, that directly contradicts safeguarding guidance on information sharing.

As a disabled person, I have a personal vested interest in safeguarding progress towards greater equality, whether on the protected characteristics of disability, sex, ethnicity or sexual orientation. Progress on each invariably impacts on the whole. Moreover, I am sure we all have reason to be grateful for the courage of people such as Simon Fanshawe, not just for co-founding Stonewall in 1989 but more recently for reminding us that

“Spaces have to be safe for disagreement, not from disagreement”—

in other words, and I paraphrase, that cancel culture is counterproductive because extremism engenders extremism, which puts progress towards equality as a whole at risk.

What I find remarkable is the extent to which the equality landscape has been transformed in the almost three and a half decades since Stonewall’s foundation, in no small part due to its formidable campaigning. I say “equality landscape” because I would not be in the least bit surprised if many people saw issues such as equal marriage as almost a key performance indicator of society’s attitudes towards equality per se. That is undoubtedly to Stonewall’s credit, but having played so crucial a role in securing that progress, surely it has an equally key role to play—indeed, a responsibility—to safeguard progress towards greater equality. I am not sure it appreciates that. In fact, Stonewall’s ostracisation of Simon Fanshawe and its unfortunate association with an aggressive, polarising cancel culture, the promotion of gender self-identity in our schools, and, at best, an indifference to the erosion of women’s and girls’ rights to safe spaces suggests the opposite.

That is such a shame, because the extremism generated is inevitably provoking a backlash across the piece. In my experience as a disabled person, such a climate is legitimising regressive attitudes towards and treatment of disabled people, which I thought was ancient history. Progress towards equality is so precious. History shows that it is also incredibly fragile. That is why safeguarding progress towards equality for future generations depends on our safeguarding the current generation of children and young people in school today.

Baroness Uddin Portrait Baroness Uddin (Non-Afl)
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My Lords, it is an honour to follow my friend, the noble Lord, Lord Shinkwin, and I commend his continual efforts to preserve and safeguard disability rights in this place and outside of it. I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Jenkin, for her leadership in introducing this debate so powerfully on the exponential rise in children’s suffering.

I wish to make some general points about safeguarding, and particularly about the impact of Prevent and the Channel programme on Muslim children. Although not currently practising, I have been a social worker since 1984, qualifying and later working mostly in east London. Keeping children safe and protecting their welfare requires a multiagency response and structures, which includes social workers, police, health visitors, local safeguarding boards and medical staff.

Safeguarding has indeed evolved over the decades—many will argue for the better, while many more will cite inadequate resources constraining the support that families under duress urgently require. Around 3 million cases of child abuse are reported each year, with 5.5 million children involved. NSPCC alone has this year received 22,000 referrals of children deemed unsafe. This House has debated childhood experience of trauma on countless occasions, and we know all too well that poverty, physical and sexual abuse, drugs, caring responsibilities, experience of racism and other forms of discrimination, witnessing violence in their homes, online pornography and bullying cause untold damage to children’s mental well-being.

These facets are common among all our children across the UK. As with violence against women, such experiences are regardless of class, gender, race and faith. As an experienced social worker working with children and families, I am cognisant of the pressures of managing statutory intervention, which is complex. One cannot overemphasise the trauma and anguish of all families, whether a family member is the perpetrator or not. It causes immense turbulence to the child and their siblings. It has to be said that when, on occasions, cases concerning children from minority backgrounds were dropped or closed, this was often due to a profound lack of understanding of family nuances, cultural norms and practices, as well as of languages, and was frequently based on the premise that somehow children, particularly young girls, were more vulnerable, in part to do with their race and/or culture or faith.

In this context, I wish to raise some matters relating to Prevent and Channel, and the duty that requires all education providers to help prevent the risk of people becoming terrorists or supporting terrorism, which then triggers a multiagency approach to safeguarding when children and young people are deemed vulnerable, and at risk of radicalisation and extremism. The Prevent duty extension to public bodies has led to young Muslim children in particular being seen through the lens of security. As a result, social workers, police officers and perhaps even some teachers believe that children as young as four could be radicalised—equivalent to, “In the womb, potential future terrorists lie”. Education institutions have been issued guidance that promotes some mendacious ideas, such as that signs of radicalisation may include references to, “Allahu Akbar”, “Alhamdulillah”, which means praise be to God, and international conflicts, especially Palestine, as we now see. Teachers who do not have the sufficient training or knowledge go as far suggesting to children that prayers are not obligatory, and a Muslim Council of Britain report cites an example of a science class on nuclear fission where making a bomb was discussed and a child of Muslim faith being the only one to be referred for safeguarding concerns when he discussed it.

Prevent has caused much unnecessary misery and suffering for children and families. One report suggests that, of 4,406 referrals to Prevent in the year to March 2022, 76% were deemed unsuitable for Channel consideration and exited the process. The majority of those—77%—were signposted to other services, including educational and health support.

A report by Rights Watch UK concludes, and I agree, that Prevent, and in particular the introduction of the statutory duty on teachers and other public servants to report signs of radicalisation, is stifling children’s fundamental rights and freedoms, including to freedom of expression and belief. It dehumanises many very young children and has a detrimental impact on their mental health, self-confidence and trust in those who have responsibility for their well-being. On many occasions, children are referred without their parents’ knowledge or consent. This is not about child sexual abuse or physical abuse; it is about children’s thinking and behaviour. There is a clear need for safe spaces where young people can express their feelings and opinions without threat and fear of a safeguarding referral.

The Prevent process is obstructive and creates significant alienation and lack of faith in the education system. To undermine young minds in such a brutal manner violates trust and may cause their long-term mental well-being to suffer, as well as detrimentally impacting their education. We are familiar with the horrifying numbers: in July 2021 one in six children aged five to 16 were identified as having a probable mental health problem in July 2021; now it is almost five children in every classroom. NHS figures show that more than a million children needed treatment for serious mental health problems in the past year, as reported by the Telegraph earlier this year.

