Clause 14

Children, Schools and Families Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 9:45 pm ar 2 Chwefror 2010.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Exemption from sex and relationships education

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children)

I beg to move amendment 63, in clause 14, page 15, line 31, leave out ‘15’ and insert ‘16’.

Photo of Clive Betts Clive Betts Llafur, Sheffield, Attercliffe

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: amendment 162, in clause 14, page 15, line 31, leave out ‘15’ and insert ‘14’.

Amendment 163, in clause 14, page 15, line 33, leave out ‘and relationships’.

Amendment 164, in clause 14, page 15, line 34, after ‘school’, insert

‘if that parent has met with the head teacher of the school or the relevant teacher to discuss their concerns and establish the nature of what is to be taught’.

Amendment 65, in clause 14, page 15, line 35, leave out from ‘withdrawn’ to end of line 36.

Amendment 64, in clause 14, page 15, line 36, leave out ‘15’ and insert ‘16’.

Amendment 112, in clause 14, page 15, line 36, leave out ‘15’ and insert ‘14’.

Amendment 195, in clause 14, page 15, line 36, after ‘15’, insert

‘unless the pupil expresses a wish to be excused from receiving such education.’.

New clause 7—Removal of exemption from sex and relationships education

‘Section 405 of the Education Act 1996 shall be omitted.’.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children)

It is me again, Mr. Betts, I am afraid. Now we are getting to the really thorny area about exemptions in sex and relationship education. One of the three principles that I set out at the beginning of the  PSHE amendments concerned parental choice and parental powers. The clause is clearly an attack on those powers and the exercise of choice that parents currently enjoy but only a very small proportion—0.04 per cent. of them—choose to actually employ. My concern is that the principle is wrong. As I stated earlier, ultimately, it is up to parents, in the vast majority of cases, to decide what is best for their children. That includes how they are educated as well. The clause will change the dynamics of the relationship between parents and a school. It could have the counter-productive effect of those parents not engaging properly, willingly, freely and positively with the sex and relationship education as it will now be taught.

Amendments 63 and 65 are a sort of either/or option. We believe that the parental right to exercise choice should remain. There should be no change to the status quo. Indeed, that was the recommendation of Sir Alasdair MacDonald’s report in April 2009. He clearly states that the existing rights—[Interruption.] There is a lot of chuntering on the Government side.

Photo of Diana R. Johnson Diana R. Johnson Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Children, Schools and Families) (Schools)

Perhaps I could just ask for clarification. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the status quo, but will he be clear about the age to which the right of withdrawal would therefore extend?

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children)

The status quo at the moment is the age of 19. That is why I have said that we propose an either/or. Clearly, the Government believe that the age should be reduced and the power to withdraw should be abolished. We do not believe that that power should be abolished; hence, one of the amendments would do away with consideration B, which relates to conditions of age. However, if the clause is to contain a condition of age, as the Government have decided, why should it be 15? Where did the figure 15 come from? What is the relevance of 15? Are children tougher and more able to accept such education at the age of 15, rather than the age of 19, 13 or 17? What is the basis on which 15 was decided? The Liberal Democrats want to make it even lower, and I will be interested to hear their justification of why they think that all pupils from the age of 14 should compulsorily have sex and relationship education without their parents having the power to withdraw them.

Photo of David Laws David Laws Shadow Secretary of State (Children, Schools and Families)

I cannot speak for the Government, but I imagine that in their mind, it would make sense to have sex education before the age of consent—the age when people can have sex.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children)

Yes, but the reason why we have chosen 16 is that it is currently the age to which compulsory schooling takes place. There is some logic behind substituting 15 for 16, or 16 in place of the status quo of 19.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children)

Let me finish answering the hon. Gentleman’s last point before he interrupts me on the next one. If we are to keep the status quo, as I would like to because I believe in the principle of the power of the parent, let us try to choose an age that has some  logic to it. Notwithstanding problems about the time of the year at which pupils become 16 or 15, which is another minefield created by having an age instituted in the Bill, there is some logic in 16, because children currently need not be part of the compulsory education system after that age.

Photo of David Laws David Laws Shadow Secretary of State (Children, Schools and Families)

The hon. Gentleman seems to suggest that there is a logic in using the age of 16, which is not, as I understand it, the position of his party. Has he actually decided whether he wants the age to be 18 or 16?

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children)

I do not want any “teen”. I want parents to be able to decide what is best for their children and have the power to withdraw. At the moment, they can do so at the age 19, when the vast majority of children are no longer children but adults, who have the full powers of adults to take their life into their own hands and are not beholden to their parents. That is why we want to take out the age condition altogether.

As option B, we have said that, if there must be an age, rather than letting it stand at 15, for which we do not see the logic, 16 would be better. However, that would still be worse than keeping the status quo, as the Government’s own report just nine months ago recommended. [Interruption.] Perhaps the Minister for Schools and Learners wants to intervene now to say why, nine months after Sir Alasdair MacDonald’s report, the Government have changed their mind. If the Minister wants to intervene, he can do so to answer that specifically.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children)

I am sorry; perhaps the Under-Secretary will say in her response why the Government have now reversed their policy on the basis of the clear recommendation that was made in Sir Alasdair MacDonald’s report, which they accepted in April and which clearly stated that the existing right of parents to withdraw their children up to the age of 19 from sex and relationship education should be fully retained. Why is Sir Alasdair MacDonald now apparently wrong? Amendment 64 is part of the either/or option of changing 15 to 16 if we must have an age condition at all.

I hope that amendment 195 attracts some support from the Liberal Democrats, because it deals with something on which the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole and I have often agreed: having respect for the voice of the child himself or herself. The amendment would add a condition whereby a child could decide to absent himself or herself from sex and relationship education.

Photo of David Laws David Laws Shadow Secretary of State (Children, Schools and Families)

Will the hon. Gentleman say which other areas of the national curriculum he would like parents and pupils to be allowed to opt out of?

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children)

None. We are only dealing with PSHE and specifically, in relation to the clause, sex and relationship education, which has been the subject of opting out in the past. That is why the right to opt out should be retained.

Photo of David Laws David Laws Shadow Secretary of State (Children, Schools and Families)

Does the hon. Gentleman believe that there should be any opt-out on religious education?

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children)

There are requirements on attending assemblies at the moment and on religious education about which we could have an interesting debate.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children)

I was rather looking forward to having an interesting debate on that, particularly with the hon. Member for Keighley.

What role does the Minister think the voice of children should play in determining what happens to them regarding sex and relationship education? Why is there nothing anywhere in this legislation on having any regard for the wishes and feelings of the children? Perhaps the Minister will answer that question.

Photo of Edward Timpson Edward Timpson Ceidwadwyr, Crewe and Nantwich

Does my hon. Friend agree that the idea behind the amendment is in line with the thinking on parents who have separated and are in dispute about whether their child should receive sex and relationship  education in school? Under an application for a specific order, a court would have to consider the wishes and feelings of the child.

Photo of Tim Loughton Tim Loughton Shadow Minister (Children)

Indeed; the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole and I have supported such legislation in the past, but such provision features nowhere in the Bill and none of the relevant clauses mention the effect that it will have or the wishes and feelings of the child. My hon. Friend makes a good point.

Perhaps the Minister will justify where the age of 15 came from, why the good Sir Alasdair Macdonald’s report has become irrelevant within nine months of its being published, why she thinks that there are sufficient safeguards to cater for the withdrawal of powers for the choice of parents and why children’s wishes and feelings have no bearing on this matter at all.

Ordered, That the debate be now adjourned.—[Kerry McCarthy.]

Adjourned till Thursday 4 February at Nine o’clock.