Relationships, Sex and Health Education: Statutory Guidance - Statement

– in the House of Lords am 2:37 pm ar 16 Mai 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Baroness Barran Baroness Barran The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education, Lords Spokesperson (Equalities) 2:37, 16 Mai 2024

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement made in another place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Education. The Statement is as follows:

“With permission, Madam Deputy Speaker, I would like to make a Statement to the House setting out the Government’s proposals for updating the 2019 statutory guidance on relationships, sex and health education, which my department has published today for consultation. I thank my department for its hard work in getting us to this point.

This Government have a plan to deliver a brighter future for Britain, one where families are supported and given the peace of mind that their children are safe and being equipped with the skills they need to succeed. Good relationships, sex and health education—RSHE—plays a key role in this. However, following disturbing reports from parents of pupils being taught inappropriate content in schools, and requests from schools which wanted more clarity on when to teach certain topics, the Prime Minister and I decided to bring forward the review of RSHE. We have listened to colleagues across government and the House, have gathered evidence from stakeholders and considered advice from an independent panel of experts who generously gave their time, experience and knowledge to support the review last year. I put on record my personal thanks to each individual panel member.

We need to make sure that the content of lessons is factual and appropriate and that children have the capacity to fully understand everything that they are being taught. We need to make sure that our children are prepared for the world in which they live, but not in a way that takes away the innocence of childhood. In short, we need to let our children be children. It is a fine line to tread and schools need clarity on how to approach it.

Overall, this guidance is underpinned by three core values: one, parents have a right to know what their children are being taught; two, teachers are there to teach children facts and not to push the agendas of campaign groups; three, schools should not teach about the contested issue of gender identity, including that gender is a spectrum.

There are five major policy changes that I would like to set out. The first is the introduction of age limits for teaching sensitive subjects. The purpose of the new age limits is to make sure that children are not taught things before they are ready to understand them. Informed by the advice of the independent panel and others, the guidance places specific age limits on the teaching of certain subjects.

In primary schools, children learn about the importance of boundaries and privacy and that they have rights over their own bodies, but no 10 year-old should be taught the details of intimate sexual acts, sexual harassment and sexual violence. In primary schools, sex education is not a requirement and should be introduced only from year 5 onwards. The content should align with the national curriculum’s science teachings on conception and birth, ensuring that it is rooted in fact. It should absolutely not be preparing primary-age children for sexual activity.

The second flagship change is complete openness with parents. Parents are their children’s first teachers and they must know what they are being taught. The guidance contains a new section that makes the need for transparency with parents crystal clear, and clarifies the scope within the law to share materials. The bottom line is that curriculum providers should not be seeking to hide their materials from parents. This practice is completely unacceptable; parents have a fundamental right to know what their children are being taught about healthy relationships, sex and development.

Thirdly, on teaching about gender reassignment, many schools have told us that they need clear guidance to help them teach about this highly sensitive, complex issue in a factual and safe way. We are making it absolutely clear that the contested topic of gender identity should not be taught in schools, at any age. Schools should not be providing classroom materials that, for example, include the view that gender is a spectrum.

While protected characteristics, such as gender reassignment, should be taught, they must be done on a factual basis, at an appropriate age, and not based on contested ideology. This reflects the cautious, common-sense approach that we have taken in our guidance on children questioning their gender, which also reflects the recommendations of the Cass review.

There is also a dedicated section on sexual harassment and sexual violence. The growth of malign influencers online, who pose a risk to children and young people, has been significant and is one of the key ways the world has changed for young people since this guidance was originally published and, indeed, since all of us were in school. This new section covers some specific types of abusive behaviour which were not previously discussed, such as stalking, as well as advice for teachers about how to address dangerous, misogynistic online influencers.

Now I would like to consider the sensitive but important issue of suicide prevention. Ministers and I have met bereaved families, experts and teachers to explore how suicide prevention could be taught as part of RSHE. I pay tribute to the incredible work of 3 Dads Walking, who have used the unimaginable tragedies in their lives to campaign for important change.