Children are the product of their environment, home and society. Information on international events will be visible to many homes, online, in schools and in playgrounds, and certainly happening in school council debates all over the country. These matters must not shut down children of any backgrounds or faiths. It is incumbent on all of us to encourage children to express their views without fear of punitive measures on them and their families. Building resilient children who are our future is an absolute obligation to which each of us must be united to ensure our common humanity and a peaceful society.

Lord Jackson of Peterborough Portrait Lord Jackson of Peterborough (Con)
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My Lords, the purpose of schools is to educate, but if there is an even important purpose it is to safeguard the children in their care. The vast majority of teachers take that seriously, but there are concerns that the education that some schools provide is actually a risk to children. We might even ask if “education” is the right word for it. When schooling is captured by an ideological agenda, it leads to poor, uncritical education, and schools can become blind to what really is in the best interest of children, or blind to the risks that they are exposing them to—especially on sexual issues.

The Sex Education Forum is a sort of trade body for the sex education industry. It downplays these concerns, but you would expect that because it is implicated in the failures that we are talking about. Safeguarding concerns should never be downplayed. Clear boundaries and transparency are key principles of safeguarding. If a concern is raised, it has to be properly investigated. The evidence must be examined, and those with the responsibility of overseeing education must not allow themselves to be fobbed off by people claiming that they can be trusted and that there is nothing to worry about. The source of the problem is third-party organisations which present themselves to schools as experts—organisations offering advice, training, teaching materials and even external speakers to come in and deliver lessons. In reality, many of them are highly partisan campaign groups with agendas that conflict with some of the duties placed on schools. Regrettably, this radicalism has been prevalent in the sector for some time. Jessica Ringrose is a board member of the Queering Education Research Institute, a professor at UCL and an adviser to the School of Sexuality Education, which provides speakers. She was a lead author on an academic paper—I just want to read a few lines from its abstract:

“In this paper we explore our experiences working as a team, who have formed an intra-activist research and pedagogical assemblage to experiment with RSE practices. We draw upon phEmaterialism theory and socially engaged, participatory arts-based research methodologies and pedagogies to explore two examples of arts-based activities that have been developed to de-center humanist, male-dominated, phallocentric, penile-oriented RSE”.

This is from a journal called Reconceptualizing Educational Research Methodology, and the article is entitled “Play-Doh Vulvas and Felt Tip Dick Pics: Disrupting Phallocentric Matter(s) in Sex Education”.

These people are not even pretending not to be activists. We should be much more sceptical about the materials that these organisations are producing. Ringrose’s research boasts of one example where 12 year-old girls were tasked with working in groups using sexually explicit images some had received on their phones. These organisations know that they are up to no good. I say that because the School of Sexuality Education was the organisation behind the Clare Page case. When she complained as a mum about what her children were being shown in sex education, the School of Sexuality Education told the school that it was not allowed to show the classroom materials to anyone, citing commercial confidentiality. Not being able to refer to the materials hampered her ability to effectively progress her complaint. Norfolk Council’s scheme—a Conservative council—for primary schools instructs children to make plasticine models to illustrate

“a condom catching semen from a penis”,

and gives inaccurate information about the age of consent. Six and seven year-olds in Warwickshire—a Conservative council—were asked to discuss the scenario of a girl who enjoys touching herself between her legs when she has a bath. Thankfully, that programme was withdrawn by the council, but only under the threat of legal action. On gender ideology, in addition to the excessively explicit nature of some sex education, we now have the pervasive presentation of gender ideology as a fact. A lesson plan from the group Kapow presented children with a spectrum of stereotypical male and female interests, and instructed them to match their own so-called gender identity in relation to the spectrum. Then it told them to ignore what anybody else says to them about their gender and choose their own.

This distancing of pupils from the influence of others, especially their own parents, is dangerous; it is a safeguarding issue in itself. Parents are often not aware of what is going on with their own kids in sex education. Even when they are, they are often made to feel powerless, and there seems to be a deliberate strategy to reduce the influence of parents over the education of their own children. Some brave parents submit formal complaints, but it is hard for them to get anyone to listen to them and actually change anything. If they work through all the stages of a school’s complaints process without success, and if they still have the energy to continue, they can escalate it to the Department for Education, but the department does not seem to handle these complaints well. In one case I have been made aware of, a parent has been waiting for well over a year for the DfE to respond substantially to an escalated complaint. In another, the DfE says that it received the complaint but then lost it. The parent printed it out again and posted it off two months ago—she is still waiting. Perhaps the Minister might agree to meet me to discuss these cases. It seems that the DfE is effectively disempowering parents who are courageous enough to make a stand and, while they wait for a response to their complaints, children continue to be exposed to materials that their parents regard as unsuitable and harmful. The School of Sexuality Education contributed to two of the DfE’s own RSHE training modules for teachers. I am afraid we must ask whether the DfE has not been captured and compromised itself. The situation is a mess: it is imperative that the Secretary of State and her Ministers get a grip and act urgently.

Lord Cashman Portrait Lord Cashman (Lab)
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My Lords, I start by congratulating the noble Baroness, Lady Jenkin of Kennington, on her opening speech. There was very little in it that I disagreed with. I want to associate myself with the powerful intervention of the noble Lord, Lord Hampton, a teacher in the London Borough of Hackney, an area I know well. I live in Tower Hamlets, where, for the most part, I also experienced my education.

I was not intending to say this, but I find elements of what I have heard today deeply troubling. They remind me of how people referred to me as a gay man across the decades, and what dehumanisation and defaming does. Yes, I say to the noble Baroness shaking her head; defamation and dehumanisation is a threat to life. I experienced no safeguarding during my school years and subsequently, as a queer, I experienced years of sexual and physical abuse until the age of 15. Therefore, for the avoidance of any doubt, I am passionate about adequate, proportionate and essential safeguarding and empowering young people, especially those who belong to minorities.

I also wish to refute the misrepresentation of Stonewall by the noble Lord, Lord Shinkwin. I am proud to be a co-founder of that organisation and I still support it.

