Relationships and Sex Education Debate

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Department: Department for Education

Relationships and Sex Education

John Hayes Excerpts
Monday 25th February 2019

(3 years, 4 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Helen Jones Portrait Helen Jones
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I really must make some progress. I am sorry.

Of course, many parents want schools to be involved in teaching RSE, as do many young people. Research done for Ofsted in 2013 showed that many secondary school pupils felt that too much of their education was on the mechanics of reproduction, and that there was not enough about emotions, relationships, dealing with pornography and so on.

Prior to the debate, the Petitions Committee met some young people in Parliament’s education centre. As one of them said to us, “If you’re opted out, you can just google it.” That is the problem we face; that is the reality of life. Nevertheless, it is true that parents have a right to request an opt-out from sex education for their child, which the guidelines say should be automatically granted in primary schools and should be granted except in exceptional circumstances in secondary schools. I was quite concerned about that, but I have actually been convinced by something sent to me by the Catholic Education Service, which supports the opt-out on the ground that it gives heads the opportunity to discuss with parents why the lessons are important and why it is much better for children to be there, rather than getting a garbled version from their friends in the playground. That approach clearly works, because the opt-out rate in Catholic schools is very low, at about 1 in 7,800 children. That is in a faith-based education system.

That opt-out applies to the sex education element, not to personal, social, health and economic education or relationships education, and not to stuff in the science curriculum, which is part of the national curriculum. It is also true—certainly in the draft guidelines and I presume the formal ones—that the Government suggest that children can opt back in three terms before they reach the age of 16. Case law no longer supports an automatic and continuing opt-out, so we need to reach a sensible balance on when young people can decide for themselves.

All parents face this problem, whether in deciding when children can go to the shops on their own or when their children are deciding on a career. It is hard. I remember the first time we allowed my son to walk up the road on his own to post a letter; we were hanging out of the bedroom window, keeping an eye on him for as long as possible. However, as parents, we have to realise that, while our job is to try to set our children on the right path, they will eventually make their own choices, which may not be the same ones that we would make.

Helen Jones Portrait Helen Jones
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I will give way once more and then I will have to wind up.

John Hayes Portrait Sir John Hayes
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I am grateful to the hon. Lady; she has been very generous. Of course she is right to say that good parents take the view that she has just described about their children. Much the best way of growing up to be a well balanced, kind, caring and loving person is to have well balanced, kind and caring parents. It is in the home that people’s ideas are first shaped and formed, notwithstanding the influences to which they are subject later on. For that reason, parents and parental choice are critically important.

Helen Jones Portrait Helen Jones
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Yes. As I have said, parents are vital to all of their child’s education, but particularly to relationships and sex education, and good schools want to work in partnership with parents. However, unless we allow our children to make choices, they will not develop the skills and the emotional resilience that they need in adult life, and I think that what the Government have suggested is a reasonable compromise.

So what is the problem? I think, from the correspondence that I have had, that it centres on the teaching of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues. Let us be honest, there is nothing new about this. Since 2010, schools have had a duty under the Equality Act of that year to deliver an inclusive and non-discriminatory curriculum, and many schools have gone further than that. I will refer again to a Catholic school, simply because that is the system I know. Cardinal Newman high school in Luton, for instance, has had all its teachers trained in LGBT and gender issues, so that they can tackle bullying and ensure that they give children the right guidance.

In the end, this is actually not about what someone called background indoctrination. We cannot indoctrinate someone to be gay any more than we can indoctrinate someone who is gay to be heterosexual, although practitioners of some very nasty conversion therapies have tried in the past. This is about respect for difference and recognising that we live in a pluralistic free society. If I demand respect for my faith, which is a minority faith in this country, I have to give the same respect to other people’s faith, but also to the choices that other people may make in life. This is about tackling bullying: 45% of LGBT people have been bullied at school. That has to end. Young people have to know that whoever they are, whatever their sexuality, they will be welcomed and cared for.

Most schools and, I think, most parents, whatever their background or religious affiliation, would have no problem whatever with that, but there has been a lot of misinformation going around, so I say to parents who are concerned, “First, talk to your child’s teachers. Go in; don’t let other people tell you what they are doing. Go and have a look at the materials they are using. Go and talk to them about what they are trying to achieve. And you will see that there is very little to worry you there.”

I say to the Minister—this is not a phrase often heard from my lips—that I think the Government have got this about right. There is the right to an opt-out in certain circumstances. There has to be a right for children to opt in at some stage, and I think that the Government have got the age for that about right—in other words, just before they leave school. I also say to parents, “Trust your children. If you have brought them up with the right values and the right perspectives on life, you have nothing to fear from this.” It really is about creating a society in which we can respect one another, respect our differences and work together. At a time when society seems to be becoming more and more polarised and people are shouting at one another on social media all the time, that is a sensible and reasonable thing to do and is good for all of us.