Relationships and Sex Education Debate

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Department: Department for Education

Relationships and Sex Education

Fiona Bruce Excerpts
Monday 25th February 2019

(3 years, 4 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Fiona Bruce Portrait Fiona Bruce (Congleton) (Con)
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I welcome the debate, not least because what unites all petitioners, and no doubt hon. Members, is the desire for young people to develop healthy relational foundations for adulthood. Given the modern challenges facing children offline and online, the case for updating the sex and relationships education guidance of 19 years ago is compelling.

Sadly, the World Family Map shows that Britain is a world leader in family breakdown, with record numbers of children experiencing parental break-up before they get their GCSE results. The debate should not be a call for no change—none of us can be complacent in the face of such challenges for children and families in our constituencies—but we need to be clear about what needs changing.

In many ways, the requirement is nothing new: to help young people understand the age-old ingredients of a long-term stable relationship in adulthood, and the importance of marriage and family. Let us give the Government credit where credit is due. The draft regulations spell out that pupils should learn about

“the nature of marriage and”

its

“importance for family life and the bringing up of children”,

which should not be controversial.

Last year, in a poll commissioned by the Centre for Social Justice, almost eight in 10 young people said that they wanted to get married and wanted relationship education to help them to understand how to build long-term lasting relationships. That is what the Government’s relationships and sex education plans deliver, which is to be welcomed.

I have long argued, however, that the push for compulsory sex education in all schools is wrong for two key reasons: first, parents are the primary educators of children about sex and, secondly, the emphasis should be on relationships, which would put sex in the context of stable long-term relationships. I therefore encourage the switch to the name “relationships and sex education”—not to play with words, but to make relationships foundational. Relationships education should be integrated from primary school years through to relationships and sex education in secondary school years.

Paul Scully Portrait Paul Scully (Sutton and Cheam) (Con)
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In talking about the need to update the rules, does my hon. Friend agree that it is important to take into consideration the views of the orthodox Jewish faith, which we have heard about, and of the Muslim faith, such as the Sutton Central Masjid, which has lobbied me? As we heard from the hon. Member for Warrington North (Helen Jones), we also need to make sure that young children can learn the actuality, rather than relying on the internet or their peers in the playground.

Fiona Bruce Portrait Fiona Bruce
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My hon. Friend is right. Many organisations and schools have said that for years, including the Catholic Education Service, which has been a leading advocate of relationships-based education for some time, the Relationships Alliance and the Centre for Social Justice.

The gap in education is due not to a lack of sex education, but a lack of relationships-based education. Even for some primary school children, the problem is not a lack of knowledge about sex, but a lack of knowledge and understanding about respectful healthy relationships. I commend these proposals, which seek to address that, and the way in which the Secretary of State has engaged on the issue. For example, the issue of consent is a relational one before it becomes a sexual one. The addition of health education as a statutory requirement alongside RSE reflects the wider challenges affecting young people’s health and wellbeing, such as the impact of alcohol and drugs.

I am pleased that the Government listened to the cross-party call for action led by my former colleague, David Burrowes, who has done so much work on this issue, and acted when the Children and Social Work Act 2017 introduced compulsory relationships education in primary schools, and relationships and RSE in secondary schools.

However, the main focus of this debate is the right of parents to withdraw their children from sex education. We have to recognise that although the current right may be exercised only rarely, it is consistent with a fundamental principle enshrined in article 2, protocol 1 of the European convention on human rights:

“the State shall respect the right of parents to ensure such education and teaching in conformity with their own religious and philosophical convictions”.

The petitioners feel that parental authority is undermined by the lack of any parental right to withdraw a child from relationships education at primary and secondary school and by the proposed replacement of the parental right of withdrawal at secondary school with the “right of request” just in relation to sex education, with the final decision being made by the headteacher and not the parents. That may be said to happen only in “exceptional circumstances”, but those circumstances are not defined, and the very fact that the caveat exists is a breach of the current parental right to withdraw children. For many, that is a breach too far, and I agree with that assessment.

During the debate in Committee on the 2017 Act, Edward Timpson, the then Minister for Vulnerable Children and Families, said that

“We have committed to retain a right to withdraw from sex education in RSE, because parents should have the right, if they wish, to teach sex education themselves in a way that is consistent with their values.”—[Official Report, 7 March 2017; Vol. 622, c. 705.]

I am clear that there is a distinction between relationships education and sex education, so I do not believe that a parental right of withdrawal is necessary for relationships education in primary schools. Parliament decided not to extend the right of withdrawal to relationships education and also resisted attempts by the Opposition to remove the right altogether—quite rightly, too.

Faisal Rashid Portrait Faisal Rashid (Warrington South) (Lab)
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I appreciate the case that the hon. Lady is making. It is important that young people learn about respectful relationships, and are equipped with the knowledge, resilience and confidence they need to challenge exploitative relationships.

However, a number of my constituents have been keen to stress the central role that parenting plays in children’s learning about sex and relationships. I must also stress the need to safeguard the rights of both religious and parental beliefs during the implementation of these regulations. Does the hon. Lady agree that, for that to happen, it is critical that the Government introduce these reforms in collaboration with parents and religious groups, by listening and responding to their concerns in more detail?