It is absolutely clear to anyone listening to this debate or otherwise, or taking the slightest interest in safeguarding, that addressing the concerns that we have heard about today is important—and addressing them with teachers and other professionals within the schools sector. It is vital that we engage professionals and practitioners in these areas, and not leave it to the whims and wishes of others offering, generally, nothing more than anecdotal evidence or allegations in the press.

Due to current levels of interest in young trans people in schools, I wish to recall that, five years ago, the Government committed to producing guidance for schools to support—I repeat, support—children who are questioning their gender. There is a range of views about how best to support young people, but there is clear consensus that guidance is needed. Just yesterday during her Statement in the other place, the Minister for Women and Equalities repeated her assurance that the guidance would be issued “shortly”. I hope that this is not another characteristically empty promise from the Government. I say to the Women and Equalities Minister that it is preferable to produce Statements, whether external or within the House, and guidance, based on evidence and not on wild allegations.

Safeguarding, as has been mentioned, has a specific meaning regarding the protection of children and vulnerable adults from abuse, neglect and harm. It is also worth repeating what the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, said: parents are not automatically involved in safeguarding reports regarding their children, as it is recognised that not all families are automatically a safe environment for children. Some one in 14 children experiences sexual abuse at the hands of their parents or guardians. Again to repeat the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, creating an environment where a child is expected to suppress a part of their identity is increasingly regarded by medical practitioners as harmful.

Preventing a child accessing beneficial treatment can also be considered to be neglect or abuse, which therefore falls into safeguarding concerns. A 2022 report by Galop, the LGBT+ anti-abuse charity, found that 43% of trans people had suffered abuse at the hands of their family. From listening to some of the statements about trans people, one does not much wonder why. Another study, in 2016, reported that family rejection has a positive correlation with both suicide attempts and substance misuse.

To repeat, and for the avoidance of any doubt, the safeguarding of children and young people must protect all children and young people, without reservation or exclusion. That includes LGBTQ+, non-binary and intersex people. Furthermore, any relationship and sex education in schools must be inclusive, and there must be no attempt to create another Section 28, or Section 2A of the Local Government Act 1986, which caused so much harm to so many people.

While I recognise that most people hold their views seriously and sincerely, I say directly to the Minister that there must be no return to the prejudice and hate of the past. It must be resisted on every occasion. There should be no return to the ignorance—sometimes well-intentioned ignorance—that contributed to the fear that harmed and damaged so many young people. Dehumanisation and defamation do not safeguard anyone, and they result in crimes against persons who are perceived as different.

Trans people are not a threat. Lawbreakers and rule-breakers are a threat, but there are well-organised, well-funded campaigns to demonise, defame and misrepresent LGBT+ people, especially trans people. That is utterly shameful. It will do no good to anyone and will only continue to create misery and harm for LGBT+ young people, trans people and their families. Indeed, it undermines the very society in which we all live.

As a civilised society, we need to protect vulnerable minorities and young people and children who associate or belong within those minorities. Every child and young person should have the inalienable right to be themselves, authentically and without fear. Our futures depend on it: indeed, their futures depend upon it.

Finally, I ask the Minister for an unequivocal assurance that any approach to safeguarding is based on verifiable evidence and not on opinion or anecdote. It is sad that I have to request this, but I seek a categorical reassurance that no child or young person will be left behind, that no child or young person, including LGBT+, non-binary and intersex, will be isolated, and that each child or young person will be enabled, indeed encouraged, to grow, achieve their unique potential and develop their own identity.

Earl of Leicester Portrait The Earl of Leicester (Con)
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My Lords, that was a very impassioned speech by the noble Lord, Lord Cashman. I too had not intended to say this, but I want to make the point that I support minorities and the underdog. But six days ago, the noble Lord, Lord Cashman, tweeted on X:

“The right wing in the House of Lords has organised a debate for the 7th of December on safeguarding in schools! We must push back against these people”.

What on earth did he mean? Debbie Hayton, the respected teacher and trans woman, responded:

“Pushing back against those concerned about safeguarding is maybe not what you meant, Michael?”

So first I congratulate my dear noble friend Lord Stansgate, who is sitting on the Woolsack for the first time. I also thank my kinswoman and noble friend Lady Jenkin for securing this important debate.

Schools are a place where children should be nurtured and nourished, a place of safety where they can grow up slowly, safe from the outside world and some of the more unpleasant and pernicious influences that inhabit our world and, from time to time, cross our paths. Pornography is one of those influences that I am sure every noble Peer and person in this Chamber agrees should not be available in schools—but I am afraid it is; it is readily available.

In my day, as a red-blooded sixth-former, you might chance upon a well-thumbed copy of Playboy or Mayfair, which were fairly benign, But now, due to the internet and the fact that so many children of the age of 12 or younger have smartphones, a huge panoply of pornography of every type is revealed and is so easily accessed. A young child merely has to tick a box stating that they are 18 or over and they are in.

Internet porn is readily available and there is so much of it. Many more people are exposed to it and/or choose to watch it in the anonymity of their own home, safe from prying eyes. We know from many things that we find on the internet that it is very easy to head down the rabbit hole. It is the same with pornography, with increasing categories of depravity available. Think of the category of rough sex and go further, to where young girls—it is always young girls—are abused, often by multiple men. I will stop there but, believe me, it gets worse.

What is worrying is the effect that this increased viewing of hardcore porn is having, primarily on men. The Times on Wednesday reported on a study by Edinburgh University’s Childlight child safety institute, which surveyed 4,500 men from the UK, USA and Australia. More than one in 20 said that they would have sexual contact with a child between the age of 10 and 14 if they knew that it would be kept a secret. Among British men, 1.6% said that they would definitely have sexual contact with a 12 to 14 year-old if it stayed a secret, with 2.6% saying that they would be very likely to. An additional 7% admitted to having sexual feelings toward children, which they did not act upon. The proportion was higher in Australia and higher still in America.