The current RSHE guidance already included content in relation to teaching pupils to look after their mental well-being and support themselves and their friends. We have now made clearer how this content on mental well-being relates to suicide prevention. Of course, the topic of suicide itself needs to be handled sensitively and skilfully, and not before pupils are ready to understand it. Obviously, children’s maturity varies, but our engagement suggested that children typically develop the necessary understanding from when they are in year 8. We have made sure that this updated guidance acknowledges that it can be important to discuss this with pupils, and we have added advice to set out how schools could address suicide prevention in their teaching.

Finally, the guidance also includes a new topic on personal safety. This includes additional content on understanding the laws around carrying knives and knife crime and the dangers of fire, roads, railways and water.

Together, I am confident that this guidance will give teachers and head teachers clarity over what should and should not be taught, provide parents with the peace of mind that their children are being taught in a safe and factual manner, and reassure everyone across society that pupils are being taught what they need to know at the right age and time in their lives. A copy of the guidance has been deposited in the Libraries of both Houses. I commend this Statement to the House”.

Photo of Baroness Twycross Baroness Twycross Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Education) 2:46, 16 Mai 2024

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement made this morning by the Secretary of State for Education. There is much in it that is welcome. Teachers and school leaders have long pushed for clearer guidance on RSHE to be published, particularly in relation to gender identity. A child’s education should and must equip them for the world in which they live. It should stand them in good stead for their life in the adult world, including healthy relationships. It is particularly welcome that there will be additional content on suicide prevention and on tackling the malign influence of online misogyny and hate. As former deputy mayor for fire resilience in London, I was also pleased that wider harms including fire and knife crime will be included.

Labour agrees strongly with the principle that parents should have an explicit right to know what their children are being taught. It is also right that what children are taught is age appropriate. But, behind the phrasing and the stated aim of allowing children to be children—the Secretary of State used the phrase “we need to allow our children to be children”—lie some serious concerns that need to be addressed through the consultation process.

First, far from protecting the innocence of children, not talking about sex in schools in an age-appropriate way does not keep children as children but potentially exposes them to harm and emotional distress. It also risks reversing very hard-won progress in preventing teenage pregnancies. The NHS website states:

“Most girls start their periods when they're about 12, but they can start as early as 8, so it’s important to talk to girls from an early age to make sure they’re prepared.”

It goes on to say:

“Boys also need to learn about periods. Talk to them in the same way as girls about the practicalities, mood changes that can come with periods, and the biological reason behind periods. It will keep them informed, as well as help them to understand about periods.

When a girl starts her periods it’s a sign that her body is now able to have a baby. It’s important that she also knows about getting pregnant and contraception.”

Can the Minister outline how, if schools cannot teach sex education until children are 13, a girl who starts menstruating at the age of eight or nine whose parents do not prepare her for this will be able to understand what on earth is happening to her? How will the Government address the fact that both girls and boys need to understand menstruation well before the age of 13? How was the age of 13 arrived at? Did the DfE discuss this with the Department for Health and Social Care or with the NHS? What assessment, if any, have the Government carried out of the likely impact of this proposed change on the number of child pregnancies?

The notion that providing sex education encourages sexual activity, which the Statement appears to suggest, is as outdated as it is dangerous. I confess that I am struggling to understand the logic. We simply cannot return to times when children believed that you could get pregnant simply by kissing another person because they were not taught about sex in a clear way.

Secondly, we know that, regrettably, for too many children childhood is not an age of innocence. We need to be clear that it is the case, or we cannot protect vulnerable children. Schools are among the strongest levers for preventing and identifying child abuse; any guidance has to enable, not prevent, this. The Statement does make it clear that teachers should speak about unwanted touching at an earlier age. However, how will the DfE ensure that teachers are not so scared of talking to children directly or responding directly to questions that the opportunity to protect children is missed? With half of children seeing pornography by the age of 13, if schools are teaching about online safety—including, presumably, online pornography—at an earlier age than they can teach about sex, how on earth will teachers navigate this? Does the Minister agree with the Telegraph that it is

“Precisely because children are doing so much of their growing up online, they need sex education classes more than ever”?

