Relationships, Sex and Health Education: Statutory Guidance

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons am 12:20 pm ar 16 Mai 2024.

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Photo of Catherine McKinnell Catherine McKinnell Shadow Minister (Education) (Schools) 12:20, 16 Mai 2024

I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of her statement.

Labour’s approach starts from the belief that education should prepare our children for the world in which they live and the future that they, together, will shape. To achieve that, and to give each and every child the opportunity and the future they deserve, relationships, sex and health education must be an integral part of every child’s education. The content of such education must be both age-appropriate and taught in a respectful manner, as well as tailored to the realities of children’s lives. The Secretary of State has set out that the Government intend to achieve this through the introduction of age limits on certain aspects of this curriculum.

Today’s statement has been long in the making. Alongside school leaders, we have consistently pushed for clearer guidance on these issues to be introduced so school leaders and teachers can feel confident and supported in what they are teaching. While we are pleased that the guidance has at last been published, there is deep concern about the lack of consultation with school leaders in developing the guidance so far. If the Government are serious about ensuring that RSHE is taught in a dignified and respectful manner, and in a way that schoolteachers and school leaders feel they can confidently deliver, they must ensure that the voices of school leaders and teachers are heard.

I want to ask the Secretary of State to address a couple of concerns in particular. The first concern arises from the reality that education is one of our strongest levers for preventing child abuse. It is crucial at a time of rising levels of sexual offences against children, especially our youngest children, that children are empowered to recognise when something is not right. The Secretary of State will know that sometimes such issues arise urgently, in a class or a wider school community, outside the timeline that a teacher may have in mind, and perhaps even before the age limits she is proposing. So will she say something about the ability of teachers to respond to and reflect such concerns in future in the context of age limits, especially when they arise among younger children?

The second concern is about the importance of children learning not just about their own relationships tomorrow, but about their own and other people’s families today. The Opposition believe that what matters about families is not the shape they have, but the love they give. Teaching children about the facts of the world in which they grow up must include an understanding that there are people who are transgender, that people can go through a process to change their gender and that the law provides for that. The Secretary of State outlined a little of her thinking in her statement and on Radio 4 this morning, but could she set it out in more detail for the House?

On some of the other issues raised by this guidance, Labour very much welcomes the intention of the guidance to remove the barriers that some parents face when asking what is being taught to their children. Of course parents should know what their children are being taught. While providers are already required to do this, it is acknowledged that there have been issues with interpretations of copyright legislation, and it is absolutely right that Ministers seek to clarify this issue.

We also welcome the fact that there will be additional content on suicide prevention in the secondary curriculum, as well as on the risks of self-harm and suicide content on social media. However, it needs to be backed up with support in schools to adequately address the challenges that far too many children and young people face with their mental health. Labour has a funded plan to ensure that every young person will have access to a specialist mental health professional at secondary school, and a plan for mental health hubs in every community. While we await the next Labour Government, this Government must urgently set out how they will get down the waiting lists for child and adolescent mental health services, and deliver support to the children and young people who need it most.

We also welcome the inclusion of content on sexual harassment and sexual violence. Yesterday, I joined the leader of Redbridge Council and teachers to hear about the innovative Step In programme that they are delivering in schools to tackle sexist harassment and misogyny. It was really inspiring to see the students so confidently addressing the issues with their peers and changing attitudes. I hope that, as part of the review, the Government will look at some of the fantastic resources local authorities have developed while waiting for the Government to act.

We will now need to look at the exact detail of the draft guidance, as will schools. It is really important that stakeholders from across education are able to feed back their views on this, and I hope the Government will reflect on them when finalising this guidance, and listen to the voices of schools, parents and young people in doing so.