According to the International Society for the Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect, one in four girls and one in five boys have been sexually abused, with half of them abused by their 13th birthday. I do not know the figures for the UK but I sincerely hope they are not that high. Dr Michael Salter, an associate professor at the University of New South Wales—which co-authored the report with the University of Edinburgh—stated that the rise in online child offences is part of a global trend over the past two decades, adding that an unregulated online environment is a direct cause of sexual offending against children. He said:

“Men who are sexually offending against children are watching a lot more online pornography but also the type of content they are consuming is very deviant … It is more likely to be violent. It’s more likely to be forceful”.

A report commissioned by Miriam Cates MP and the New Social Covenant Unit, What is Being Taught in Relationships and Sex Education in Our Schools?, called for a government review. It highlights how things have changed since the guidance produced by the DfE in 2000, which stated:

“What is sex and relationship education? It is lifelong learning about physical, moral and emotional development. It is about the understanding of the importance of marriage for family life, stable and loving relationships, respect, love and care. It is also about the teaching of sex, sexuality, and sexual health. It is not about the promotion of sexual orientation or sexual activity—this would be inappropriate teaching”.

I think we could all feel very happy with that definition of RSE. However, this statement does not feature in the latest 2019 RSE guidance, which contains advice that is not compatible with the definition. Indeed, now, there is strong evidence that actors with a radical ideological position on sex, gender and sexuality are monopolising the RSE third sector, as my noble friend Lord Jackson said.

I shall give your Lordships a couple of examples. My noble friend mentioned Jessica Ringrose from UCL and Amelia Jenkinson, the former CEO of the School of Sexuality Education. He also mentioned the article “Play-Doh Vulvas and Felt Tip Dick Pics”. If your Lordships will indulge me, children aged between 12 and 16 were encouraged to draw sexually explicit images, including hands masturbating erections with the words “Wanna see me cum?” and “Now it’s your turn—ride me”. The academics went on to record that

“there was a sense of solidarity”—

that is ironic—

“amongst the girls … as they discussed the pictures they had received from ‘random old men’ on Snapchat”.

Is that really acceptable? Certainly not, particularly for the 12 and 13 year-olds in the classes who were needlessly exposed to this sort of thing having mercifully never experienced it in real life.

It gets worse. Another provider, Split Banana, gives lessons to children of the same age in which it describes four types of sex: penis-in-vagina sex, oral sex, masturbation and anal sex. Its lessons created an equivalence for heterosexual couples between anal and vaginal sex, which has the potential to mislead children about whether anal sex is a universally enacted, desirable or safe sexual practice.

I leave noble Lords with this. In preparation for this debate, I asked my own children at what age they had first been exposed to pornography and how it had affected them. Only one was happy to answer: when she was 12, looking at an iPod Touch Christmas present with her male cousin of the same age. Her reaction? She threw the iPod across the room. She was terrified.

Baroness Browning Portrait Baroness Browning (Con)
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My Lords, I, too, welcome and thank my noble friend Lady Jenkin of Kennington for bringing this debate to the Floor of the House today. I draw the House’s attention to my interests in the register on autism as, unsurprisingly, it is that subject that I wish to address today. I will focus on the safeguarding of autistic children in the education system. This will include both those with an autism diagnosis and those as yet undiagnosed, for whom an assessment and a subsequent plan to support the child through education—as outlined in the Autism Act 2009—are often needed right through their transition from childhood into adulthood.

In her representation of today’s debate, my noble friend Lady Jenkin outlined in some detail the Government’s definition of safeguarding in the context of education, so I will not repeat it now. However, I emphasise—not for the first time—that autism is a spectrum and the needs of an individual should be assessed by those with significant training and qualifications in autism and neurodiversity. Autism is different. It is a communication disorder. Both physical and mental bullying are common. The individual’s development of a sense of self can be slower than that of their peer group. Idiosyncratic behaviour, such as echolalia, can attract unwanted hostile responses. Timely assessment, diagnosis and support are essential.

Schools will struggle to carry out their statutory duties in respect of safeguarding until there is rapid improvement in this process. Research from Pro Bono Economics suggests that, in 2021-22, £60 million of public money was wasted on special educational needs and disability tribunals brought by people who had come forward with an assessment or not received one at all. Had those tribunals not responded to the request or rejected them, they could have financed around 9,960 places in SEN units in mainstream schools each year with the money wasted. Even when people get an assessment, many have to go to tribunals to get the support that their child desperately needs.

Ofsted, the schools inspectorate for England, describes what good safeguarding in an education setting should look like:

“It is about the culture a school creates to keep its pupils safe so that they can benefit fully … A positive and open safeguarding culture puts pupils’ interests first. Everyone who works with children is vigilant in identifying risks and reporting concerns. It is also about working openly and transparently with parents, local authorities and other stakeholders to protect pupils from serious harm, both online and offline and about taking prompt and proportionate action”.

I, too, will make some comment, or place some interest, on the question of gender. The Cass review, in particular, demonstrated the shockingly disproportionate high number of autistic children seen by the Tavistock and Portman gender identity service. I emphasise this: 48% of referrals to that clinic had autistic characteristics. Yet, in the course of its work, nobody questioned why. What is going on here?

I am pleased to see that the Department of Health is addressing the Cass review, and I am grateful to the Minister at the Dispatch Box today for the time she has allowed me, in private, to outline to her some of the similar problems experienced in some state schools for autistic children, using information given to me directly by the parents of those children. As I discussed with my noble friend, particularly as far as girls are concerned, parents have been blocked out from what has been going on in schools and has affected their own children. These have included things such as breast binding, initiated by teachers without the parents’ knowledge; referral to doctors, who have prescribed puberty blockers; and things such as changing pupils’ names. Some of these issues have led to court cases. But we know that pubescent teenage girls sometimes struggle with the changes in their bodies and peer pressure to conform—how much more so for autistic girls, who have found these complex issues so much more difficult.

I will try to shed some light on this with a quote, from a post on autism and gender identity written by Jane Galloway. She has suggested that:

“With such a huge number of autistic girls identifying as trans, whether that be as a boy or as non-binary (a feeling that they identify as neither male or female, although they will biologically be female or in rare cases, intersex) we have to ask questions about why this is.