Fiona Bruce Portrait Fiona Bruce
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I agree that consultation and deliberation are good, and I think the Government have done those things to a great degree. What I am saying is that I do not believe it is right that parents should not be able to withdraw their children from sex education in senior schools. I do not have a problem with children having relationships education, but there is a difference between that and sex education.

While I am sympathetic to the petitioners’ concerns about weakening the parental right to withdraw, I am saying just what I have expressed. The draft regulations propose that

“the pupil must be so excused until the request is withdrawn, unless or to the extent that the head teacher considers that the pupil should not be so excused.”

The proposals put the final decision firmly in the hands of the headteacher, not the parents. Yes, the draft guidance states in paragraph 43 that

“except in exceptional circumstances, the school should respect the parents’ request to withdraw the child, up to and until three terms before the child turns 16.”

However, no attempt is made to define what “exceptional circumstances” are and ultimately the guidance is just that—guidance. It is the regulations that define the law, and so they matter. They remove the right of withdrawal from parents and place it in the hands of the headteacher, who in effect will have total discretion to make the decision, with no requirement to explain it in any way.

What the Government state in the guidance actually affirms parents as the prime educators, as the guidance says:

“The role of parents in the development of their children’s understanding about relationships is vital. Parents are the first educators of their children. They have the most significant influence in enabling their children to grow and mature and to form healthy relationships.”

But the Government do not follow through on that affirmation when it comes to the detail on the right to withdraw. Headteachers are given a power of veto on parents’ rights, which is not consistent with the Government’s own guidance, legislation or the ECHR.

We have the requirement of the ECHR to respect

“the right of parents to ensure such education and teaching in conformity with their own religious and philosophical convictions.”

We also have primary legislation in the Children and Social Work Act 2017, which states:

“The regulations must provide that…when relationships education or relationships and sex education is given….the education is appropriate having regard to the age and the religious background of the pupils.”

I will finish by saying that I do not believe that it is logical that a parent should have the right to withdraw a child aged 11, in year 6, given that there is, for example, a conditional right for an 11-year-old in year 7 to be withdrawn. I have not explained that very clearly, so I will just try again: I am not convinced about the Government’s legal and policy case for diluting a parent’s absolute right of withdrawal for an 11-year-old in year 6, compared with a conditional right for an 11-year-old in year 7.

--- Later in debate ---
Nick Gibb Portrait Nick Gibb
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The hon. Gentleman raises some very good points. We take these issues extremely seriously. We continually meet religious groups from right across the spectrum to discuss these very sensitive issues. He raised the issue of Ofsted. In common with other curriculum areas, Ofsted will not make a discrete judgment on the delivery of relationships education or RSE, but the proposed new Ofsted framework continues to set out the expectation that inspectors will consider the spiritual, moral and cultural development of pupils as well as a broad and balanced curriculum when informing the judgment of a school. We are of course in discussion with Ofsted the whole time to ensure that it enforces these rules in a sensitive way that reflects the religious background of the schools it inspects.

We have been clear that parents and carers are the primary teachers of these topics, and that these subjects are designed to complement and reinforce the role of parents by building on what children learn at home. That is why we have retained parents’ ability to request that their child be withdrawn from the sex education elements of RSE should they wish. I assure my hon. Friends the Members for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) and for Bolton West (Chris Green) that the draft guidance preserves that parental right but also reflects the rights of a young person who is competent to make their own decision.

Fiona Bruce Portrait Fiona Bruce
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I repeat that the guidelines indicate that, in exceptional circumstances, a headteacher may refuse such a request. I would be grateful if the Minister addressed that. The guidelines also state:

“Schools should ensure that parents know what will be taught and when”.

There is concern about how parents will be informed when relationships education becomes relationships and sex education, and the right of withdrawal becomes effective. How will that be monitored? Is that going to be left to Ofsted, or is there going to be more sensitive monitoring? In the light of the concerns that have been expressed, perhaps such monitoring would be appropriate.

Nick Gibb Portrait Nick Gibb
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I understand my hon. Friend’s point, which was also made passionately by the right hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) and the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). I reiterate and refer all hon. Members, including my hon. Friend, to paragraph 47 of the guidance, which clearly says—and I acknowledge what she quoted—that

“except in exceptional circumstances, the school should respect the parents’ request to withdraw the child.”

That is clearly set out and schools have to have regard to those requirements.

Going further, the school has to set out its policy on its website—I will come to that in my comments—and it has to consult parents. There are sections in the guidance that clearly set out that schools should be consulting and working with parents when they are developing their policies for relationships and sex education, and when the right to withdraw will apply, so that parents are aware of what their child’s school will be teaching and when. When schools are introducing the curriculum they should be consulting parents.

I reflect the point made by the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Liam Byrne). As new generations and cohorts of parents and children go through, the school will want to continue to re-consult on the same curriculum, even if they are not changing it. The school needs to consult current parents, not just the parents from five or six years ago.