Labour believes that what defines a family is not the shape it has but the love it gives. I am therefore also concerned that potentially drawing down the shutter on discussing different types of relationships and the lived experiences of those who are transgender means that some children may grow up with a narrow, potentially prejudiced, view, and that this may harm children who, or whose family, do not conform with this. How do the Government intend that schools deal with questions around transitioning and the process people can go through to change their gender?

My final point concerns the apparent exclusion of school leaders in the drafting of the guidance so far. I hope the Minister can assure us today that the voices and views of school leaders and teachers, who appear not to have been consulted in developing the guidance published today, will be heard and reflected in the final document. I look forward to the Minister’s response.

Photo of Earl Russell Earl Russell Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Energy and Climate Change)

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement in your Lordships’ House. If it is not broken, do not fix it: we on these Benches do not welcome most of these changes, which are politicised solutions that are mainly looking for a problem. Indeed, we fear that the net result will be to put our children and young people at greater risk.

The Government are choosing to water down the safeguarding of our children on the altar of yet another pointless culture war in the run-up to the general election—legislation for leaflets, I call it. Sex education, particularly in the early years, is not about teaching young people to have sex; it is about safeguarding. It is about teaching them to know what is appropriate, what is invasive, and what is abusive; it is about informed consent. Age-appropriate education is vital for empowerment of our young children, so they can live healthy and happy lives.

Where children are questioning their gender identity, they should be supported with open and inclusive discussions centred on their health and well-being. The Government should be careful what they wish for; it is better that appropriate support be provided in schools, because the only alternative is that perhaps inappropriate information will be sought elsewhere.

Finally, what actions have the Government taken to ensure that these changes do not pose greater safeguarding risks to our children and young people?

Photo of Baroness Barran Baroness Barran The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education, Lords Spokesperson (Equalities)

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness and the noble Earl for their remarks. I will start with the remarks of the noble Earl, Lord Russell, who said, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. The evidence we have heard from parents, schoolteachers and school leaders is that the lack of transparency with parents about what their children were being taught, and the teaching of contested material, in particular on gender identity, were very broken. Those are essential things that need fixing.

I turn to safeguarding, which both the noble Baroness and the noble Earl rightly raised. The noble Baroness said that school is a very important safeguarding agency and that talking about some issues gives children an opportunity to disclose and therefore to respond. The guidance is very clear on how to deal with safeguarding issues.

When we turn to the age-appropriate approach, which I think the noble Baroness agrees with, we see there is something about giving children this information in stages. They do not need all of it when they are very young. It must be phased and age-appropriate. In relation to menstruation specifically, the new guidance sets out that children should be taught about puberty, including menstruation, no earlier than year four, so that would be when children are eight or nine. That means that the majority of children will learn about puberty before it happens to them.

The noble Baroness talked about the importance of relationships education and different types of relationship. That is clearly set out in the curriculum we are consulting on, but the focus will be very much on the facts. For example, the protected characteristics will be clearly taught. Gender reassignment will be clearly taught as a factual thing that happens to adults. The noble Baroness raised the issue of school leaders. The guidance is out for consultation, so there is every opportunity for leaders and teachers to contribute to the consultation, and we would welcome that. She will also be aware that our expert panel included experts from the education system, as well as from health, in particular. I think that also addresses the question asked by the noble Earl about whether we have assessed whether we could increase the safeguarding risk. I hope the safeguarding risk does not stem from school, but I think the noble Earl means the ability to identify. Those issues were considered very carefully by the expert panel.

Photo of Lord Farmer Lord Farmer Ceidwadwyr 2:56, 16 Mai 2024

My Lords, I welcome the Government’s statutory guidance. How will this guidance be enforced, especially the requirement to stop teaching the contested subject of gender identity, as there are many teachers who have been captured by the very ideology that has been called out? Moreover, it has not been universally welcomed by the teaching unions. Can my noble friend also confirm when schools will need to begin to implement the new guidance?

