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Standing Committee Debates
Learning and Skills Bill [Lords]

Learning and Skills Bill [Lords]

Standing Committee F

Thursday 25 May 2000

(Morning)

[Mr. Mike Hancock in the Chair]

Learning and Skills Bill [Lords]

9 am

The Chairman: Good morning. I am confident that, with luck and good will, we may see the end of our proceedings today, although that is not in itself a good thing because I believe that everyone has enjoyed being here.

Clause 117

Sex education

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Employment (Mr. Malcolm Wicks): I beg to move amendment No. 346, in page 55, line 26, at end insert-

    `(1A) In section 351 (general duties in respect of the curriculum) after subsection (5) insert-

    ``(6) Nothing in this section shall be taken to impose duties on a local education authority with regard to sex education.''.'.

The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to take Government amendments Nos. 347 to 349.

Mr. Wicks: Mr. Hancock, it is pleasing to see you again to help us at what might be our final sitting.

The purpose of the amendments is clear. They have one firm and central purpose: to protect children from inappropriate teaching and material in the delivery of sex education in schools. During the long debate that has taken place over the past few months, the Government have heard over and again that this is a central issue for everyone concerned with the provision of sex and relationship education in schools. The Government have listened to those concerns and have acted decisively on them. We are clear that teachers need positive and sensitive guidance on sex and relationship education, so we have consulted on new guidance which sets clear parameters for its delivery in schools. That guidance has been generally welcomed, but some concerns remain. That is why we are setting in statute some provisions relating to its delivery.

The overall effect of the amendments is to remove Baroness Young's amendment on Third Reading in the other place. At the end of that debate, Baroness Blackstone made it clear that the Government would seek to overturn the Young amendment in this House, and we are now doing that. In doing so, we have taken the opportunity to reconsider what is appropriate for primary legislation, what needs to be set out in legislation and what is appropriate for guidance. It will be helpful to explain the effect of the Government's amendments in turn.

Amendment No. 346 inserts a provision in section 351 of the Education Act 1996 to the effect that local education authorities have no power with regard to the provision of sex education in schools. The role of local education authorities has been a major concern for some people, and questions have arisen over the provision of sex education in schools. Scare stories have circulated about local authorities sending inappropriate material to schools. I believe that local authorities will act responsibly in this area, but we accept that there are concerns to be allayed.

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry): I want the Minister to make his case because this is a separate and freestanding amendment. He has moved in one easy step from the amendment, which refers to local education authorities, to the conduct of local authorities generally. It should be clear-perhaps he will confirm this-that we are discussing the conduct of LEAs. The amendment is not relevant to, although it is associated in some people's mind with, the conduct of local authorities generally, for example, under section 28.

Mr. Wicks: Yes, I am talking about local education authorities.

The amendment clarifies the position that has applied for a number of years. The duty to determine sex education policy in schools rests with individual schools, governing bodies and head teachers. It is best left to their professionalism. However, the myth remains that LEAs have powers to make schools provide sex and relationship education in a way that neither schools nor parents want. LEAs are not so empowered, and the amendment would make that clear beyond doubt.

Similarly, amendment No. 347 will remove the reference to ``local education authority'' from section 403, which deals with the manner of the provision of sex education. Again, that will make it clear that LEAs have no power to determine delivery of sex education in schools.

I am sure that the Committee will see the relevance and benefit of the amendments, but I should emphasise that their purpose is to clarify-they will not change existing relationships. Many LEAs provide helpful support to schools in the delivery of personal, social and health education, and we expect that to continue. The amendments simply make it clear that the school, head teacher and governing body have the final say on sex education in schools.

Amendment No. 347 will also remove from clause 117 the reference to sexual health. The fact that sex education must pay due regard to the sexual health of young people is properly addressed in the guidance to which I have referred, and on which I shall expand in due course.

For completeness, I should add that amendment No. 349 confirms the effect of amendment No. 347 by amending schedule 10 repeals.

Amendment No. 348 lies at the heart of what we are trying to achieve. It will place a duty on the Secretary of State to issue guidance, so that pupils are protected from teaching and materials that are inappropriate to their age, and religious and cultural background. It will require governing bodies and head teachers to have regard to the guidance, which must include advice on any material produced by NHS bodies for the purpose of sex education in schools. NHS bodies are defined by reference to section 22 of the National Health Service Act 1977. The amendment also provides that the Secretary of State may revise the guidance at any time, and reaffirms parents' rights by requiring a school's statement of policy on sex education to recognise their right to withdraw their children from sex education.

Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough): When looking at the guidance, will the Under-Secretary also consider use of the internet? Today's young people get an enormous amount of information from the internet, and the horse may have bolted before the stable door has been locked. For example, one need not be a sophisticated browser to log on to one of the many gay sex sites. I hasten to add that I am told about that: I do not frequently do such things myself.