Growing up in a culture soaked by internet porn, in which women are expected to conform to highly sexualised, performative femininity, young girls are often facing impossible beauty standards. They are seeing a world of toxic gender roles that speak neither for nor to them”—

that also applies to young lesbians as well as autistic girls. She goes on to say that

“the temptation to reject it outright … is overwhelming. Add in the differentiated theory of mind”,

documented by Francesca Happé many years ago, which throws light on the way the autistic mind works, and it is no wonder that, for

“girls who are autistic … many of them will assume ‘Because I am not this, I must … be that’”.

Perhaps that question should have been asked at the Tavistock clinic. It is certainly a question that I hope we will ask in education, as far as autistic girls in classrooms are concerned. In the guidelines that are to come, I hope my noble friend will be able to influence that.

Baroness Walmsley Portrait Baroness Walmsley (LD)
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My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Jenkin, for her “canter around the issues”, as she put it to me the other day. I have always believed that there are very many ways of being human and that we should bear that in mind when dealing with anyone who travels a different path from our own and treat all with equal respect. This applies to gender identity and sexuality as well as every other characteristic. This principle underlies my reaction to the issues raised by many in this debate.

When considering how to go about helping and protecting children as they find their way through life, I always go back to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and, of course, the “best interests of the child” principle, enshrined in UK law thanks to the noble Baroness, Lady Bottomley of Nettlestone.

I am quite surprised that I am the first person in this debate to mention the convention. Relevant to this debate is recommendation number 25 in the concluding observations published in June this year by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child in its latest report on the UK’s compliance with the convention to which we are signed up:

“Noting the decision taken by the State party to prevent the implementation of the Gender Recognition Reform (Scotland) Bill, the Committee recommends that the State party recognize the right to identity of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex children and put in place measures to ensure that all adolescents can enjoy their freedom of expression and respect for their physical and psychological integrity, gender identity and emerging autonomy. In this context, the State party should ensure that any decisions regarding systems of gender recognition for children are taken in close consultation with transgender children and in line with children’s rights, including the right to be heard and the right to identity, in accordance with their evolving capacities, with free and informed consent and appropriate safeguards.”

In the light of our long-standing commitment to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, under which the committee evaluates our compliance every five years, will the UK Government take notice of that recommendation? It is relevant to how schools respond when children express any kind of gender distress, uncertainty or lack of conformity with others. It means that schools must listen to children, consult them about how they wish to live and, as far as possible, ensure they are treated in the way that makes them feel most comfortable. When this is done, it helps avoid distress and mental health problems in the future.

The committee further recommended that we urgently address the long waiting times faced by transgender and gender-questioning children in accessing specialist healthcare services, including for mental health, to improve the quality of such services and ensure that the views of such children are taken into account in all decisions affecting their treatment.

I will now use the opportunity of this debate to turn to a fundamental safeguarding concern of mine, which is to ensure that sexual abuse of children is never ignored or brushed under the carpet. That can happen only when there is a legal duty to report what is known or suspected—a deterrent from allowing fears of reputational damage to make a person keep silent. When a child has the courage to disclose sexual abuse, he or she just wants it to stop. If that does not happen, the child, as well as continuing to be abused, loses all trust in those in whom they have confided.

In respect of this, I had great hopes of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse, IICSA, and it has not disappointed. However, when I look at the Government’s response, I do not believe they have responded appropriately. IICSA’s recommendation 13, “Mandatory reporting”, says:

“The Inquiry recommends that the UK government and Welsh Government introduce legislation which places certain individuals—‘mandated reporters’—under a statutory duty to report child sexual abuse where they: receive a disclosure of child sexual abuse from a child or perpetrator; or witness a child being sexually abused; or observe recognised indicators of child sexual abuse.

The following persons should be designated ‘mandated reporters’: any person working in regulated activity in relation to children (under the Safeguarding and Vulnerable Groups Act 2006, as amended); any person working in a position of trust (as defined by the Sexual Offences Act 2003, as amended); and police officers.

For the purposes of mandatory reporting, ‘child sexual abuse’ should be interpreted as any act that would be an offence under the Sexual Offences Act 2003 where the alleged victim is a child under the age of 18”.

There follow exceptions, which I will not go into.

IICSA then says:

“Where the child is under the age of 13, a report must always be made. Reports should be made to either local authority children’s social care or the police as soon as is practicable”.

Here is the crucial bit:

“It should be a criminal offence for mandated reporters to fail to report child sexual abuse where they: are in receipt of a disclosure of child sexual abuse from a child or perpetrator; or witness a child being sexually abused”.

That is what I was hoping for.

Initially, the government response sounded hopeful. It said:

“We accept the need for mandatory reporting; the government has agreed to implement a mandatory reporting regime for child sexual abuse which will be informed by a full public consultation”.

It further says:

“We agree that implementing a new mandatory reporting duty could improve the protection and safeguarding of children, as well as holding to account those who fail in their responsibilities. A successful reporting regime will ensure that the individuals and organisations with a responsibility to safeguard children provide a robust and consistent response to abuse, putting the needs of children first”.

The consultation outcome was published in May and the Government published their guidance, Keeping Children Safe in Education, in September. Having read this guidance carefully, I would say that it is, on the whole, excellent—well-written, clear and comprehensive—but it lacks one thing and has one inconsistency, which is crucial. I will come to that in a minute.

The guidance says:

“If staff have any concerns about a child’s welfare, they should act on them immediately … follow their own organisation’s child protection policy and speak to the designated safeguarding lead (or deputy)”.

It then outlines the actions which can be taken, including making a referral to statutory services. It tells staff what to do if the DSL is not available, including

“speaking to a member of the senior leadership team and/or … local authority children’s social care … Staff should not assume a colleague, or another professional will take action and share information that might be critical in keeping children safe”.

It gives criteria for that.