Photo of Baroness Barran Baroness Barran The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education, Lords Spokesperson (Equalities)

The process in terms of timing is that the guidance is out for consultation. Then we will finalise it and, when it is finally published, schools will have a period in which to implement the new guidance. However, I think it is fair to say that the direction of travel is extremely clear and those key principles about communication and transparency with parents, teaching the facts and not contested ideologies and that content should be delivered in an age-appropriate way are very clear, and I am sure that the vast majority of schools welcome that clarity. Given that the guidance is statutory, schools must have regard to it and can deviate from it only with good reason. In terms of enforcement—on holding schools to account on this—Ofsted, as part of its personal development judgment, will consider whether schools are teaching RSHE in line with the statutory guidance.

Photo of Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town Llafur

My Lords, I welcome this Statement and the change it will bring. The provider of some teaching materials called Pop’n’Olly says he has spoken to 100,000 children and told them about gender identity. I looked at the material. It explains that Olly is able to choose whether he is male, female, non-binary or another sex. Can the Minister assure us that that sort of teaching material will no longer be in any school in any authority under this Government?

Photo of Baroness Berridge Baroness Berridge Ceidwadwyr

My Lords, in relation to the point that the noble Baroness raised about resources and materials, it is the usual policy of this Government that you outline content and then allow teachers to choose how they teach that and what resources they use—except of course for phonics, on which there is little discretion. Oak National Academy is going to be producing resources, and I note that here these are called “compliant resources”. Could my noble friend the Minister outline the timeline for it to produce those resources so that, when the regulations change, teachers know they are using resources that are appropriate for children?

Photo of Baroness Barran Baroness Barran The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education, Lords Spokesperson (Equalities)

I thank my noble friend for her question. She is right that Oak National Academy is collaborating with Life Lessons Education to develop new relationships and health education in primary and relationships and sexual health curriculum in secondary. That will be made available in full from autumn 2025.

Photo of Lord Russell of Liverpool Lord Russell of Liverpool Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords)

My Lords, I declare my interest as a governor of Coram, and for 24 years I was the chair of the largest provider of health education to primary schools in the country. It is extremely pertinent that the noble Lord, Lord Parkinson, is in his place because, when the Minister has heard the question I will pose, she may wish to spend some time with him.

The independent expert panel that assisted the department is notable for the absence of anybody who is an expert on online safety. It is as if the department is unaware that we spent a great deal of the last year on what became the Online Safety Act, looking in great detail at the protection of children. We say the purpose of the new age limits is to make sure that children are not taught things before they are ready to understand them, but does the Minister not accept that the problem is that children are seeing things that they do not understand and at the moment will not be able to discuss in school or ask their teacher about? They are also unlikely to ask their parents about it. Some 25% of children under the age of nine have smartphones, while a large proportion of under-11 year-olds are, illegally, using WhatsApp. This is the reality. This is the innocent childhood that the children of today are experiencing; it is not the childhood that we had. So I beseech the Minister to work closely with the team that has done huge work on the Online Safety Act, and with the people at Ofcom who are drawing the code together, to make sure that the left hand knows what the right hand is doing, preferably with a brain in between.

Photo of Baroness Barran Baroness Barran The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education, Lords Spokesperson (Equalities)

Luckily, since we are talking about officials, I can confidently say that the right and left hands know what they are doing and there is definitely more than one brain in between. In all seriousness, I would be very happy to meet with the noble Lord once he has had a chance to look at the content of the new curriculum. I hope he will be reassured by the extent to which it acknowledges the issues to which he refers around online risks to children.

There is of course nothing to stop any parent talking to their children about risks online; indeed, I think we all hope that parents would be doing that. This also does not prevent children asking questions in the classroom or more privately to a teacher. None of this prevents the asking of questions about a child’s curiosity or worries; it just ensures that it is age appropriate in the way that it is delivered at the front of the classroom—and I hope the noble Lord supports the Government’s move to ban mobile phones in schools.

