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25 Apr 2001 : Column 124WH

Sex Education

12.59 pm

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury): I am grateful for the opportunity to speak about sex education in schools. Sadly, our country suffers from among the highest levels of under-age pregnancy and divorce in the developed world. The breakdown of our families has created a rising tide of misery for many young people. It has been rising, under all Governments, for a generation, and it laps at the doorsteps of most hon. Members' constituency surgeries. We see increases in drug-taking, alcoholism and youth homelessness and, sadly, the youngsters of our country have developed a Europe-wide reputation for yobbery, as so many of them have not experienced the disciplines of traditional structures. With regard to such matters, sex education in schools is an important factor--although by no means the most important--and I am therefore very pleased to have the opportunity to speak on the subject.

Sex education can help to develop moral attitudes about sexual activity among young people, and it could play an important role in re-establishing the crucial link between sexual activity and child rearing. Sex should not be portrayed to our young people simply as a form of recreation, and should certainly not be so portrayed to those of primary school age.

Since they were elected, the Government's position has been that sex education should not be covered by statute, but merely by guidelines in circulars. In July 2000, the Department for Education and Employment's promised guidance on sex and relationship education was finally published, and it will play a pivotal role in my presentation.

My party has highlighted two statutory areas where force of law was important. First, with regard to the Learning and Skills Act 2000, many of my colleagues and I sought to press amendments to place a higher priority on marriage in sex education. Secondly, our debates on section 28 and the potential promotion of homosexuality in schools were widely publicised.

With regard to those issues, I will illustrate how badly things can go wrong by examining two groups of bureaucrats. The Minister does not have immediate responsibility for either of them: indeed, one of them is now outside the responsibilities of this Parliament. Most teachers take a sensible approach towards sex education, but certain sections of the education bureaucracy do not.

The two groups of bureaucrats to whom I am referring are the English health authorities and their sexual health promotion units, and the Scottish Executive. Scotland's recent experiences offer a terrible warning of what would happen south of the border if the Government's plan to repeal section 28 were successful.

In the debates on the Learning and Skills Act 2000, the House was given repeated assurances that marriage would play an important role. Those pledges were also made in the negotiations with the churches. That led most of the churches south of the border to sign up to the package. There are a number of positive features to the guidance published last July. There are references to the importance of love and care--not just recreation--in sex, and to the importance of linking sex

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with the responsibilities of parenthood, which I applaud. It also stresses the importance of sex education for boys as well as girls. However, overall, the document is lamentably and pathetically weak in restraining certain activities. Only three short, passing references are made to marriage, in each case closely linked to so-called stable relationships, one of the myths of the new era. An acquaintance of mine who is a general practitioner in the east end of London once told me that most of the young girls who come in to see him tell him that they are in something that they call a common law marriage. Most young men who go to see him tell him that they are in a short-term sexual relationship.

Statistics show that a child has almost six times as good a chance of its parents staying together for 10 years or more if they are married than if they are in an allegedly stable relationship--Government statistics from 1997, provided by the Library. None of that makes any mark in what is being taught to our children in schools if Government guidelines are being followed.

I cite two examples from English health authorities of the sort of material that is reaching schools. One that has been extensively discussed before is the video provided by Avon health authority, which invited 14-year-olds to act out roles such as a married man caught cottaging--having gay sex in a public lavatory. The same video featured a 13-year-old advising pupils to try both boys and girls until they found which they preferred.

In my own patch, East Kent health authority provided a presentation--we have one of the highest levels of under-age illegitimacy in the country--and the health promotion team made it abundantly clear that the word "marriage" would not figure in presentations provided in schools. Members of Parliament were not told that it was, incredibly, simultaneously issuing instructions that under-age children were to be furnished with morning after pills without even necessarily telling the parents, a decision that raises considerable clinical as well as moral issues. That circular had been issued without Kent county council, the education authority, being told about it. In an open letter, the leader of the council, Sandy Bruce-Lockhart, wrote to the chairman of the health authority, making it clear that he was disgusted that that liaison had not taken place. The document has failed miserably to put over to the bureaucracies with which we are dealing the importance of the pivotal role of marriage in sex education.

All that pales compared with the warnings from north of the border of what could happen here in England. I hope that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, will not feel that I am getting at you personally, as a Scot who represents an English constituency, with the following examples. I am sorry that one or two of the examples may seem lurid beyond belief, but as they are being given to children in our schools in part of the United Kingdom, it is right to touch on them briefly.