It then goes on to describe what local authorities should do. I was pleased to read that it makes it clear that the Data Protection Act 2018 and UK general data protection regulations do not prevent the sharing of information for the purposes of keeping children safe and promoting their welfare. It says:

“Fears about sharing information must not be allowed to stand in the way of the need to safeguard and promote the welfare of children.”

So far so excellent. However, I noted the difference between all this advice and the section on female genital mutilation:

“Whilst all staff should speak to the designated safeguarding lead (or a deputy) with regard to any concerns about female genital mutilation (FGM), there is a specific legal duty on teachers. If a teacher, in the course of their work in the profession, discovers that an act of FGM appears to have been carried out on a girl under the age of 18, the teacher must report this to the police.”

In other words, it is against the law to fail to report that a child has been physically mutilated, but it is not against the law to fail to report or act on the knowledge or suspicion that a child has been sexually abused—and that is much more widespread. I wonder if the Minister can tell me: what is the difference?

Baroness Wilcox of Newport Portrait Baroness Wilcox of Newport (Lab)
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My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, and I associate myself with much of what she said, including on the importance of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. I would also like to congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Jenkin, on securing this debate on such an important subject: safeguarding children in schools. Safeguarding has a set of specific meanings regarding the protection of children and vulnerable adults from abuse, neglect and harm. Although I am no longer a working teacher—unlike the noble Lord, Lord Hampton, who made many excellent points in his speech—I did do 35 years at the chalk face, so I know a little bit about it.

The Times Educational Supplement recently identified seven key safeguarding areas that schools should be concerned with now, as mentioned earlier by the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton. On child sexual abuse material, a recent report from the Internet Watch Foundation found a 64% increase in reported webpages containing confirmed child sexual abuse images in 2021 compared to 2020. Almost seven out of 10 instances involved children aged 11 to 13, and 97% of the images were of girls. It is absolutely vital that everyone working with children is aware of the online risks, has appropriate training and ensures that children have suitable routes to support and reporting.

Next, there is child-on-child sexual violence and harassment. The excellent organisation Girlguiding released figures in 2021 stating that two thirds of their members who were girls and young women experienced sexual harassment in school. Schools should maintain the attitude that such behaviours could already be taking place, and foster environments where children feel safe and empowered to report abuse.

Turning to extremism and radicalisation, the number of children arrested in relation to terrorism offences has reached its highest level since records began. According to the Home Office, 16% of arrests under the Terrorism Act 2000 in the year ending 2022 were of people aged under 18. Young people are particularly vulnerable to radicalisation, and schools need to be aware of key factors: social isolation, precarious emotional ties, and violent peers. Labour have called on the Government to provide an update to the counter-extremism strategy because it has not been updated since 2015. Although the Prevent strategy has been updated, there is a need for a wider counter-extremism strategy.

A growing issue, one that we have talked about many times in this place, is domestic abuse. It has been reported that 62% of children living with domestic abuse are directly harmed by the perpetrator of the abuse, while one in five children has lived with an adult perpetrating domestic abuse. By witnessing the abuse of others, or by being harmed directly, children may experience a wide range of severe and long-lasting effects. All school staff must follow their school’s child protection policy and contact the police if they suspect that a child is in danger.

A term that has become increasingly used to describe safeguarding issues but did not exist when I began my teaching career in Brixton in the 1980s is “adverse childhood experiences”, usually shortened now to the acronym ACEs. These include a range of experiences, such as being the victim of abuse or neglect, parental abandonment through separation or divorce, or having a parent with a mental health condition. Several studies have shown that if a person has experienced four or more ACEs, compared to someone with none, they are more likely to experience poor health and well-being into adulthood.

Another safeguarding issue is trauma, which can occur when a child witnesses or experiences overwhelming negative events. Developmental trauma includes children who are neglected, abused or forced to live with family violence, or who experience high parental conflict. It affects all aspects of a child’s development, including the brain, body, emotions, memory, relationships, learning and behaviour. Schools provide the opportunity for children to experience safe and predictable environments and to interact with staff and peers with kindness and compassion.

Another issue that has grown hugely in the past decade, particularly during and after the experiences of the pandemic, is mental health issues in children and young people. In July 2021, the NHS identified one in six children aged five to 16 as having a probable mental health problem—an increase from one in nine in 2017 and equivalent to about five children in every classroom. Schools should help children develop good relationships and build resilience when dealing with setbacks, and all staff need to be given training on common issues, including anxiety, low mood and depression, self-harm and conduct disorders. The Government’s education plans aim for mental health support for children in only half of their schools, but Labour’s plan is to ensure specialist mental health support in every school to stop problems before they escalate.

Five years ago, the Government committed to producing guidance for schools to support children who are questioning their gender. There are a range of views about how best to support young people, and we have heard them here today, but the clear consensus is that guidance is needed, as mentioned by my noble friend Lady Morris and, in fuller detail, by my noble friend Lord Cashman. I support many of his comments, particularly his observations about his personal experience, of which he spoke most movingly.

During the passage of the Schools Bill, which did not complete its journey through the legislative process, one area that should have made it into law was the provision of a home-school register, a long overdue addition to the safeguarding measures. During the passage of the Bill, I spoke about the increasing number of children receiving an education outside the classroom and how they could be missing out on the benefits a school environment brings. Safeguards are vital in helping to make sure children are not being taught in unsuitable or dangerous environments. Allied to the register is the large numbers of children who have not returned to school since the pandemic: last year more than one in five children were persistently absent.

It was therefore quite disturbing to hear on Tuesday from a Permanent Secretary in the Department for Education that Downing Street blocked its legislating for a register of children not in school. This Government have consistently failed to get them back to school, even though every day of learning matters. It appears that the block on this legislation came directly from No. 10, despite cross-party support and a request from the DfE.

I can clearly state that the next Labour Government will legislate to identify children out of school, and ensure that families and schools get the support needed to guarantee an excellent education for every child and seek to safeguard those children and young people. We will bring an annual safeguarding review in for schools in England, as concerns about children’s safety and well-being are being missed due to infrequent Ofsted inspections. There has been a promising, positive reaction to this idea of annual safeguarding reviews and we will consult closely with the education community. Safeguarding is the number one priority of everyone in education.