Photo of Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall Baroness McIntosh of Hudnall Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords), Chair, Services Committee, Chair, Services Committee

On the point that the Minister has just raised about what happens if a child brings a problem to a teacher, rather than a teacher addressing the problem with the child, is she confident that it will be clear to teachers, once the guidance is up and running and embedded, that they are not prohibited from having conversations with children who have encountered, as the noble Lord, Lord Russell, has mentioned, things online that they certainly should not have encountered, but they have, and they need to talk to somebody about it? I am sorry to mention this but, going back over quarter of a century to the days of Section 28, whatever the letter of the law may have been, many people felt they were not able to have these discussions without running the risk of being on the wrong side of the law. I hope the Minister will agree that it is important that teachers are not unintentionally inhibited from having the very conversations that they need to have.

Photo of Baroness Barran Baroness Barran The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education, Lords Spokesperson (Equalities)

The noble Baroness makes, as ever, an important point in thinking about the reality in the classroom for teachers. I suppose I would say a few things about that. First, that is why we are so grateful to our expert panel for bringing their expertise and judgment into the shape of the new guidance. Secondly, there is absolutely discretion for teachers, so if they identify a particular problem, it is clear that they can talk to their class about it. But they need to let parents know and to share the materials that they plan to use, and it needs to be age-appropriate. In relation to whether this is a new Section 28—I think the noble Baroness was giving it as an example, rather than suggesting that is where we are going—again, it is absolutely clear that teachers must teach at the right age about protected characteristics, sexual orientation and gender reassignment but, simply, they must stick to the facts.

Photo of Lord Polak Lord Polak Ceidwadwyr

My Lords, while I warmly welcome this Statement, while of course I have not read everything I would like to follow up on the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Russell of Liverpool. During our consideration of the Victims and Prisoners Bill, we were able to hear from a young lady called Poppy Eyre. She gave her evidence, which was very moving. The problem was that she was being abused at home by her grandfather from the age of six. My worry is that, if everything is so black and white, we will have another problem. Let us turn it round: perhaps the abuse that she was receiving, which she talked about only once she was 11, could have been curtailed at an earlier stage, so I am just worried about babies and bath-water. So that I am clear, I think it is being suggested that above the age of nine there will be some sort of sex education. Will parents be consulted on that too? If a majority of parents in the primary school do not want that to happen, will it then not happen?

Photo of Baroness Barran Baroness Barran The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education, Lords Spokesperson (Equalities)

In relation to the very disturbing case that my noble friend cited, of course, primary school children are taught from a very young age about their personal safety, the safety of their bodies and the boundaries that should be respected. That is perhaps the age-appropriate way for such issues, we believe, to give a child like the one my noble friend mentioned a chance to talk to an adult safely and for the abuse that she suffers to be addressed. In relation to sex education in primary schools, parents cannot veto the curriculum. What we are saying is that parents have a right to see the curriculum and, of course, in primary parents also have a right to withdraw their children from sex education, if they so wish.

Photo of Baroness Barker Baroness Barker Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Voluntary Sector), Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords)

My Lords, the Statement says that this is about teaching children facts, not pushing the agendas of campaign groups. With that in mind, will the Minister provide details of the groups which lobbied for this change? The Government will of course have done due diligence, so she can give us details of their ideology and funding? Can she say what meetings Ministers and their advisers had with the representatives of those groups? Could she also give details of contact between Ministers and advisers and the EHRC on this matter?

Photo of Baroness Barran Baroness Barran The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education, Lords Spokesperson (Equalities)

I may need to follow up in writing. I think it is important to put on record that this guidance was pulled together by an independent panel. I am sure the noble Baroness is not questioning the integrity of that panel. I would like to reiterate that they have brought great expertise to this, and we have followed their advice. There is nothing ideological in this. It is dealing with facts rather than ideology.