This is a serious matter. We underestimate young people: they are sophisticated, and gather information from any available source. Before you tell me off for making a speech, Mr. Hancock, I ask the Under-Secretary to explain what steps the Secretary of State will take through the guidance to ensure proper use of the internet for sex education purposes.

Mr. Boswell rose-

Mr. Wicks: I am happy to give way to the hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell).

Mr. Boswell: I am grateful to the Under-Secretary for his understanding, which enables me to reinforce the point made by the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis). The issue of internet use does not always relate to sex education, but many schools now have on-line access to the internet, and it is particularly important that, when on school premises, pupils are not allowed to access information to which they might otherwise not have access.

Mr. Wicks: Both interventions were useful. If our purpose is to prevent inappropriate teaching or use of materials, we must be aware of new technologies and the dangers that the internet can pose, and I undertake to see whether the guidance can be strengthened in that regard. As we are anxious that every child should have access to a computer, for perfectly proper reasons, we must ensure that there are effective safeguards in our schools. However, as the intervention reminded us, when we draw up guidance we must not be na´ve in thinking that that is the only way in which children-often young children-are introduced to sex and relationship matters. There are clear lessons involved for families, as well as for schools.

Dr. Phyllis Starkey (Milton Keynes, South-West): Everyone accepts that there is a wealth of information on the internet to which young people ought not to gain access; certainly not during school time. However, most schools already control children's internet use-to stop time wasting, as much as to prevent them from getting hold of information. Similarly, most employers try to ensure that employees do not spend time surfing the internet for private pleasure when they are supposed to be doing their jobs. It would be over the top for the Bill to include additional guidance for schools, given that most schools probably have comparable rules already.

Mr. Wicks: I understand the point that schools are wary about the matter, and issue their own rules and regulations. Last Friday, I visited a further education college and noticed, while at a learning centre, that proper supervision was taking place for the reasons that my hon. Friend mentioned. Without giving any absolute commitment, I have said that I will consider whether the guidance can usefully be strengthened. The interventions were helpful in that respect.

There has been much debate about what should be delivered through sex education in schools. Much of that debate has been ill informed and some of it has been extreme. We would do our teachers and the children in their care a disservice if we did not set out once and for all clear guidance for the provision in schools of education in this sensitive area, and back it up with effective legislation. One clear message has emerged: there is no place for inappropriate teaching or materials in the delivery of effective sex and relationship education. That is why we removed the Young amendment. Instead, we have concentrated on placing in primary legislation an amendment that gives statutory force to guidance that addresses this central issue.

Our new provision on guidance produced by NHS bodies is particularly significant, given the concerns that have been raised over recent months. We are now providing explicit reassurance that the Secretary of State's guidance must cover material that health authorities produce and send to schools. We also envisage that the Department of Health will issue guidance to health authorities to make it clear that such material must be in line with Department for Education and Employment guidance.

Members of the Committee will be aware that in March we issued draft guidance on sex and relationship education for consultation. The document was generally supported by those who responded, and we are now preparing a final version for publication to schools. The draft guidance covers a much wider range of issues than simply protection from inappropriate teaching materials. While its statutory force will focus specifically on protection from such materials, we expect that responsible governing bodies and head teachers will follow the guidance in full. In doing so, they will use materials in accordance with the personal, social and health education framework, which is based on tolerance and inclusion, and advocates that children should learn to respect difference.

Further assurances that schools and governing bodies will take a balanced, sensitive and inclusive approach are to be found: in the requirement for schools to publish their sex education policies and the right of parents to withdraw their children from sex education; in the activities of the Office for Standards in Education, which has a statutory responsibility to report on schools' teaching of spiritual, moral, social and cultural education; and through the implementation of the national healthy schools standard, to which we expect most schools to commit themselves in the next few years, and which has as one of its criteria that schools should teach according to the sex and relationship education guidelines.

9.15 am

The guidance will address the issues that the Government have brokered with the Churches and others. It will be firmly rooted in the personal, social and health education framework and the national curriculum, which was launched in September 1999. It will require that pupils be taught about the nature and importance of marriage for family life and the bringing up of children, and should learn the significance of marriage and stable relationships as key building blocks for community and society. The guidance will require that care is taken to ensure that there is no stigmatisation of children, based on their home circumstances, and provide for pupils to be given accurate information and help to develop skills to enable them to understand difference and to respect themselves and others, with the purpose of preventing and removing prejudice.

The guidance makes clear the unacceptability of bullying because of sexual orientation-it is part of our general concern to ensure that there is no bullying in any of our schools-and reinforces other guidance on pupil behaviour issued by the Department in a document called ``Social Inclusion: Pupil Support Circular 10/99''. Secondary level pupils will be taught to understand human sexuality and about the reasons for delaying sexual activity, the benefits to be gained from that delay and how to obtain appropriate advice on sexual health. Schools will be expected to set in place arrangements to protect pupils from inappropriate teaching and materials.

The safeguards provided by the amendment and the clarification given by the guidance will allow us to move from excited debate to sensible practice. Teachers will know what should be taught.

 
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