Baroness Barran Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Education (Baroness Barran) (Con)
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My Lords, I join other noble Lords in thanking my noble friend Lady Jenkin of Kennington for securing this debate on the importance of safeguarding in our schools. Your Lordships have set me an impossible task in trying to address all of points raised; anything I am unable to cover in the time available I will follow up in writing. We have heard some very powerful and reflective speeches from across this House, and I thank all noble Lords who contributed to this important debate. As we heard, safeguarding our children both inside and outside of school is absolutely crucial. As the world evolves, so do the safeguarding risks our children face, and the challenges our schools face evolve with them.

As your Lordships are aware, all schools and colleges in England must have regard to the statutory safeguarding guidance Keeping Children Safe in Education. The guidance sets out the policies and procedures that teachers and leaders should follow to protect children while in school. Our schools and colleges are also part of a wider framework of safeguarding that includes local authorities, health and the police, each of whom have statutory duties to safeguard and promote the welfare of children. Safeguarding is everybody’s responsibility and everyone who comes into contact with children and their families has a role to play in identifying concerns, sharing information and taking prompt action.

Given the focus of the debate, I start my remarks on issues around the Government’s gender questioning guidance, but I aim to cover some of the wider points raised. I particularly thank the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, who I think was the first to raise this subject, for her tone and reflections on how much has improved over many years. I know she would agree that we owe a lot to every teacher for their part in that.

A number of noble Lords raised the issue of schools supporting the social transition of pupils who are questioning their gender, including my noble friends Lord Farmer, Lord Jackson of Peterborough and Lord Shinkwin—I was sorry to hear his remarks on the re-emergence of discrimination towards disabled people. I also thank my noble friend Lord Roberts for his historical perspective on these issues. Obviously, how we respond to such requests is an important safeguarding and welfare question. As your Lordships pointed out, recent years have seen a large increase in children seeking support. The number of children seeking medical support for gender dysphoria was 20 times higher in 2022 than a decade ago. Schools are not taking decisions about clinical support, of course, but that does not mean that decisions about social transition can be taken lightly. Actions such as changing names and pronouns are serious and can have a wider impact.

The Cass review highlighted the importance of safeguarding, stressing that social transition

“is not a neutral act”,

and that

“it may have significant effects on the child or young person in terms of their psychological functioning”.

But the review also says that not supporting social transition is also not a neutral act. There is not clear information on the long-term effects. That is the background to the guidance that we have been working on carefully and will be publishing for consultation shortly. I am not going to pre-empt that publication in this debate, but I can reassure noble Lords that the issues raised today are very much being considered in its development.

Safeguarding and welfare will be absolutely central to decisions taken by schools, considering the implications for individuals and for the wider school. In that context, biological sex is vitally important. Single-sex spaces, as raised by my noble friend Lady Eaton, need to be maintained; school sport, which was touched on by my noble friends Lord Sandhurst and Lord Wrottesley, must be safe and fair. It is also vital that parents should be engaged in decision-making about their children. That is a principle at the heart of other school processes, such as deciding on support for children with special educational needs, and it is just as important here. Parents are the ones who know their children and their wider lives best. I have to disagree with the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, about keeping this information from parents, except in absolutely exceptional circumstances.

I should also emphasise that we will be holding a consultation on the guidance. While I am confident that we have considered the issues raised, we really do want to gather a full range of views. I hope that your Lordships and members of the public will respond to let us know the extent to which it clarifies these issues for schools because, as we heard from the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, and others, there is a central point about having certainty and clarity for teachers on how they should respond to these very sensitive and difficult issues.

The noble Lord, Lord Cashman, asked me to clarify that we will not repeat the mistakes of the past. Just to be clear, the guidance will aim to support and protect all pupils, including those who are questioning their gender. One of the key principles to have guided this work is that schools and colleges should be respectful and tolerant places, where children are treated with compassion and understanding, and where bullying is never tolerated. But at the heart of this guidance is child safety and well-being; as I mentioned, the interim Cass report confirmed that we need better information about the long-term implications of social transition, which is why the Government are advocating a cautious approach.

My noble friend Lady Browning talked about the gap in evidence in relation to girls with autism, and the noble Lord, Lord Cashman, asked that we would be driven by verifiable evidence. One of the challenges in this area is that there is insufficient evidence—I hope the noble Lord would accept that—and even less uncontested evidence. It is important that we work to fill that gap, but at the heart of the guidance will be the best interests of the child and clarity for teachers and other staff in schools about how to respond.

Going more broadly to the issues in the RSHE curriculum, noble Lords have raised the issue of sharing those materials with parents. We have brought forward the review of the RSHE curriculum. As I think your Lordships know, we have appointed an independent panel to advise the Secretary of State on the introduction of age limits on teaching sensitive topics. The Secretary of State wrote to all schools in October, clarifying how they can share materials with parents while remaining within copyright law. My noble friend Lord Jackson of Peterborough raised this; I would be delighted to meet him to discuss the complaints he has been made aware of and how the department has responded.

He also mentioned that the School of Sexuality Education was a contributor to the department’s guidance. Can he point me to that reference? We have checked our list of expert contributors and it does not appear to be on it. If he has evidence of that, clearly I will happily take that away if he could write to me.

The Secretary of State’s letter also set out:

“The copyright act allows schools to copy resources proportionately, for the purposes of explaining to parents what is being taught”,


“via a ‘parent portal’ or … a presentation”.

The letter was also clear that, where parents cannot access the parent portal or presentation,

“schools may provide copies of materials to parents to take home on request, providing parents agree to a … statement that they will not copy the content or share it further except as authorised under copyright law”.

The points made in this letter will be reflected in the updated statutory RSHE guidance, which schools will have a duty to have regard to.

My noble friend Lady Jenkin asked about the timing of the publication of the guidance and the consultation. We will be consulting on it in the near future and expect the guidance to be published in 2024, with the consultation being launched early in the new year.

