Relationships, Sex and Health Education: Statutory Guidance - Statement

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords am 2:46 pm ar 16 Mai 2024.

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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.