Photo of Lord Hampton Lord Hampton Crossbench

My Lords, I declare an interest as somebody who has delivered quite a lot of sex and relationships education lessons. I welcome a lot of what is going on here. I think particularly that teaching about suicide, the hidden male killer, is really important. The Minister said that children develop the necessary understanding from year 8, yet there seems to be a lot we are just not going to talk to them about ever. The timing of teaching on puberty will be before most girls have had their first period. Why not before every girl has had their first period? How scary is that going to be?

Teachers are best placed to know their form. Teaching is usually done with your form, who you know very well. A question bounced off can be answered straight away and you know the age-appropriateness of your answer. To start giving age ranges of 15 to 18, for example, is extremely dangerous. We have to be very careful about this because, sadly, some parents have some very weird views.

Photo of Baroness Barran Baroness Barran The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education, Lords Spokesperson (Equalities)

I am not quite sure what to say about parents with weird views. As long as they are legal, I guess we have to roll with it—’twas ever thus.

It is possible that the noble Lord misunderstood what I said in the Statement about year 8. Year 8 is the age from which most children have the emotional maturity to learn about suicide prevention. There are different age limits in the guidance, which I know the noble Lord will enjoy getting familiar with.

In relation to menstruation, as I said in response to the initial question from the noble Baroness, Lady Twycross, children should not be taught about menstruation earlier than year 4. Most children will be taught from the age of eight or nine. For the vast majority of girls that will be, as the noble Lord suggests, before they start menstruating.

On the limits being dangerous, I feel that the noble Lord used quite a strong word. I do not think for a second that the Government are trying to second-guess the ability of teachers to judge what is age-appropriate for their class. As I said earlier, in a circumstance where a teacher feels strongly that it is important to teach something, as long as they are transparent with parents about it, and as long as there is transparency around the materials and they are age-appropriate, then there is a degree of flexibility for teachers to do that. Many schools and teachers asked us for clarity around age-appropriate boundaries, and that was also the advice of the expert panel.

Photo of Baroness Falkner of Margravine Baroness Falkner of Margravine Crossbench

My Lords, I chair the Equality and Human Rights Commission. I will turn to that, but first I would like to ask a question in my personal capacity. It is to do with the guidance and the comment that refers to contractual obligations of companies which provide training material. I think the Minister told us that those clauses will not be enforceable. Recognising that commercial interests are engaged in the enforceability of some aspects of those clauses, could she elaborate on how they intend to clarify that?

Turning to the role of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, there seems to be some confusion in this Chamber. To save public servants time and money, perhaps I could explain to some quarters of this Chamber that the Equality and Human Rights Commission has a statutory duty under the Equality Act 2010 to advise the Government. However, as far as I know, on this occasion it has not yet engaged. It looks forward to doing so in response to the consultation.

Photo of Baroness Barran Baroness Barran The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education, Lords Spokesperson (Equalities)

I thank the noble Baroness for clarifying that point. In relation to contractual obligations, she is aware that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State has written twice now to schools clarifying the position on copyright and intellectual property. The simple way through this is that schools should not engage and use third-party providers of materials where copyright presents an issue or where their perception of their copyright rights is a block to transparency with parents, which we believe is the overriding principle.

Photo of Baroness Jenkin of Kennington Baroness Jenkin of Kennington Ceidwadwyr

My Lords, on behalf of the many parents who have been in touch with me and with many other Members of this House, I welcome this Statement. It has been an extremely widespread problem. I have seen, as I am sure the Minister has, many of the materials being taught as fact, many of which are extremely disturbing. Will my noble friend consider the immediate removal of some of the contested materials, pending the final guidance being published?

Photo of Baroness Barran Baroness Barran The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education, Lords Spokesperson (Equalities)

I understand and have a lot of sympathy with the question my noble friend raises. All I can say at this stage is that this guidance, and the consultation which follows, is sending a very clear message both to schools and to parents. Of course, the autumn term is a good time for many schools to think about when they might refresh their curriculum, and, as I said to my noble friend Lady Berridge, in the autumn term of next year we will have the full suite of materials from Oak. Similarly, this is an important message to give parents peace of mind, and I hope very much for all concerned that the conversations they can have with schools can change now.