On 19 January 2000, the Prime Minister made it clear, in answer to a question that was, ironically, asked by a Scottish Member of Parliament, that on both sides of the border, although he was referring to south of the border:

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I was so incredulous on reading material from the Christian Institute that I had to ask it to fax me copies of the documents involved. In the primary school document, the sex and relationships education pack, oral sex and masturbation are given the most graphic descriptions. In the same pack, primary school children are told at considerable length just how much fun is to be had out of sex. It is presented as a recreational activity, rather than something that has a role in a wider relationship, let alone marriage. In another package, which is aimed at 11 to 14-year-olds, there is a role-playing exercise in which children are expected to represent homosexuals coming out. That is despite the fact that, on 10 March, the Prime Minister pledged in a widely reported speech that

In another pack for 11 to 14-year-olds, groups are to discuss sexual activities that two people can do together, including the

Finally--you will be relieved to hear that this is the last example that I shall give, Mr. Deputy Speaker--there are activity cards for 15-year-olds. These are not from the Scottish Executive, but from one of the Scottish local authorities. I can show them to the Minister afterwards. They give the most lucid details on a variety of sexual practices, including very detailed material on how to maximise pleasure from anal intercourse.

In a remarkable text, the great Christian writer C. S. Lewis said that practising Christians should avoid at all costs running about sounding as if they spend all their time trying to prevent people from having fun. However, we surely must have a better vision for the rising generation of children than the things that I have described. Surely, there are other activities that should grasp the imagination of young children--of primary school children--before those. Of course, children should be taught the facts of life. My parents taught me them very early, and sex lectures were provided at school when I was about 13. We should guide children in such activities through the difficulty period of puberty. We should teach them about the virtue--that is an old-fashioned word--of self-restraint. They should be taught that in a proper context. I unashamedly believe that marriage is the right context for sex. Children should at least be told the facts about how much more successful marriage is for child rearing than anything else that has been tried.

I have one last statistic. The largest ever survey on the issue was carried out by the United States Department of Health--not some right-wing think tank--in 1988. It showed that children from the poorest backgrounds in

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America, who were struggling to exist on less than $10,000 a year, had a lower rate of juvenile delinquency when their parents were married than children from the most prosperous families in America under every other marital arrangement that was considered.

I do not want to condemn anyone. The family of every one of us is touched in some way by family breakdown. All I ask is that in providing guidance to children in schools, we should aspire to give them something better and to achieve more than our generation did for our children.

1.13 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Jacqui Smith ): I congratulate the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) on gaining the opportunity to talk about what I think we both agree is an important issue.

I wholeheartedly agree with the hon. Gentleman that a successful sex and relationship education programme will help young people to respect themselves and others. It will enable them to make responsible and well-informed decisions about their lives and it will help them to move with confidence from childhood, through adolescence to adulthood. It will also help to achieve the Government's objective of As the hon. Gentleman said, we published our sex and relationships education guidance last July. Unlike the hon. Gentleman, I believe that it was a significant step forward. I will also talk about the legal background and the statutory nature of that guidance, because the hon. Gentleman was mistaken in suggesting that there is no legal force to what we proposed in our guidance or what we set out in the Learning and Skills Act 2000.

The guidance was a significant step forward. It is helping teachers to make a difference in the classroom; it is helping parents to have confidence in the education that their children are receiving; and it is helping our drive to tackle teenage pregnancies. It underlines our commitment to ensuring that our young people receive a good education in sex and relationships. We held broad consultations on the draft guidance and we received broad support--even though it was not from the hon. Gentleman. We had productive discussions with the Catholic Education Service and with the Church of England during the passage of the Bill that became the Learning and Skills Act 2000 through Parliament and during the compilation of our guidance. Many of those organisations' comments were taken on board.

There were positive comments from other church and faith groups on our guidance. For example, the Methodist Church said:

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We have also had very positive feedback from teachers. They have told us that the new guidance is supporting them and helping them to deliver high-quality education in sex and relationships. People are telling us that they want to get on with their jobs and our guidance will enable them to do just that, in the sort of context that I believe is important for our children.

There are concerns, however, and we responded to them in our guidance and in our legislative framework. First, there is the issue of inappropriate teaching and materials. As often happens in these debates, the hon. Gentleman has reeled off a list of materials that he claims may be being used in schools. I have to say that our guidance makes it very clear, as does the Learning and Skills Act 2000, that children and young people should be protected from inappropriate teaching and materials. This is the first time that that has been set out in legislation.

Head teachers now have a legal responsibility to protect children from inappropriate teaching and materials in the classroom. Health authorities have to have regard to that guidance, and colleagues in the Department of Health have produced guidance and written to health authorities to make them aware of the fact that legally they must take our guidance into account.

Mr. Brazier : Will the Minister tell me when that guidance went out? The presentation that I referred to by East Kent health authority took place only at the end of last year. The guidance does not seem to have reached my health authority yet.

Jacqui Smith : I understand that the Department of Health sent out guidance at the end of last year alerting health authorities to the requirement to have regard to our guidance. Under the guidance, schools also have a legal responsibility--for the first time ever--to ensure that children are taught the importance of marriage. That provision was notably absent from the guidance issued by the previous Government and absent from the national curriculum before it was reviewed under this Government.