I turn to online safety in schools. My noble friend Lord Leicester and the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, raised the issue of children’s access to pornography, which obviously is a serious concern, for all the reasons that your Lordships have set out this afternoon. We have updated the Teaching Online Safety in Schools non-statutory guidance this year, which covers how to teach all aspects of internet safety, not just those relating to relationships, sex and health.

Your Lordships will be aware that the Secretary of State has committed to introducing a ban on mobile phones in schools. My noble friend Lady Jenkin asked about the timing. We expect to provide more information on that early in 2024 and, obviously and importantly, the Online Safety Act takes a zero-tolerance approach to the protection of children and will ensure that platforms are held responsible for the content that they host.

The noble Lord, Lord Cashman, also raised the question of whether schools would return to the days of Section 28. I can reassure the noble Lord that that is absolutely not the case. The RSHE guidance is clear that pupils should be taught LGBT content at an age-appropriate point in their education and that they should know about protected characteristics within the Equality Act. However, we need to provide clarity for schools and colleges and, importantly, reassurance for parents on the content that is being taught.

I turn to mandatory reporting, which was raised by the noble Baronesses, Lady Brinton and Lady Walmsley, I think there might have been a slight confusion in relation to the Keeping Children Safe in Education guidance, which obviously has been published and therefore predates the Government’s publication in relation to the child sexual abuse mandatory reporting duty that we have committed to introduce.

We have committed to working across government to consult on how this will work in practice, sensitive to the wider impact of this and burdens, and will work through whether action is needed at an organisational or individual level, or indeed at both. In developing our proposals, which we have consulted on, we looked carefully at the experiences of other countries that have mandatory reporting, including Australia and Canada, as the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, asked.

My noble friend Lady Jenkin and the noble Baroness, Lady Wilcox, raised the very important issue of children’s mental health. Obviously, that is a real priority and concern. We are investing an additional £2.3 billion a year in NHS mental health services by March 2024, which will help 345,000 more children and young people to access mental health support. We are also committed to supporting schools with our offer of senior mental health lead training, which has already been accessed by over 14,000 settings.

Of course, the other side of mental health is resilience and well-being and I will pick up on the comments of my noble friends Lord Sandhurst and Lord Wrottesley about the importance of sport and PE, and indeed wider extracurricular activities, in building children’s and young people’s resilience.

I turn to the issues of extremism in relation to safeguarding schools, raised by my noble friend Lord Farmer and the noble Baroness, Lady Uddin. The House may be aware that I and fellow Ministers have had several discussions with faith and non-faith primary and secondary school providers, particularly in relation to the impact of the conflict between Israel and Hamas on both Muslim and Jewish and other students in a range of settings. As a result of these meetings, we have agreed to prioritise actions to tackle inappropriate misinformation and disinformation about the conflict, particularly on social media, and we will be issuing guidance to teachers and schools on promoting tolerance and addressing racism and anti-Semitism. We have also updated our Educate Against Hate website, which provides resources and lesson plans for schools to support them in holding these very sensitive discussions.

My noble friend raised the issue of protests held in school hours. The Government are absolutely clear that it is not acceptable that children are not in school because of political activism. I am aware, having spoken to head teachers, how much pressure they are under from some parents, and indeed some colleagues, to allow children out of school. I think it is very important, as a Government, that we are clear that we support them and that they are doing the right thing to make sure that their children are in school.

The noble Baroness, Lady Uddin, raised some concerns about Prevent. I can only disagree with the vast majority of what she said. Prevent plays an important part in safeguarding. Going back to the opening comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, about how far we have come, we are able to intervene much earlier, which any parent of a child at risk of being drawn into extremist ideologies, whether far right or otherwise, would be grateful for. We feel that it is a really important plank and part of that progress.

I want to say a word about attendance, raised by the noble Lord, Lord Hampton, and others. There is always a competition to be the most important thing, but this is certainly one of the most important things for us in the department: partly because of the issue of safety—children are safest when they are in school; partly because of the impact on their education, and we are very grateful to the Children’s Commissioner for her recent work on the impact on children’s attainment of missing school; and also because we know that children become invisible to all services when they are not in school. School is such an important place.

It was genuinely moving to listen to the noble Lord, Lord Hampton, talk about the care that teachers take, spotting how children behave in the playground, the corridor and the classroom, and that is where we need them to be.

My noble friend asked me about whether we would consider schools and academy trusts issuing fixed penalty notices for poor attendance. Obviously, schools can ask local authorities to issue those fines and local authorities have the legal responsibility to do that. If my noble friend has examples where that is not working well in practice, I would be happy to take those up.

I am out of time, but I will say quickly to the noble Lord, Lord Hampton, that we do support the Children’s Commissioner’s recommendation of mandatory participation in the attendance data; some 87% of schools send in their data voluntarily. I thank my noble friend Lady Bottomley for her incredible work on the Children Act, which has been such an extraordinary influence in this country, and to share her recognition of the work of social workers, health visitors and teachers.

In closing, I thank again all noble Lords who spoke on this debate and, on your Lordships’ behalf, all those who work in schools, teachers in particular, for their work every hour, every day, to keep our children safe.

Baroness Jenkin of Kennington Portrait Baroness Jenkin of Kennington (Con)
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My Lords, we have had rather more than just a canter round these issues. We have had some very powerful contributions from many noble Lords, with a wide variety of focuses and expertise. Like my noble friend the Minister, I was interested to hear from my noble friend Lady Bottomley about the background and history of the Children Act and the importance of consistency. We have all mentioned the lived experience, as it is now called, at the coalface, described by the noble Lord, Lord Hampton. We are grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Morris, for bringing the importance of the guidance for gender questioning, and to hear the response from the Minister. She has covered all the issues: sports; single-sex spaces; pornography; RHSE materials and parental access; the understanding of autism—particularly of girls; sexual abuse; the perspective of the noble Lord, Lord Roberts, as a historian; and gender distress and how to deal with it in the school environment. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Cashman, for advertising the debate so widely on social media. We are all grateful to the Minister for her typically thoughtful response to the debate.

Motion agreed.