In the personal, social and health education framework that was first included in the national curriculum in September 2000, we made it clear that marriage had an important part to play and that children should be taught about it from seven to 16. That is now part of the framework of the national curriculum and that is reflected in our guidance. The guidance also recognises the central role that parents should play in developing a school's sex and relationship education policy, including their right to withdraw children from lessons should they wish so to do.

It is also worth reflecting on what the guidance replaced and on the improvements in the new guidance compared with the old circular 594. First--here, I agree with the hon. Gentleman--it is important that sex and relationship education is framed in such a way that it links into personal, social and health education, and into education on citizenship. For the first time, we have

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linked sex and relationship education into that framework, which helps pupils to develop the skills to tackle moral and social questions.

Secondly, our guidance emphasises the importance of the relationship aspect of sex and relationship education. The hon. Gentleman focused on, as he described them, lurid explanations of some of the more mechanical and biological aspects of sex. The Government and young people believe that we must place sex education in the context of relationships, which the Government's guidance does.

Thirdly, the guidance aims to ensure that sex and relationship education gives pupils the confidence to negotiate relationships and to delay sexual intercourse. Some people have argued that sex and relationship education should focus solely on avoiding sexual activity. Our view is that good sex and relationship education will encourage pupils to make well-informed decisions, and our guidance aims to achieve that. For example, we recommend that all pupils in secondary schools should have a clear understanding of the reasons for delaying sexual activity and resisting pressure. Research demonstrates that good comprehensive sex and relationship education, set in the context that I have outlined, does not make young people more likely to engage in sexual activity. Indeed, it can help them to learn the reasons for, and benefits to be gained from, delaying sex.

Mr. Brazier : The Minister referred to my objection to some of the more mechanical descriptions. I appreciate that she is not answerable for what happens north of the border, but from what is happening in my health authority, we can see that the Government's guidelines are simply not being followed. Following the removal of section 28 in Scotland, the following is a quotation from guidance for primary schools. Oral sex is defined as

Jacqui Smith : I am not sure what the hon. Gentleman hoped to achieve by that intervention, apart from giving him another opportunity to read from materials that he may or may not consider to be inappropriate.

The hon. Gentleman says that he believes that teachers are responsible and professional people. So do the Government. That is why, within the guidance that we have given and the statutory framework that we have laid down for the first time, we trust teachers, governors and parents to develop the sort of education that is important for our young people. Given the guidance that we have provided, I believe that the professionals in our schools can recognise what is appropriate and inappropriate. I have more faith in our schools, governors and parents than he appears to have.

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There has been some success, and I am pleased that recent figures show--

Mr. Brazier : Will the Minister give way?

Jacqui Smith : No, I will not take another intervention from the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Brazier : On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The Minister refers to my attitude to teachers. I have made no attack on teachers. In fact, I defended them.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. John McWilliam): That is not a point of order.

Jacqui Smith : Thank you, Mr. McWilliam.

We are seeing some success in terms of a fall in teenage conception rates for both under-16s and under-18s. The conception rate for under-16s in England fell from 8.8 per 1,000 in 1998 to 8.2 per 1,000 in 1999--a 7 per cent. fall and the lowest rate in any year bar one since 1983. The conception rate for under-18s in England fell from 46.5 per 1,000 to 44.7 per 1,000 in 1999; a 4 per cent. fall. That is excellent news, but we cannot be complacent. We must continue to tackle sensitive issues and help young people to wait until they are ready before they have sex, and to protect themselves when they do.

I am pleased that the guidance has helped schools, but we need to do more to support teachers effectively if they are to provide good sex and relationship education. That is why I want to concentrate on two aspects of the Government's support for schools, the first of which is funding. For 2001-02, we shall make £15 million available to schools for support of personal, social, health and citizenship education. Schools will be able to decide how to spend that. It could include training for teachers, materials and resources, or paying the costs of an external speaker to support the relevant teaching.

I am also strongly aware of the need to provide other, more direct, training for teachers. That is why I am pleased that teachers are receiving training to support our guidance. Regional seminars have taken place for the key people involved in providing sex and relationship education. We also recognise that teachers need particular skills for that type of education, and we want to recognise those skills through a new system to accredit sex and relationship teaching.

The Government have, through the Learning and Skills Act 2000, provided for the first time a firm legal foundation for effective sex and relationship education. The new guidance provides a robust framework for use by heads, teachers and governors. We have tackled some of the issues that were raised today by the hon. Gentleman and during consultation. They include protecting young people from inappropriate materials while recognising the importance of depending on teachers' and governors' professionalism, as well as parents' roles in sex and relationship education in schools.

With our support through the standards fund and the extra training that we are providing, we are helping schools to provide high quality education in which teachers, governors, young people and parents can have confidence.

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