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26 Nov 2008 : Column 286WH—continued

It is a shame that the Government have not paid more attention to how we can support stable family environments. There are too many policies, such as the
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couple penalty, which deter couples from coming together and staying together and providing the sort of stable environment about which my hon. Friend talks. I think that he makes some very important and powerful points.

The hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) talked compellingly about the deterioration in some areas. In particular, she mentioned the 69 per cent. increase in sexually transmitted infections over the past decade. We have the highest level of teenage pregnancies in western Europe, and the number of teenage abortions has increased by 15 per cent. in the past five years. Those statistics should concern us all, and I echo the views eloquently expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth (David T.C. Davies) in his contribution.

The pivotal point of the debate is whether or not sex education works. Speaking from the Conservative Front Bench, I say that it should work. At the moment, however, there is plenty of room for improvement. For more than six years, Ofsted has been calling for sex and relationship education to be taught by teachers who know how to deliver the subject and, more appropriately, by specialists who have the sort of experience to make a difference in this area.

I know that the Minister understands the importance of the matter, and has been dissatisfied with the progress that has been made in this area. I will be interested to hear what he has to say today because he has done a great deal of work to improve an unacceptable situation. None the less, I should like him to pick up on a couple of points. I am concerned that too much emphasis has been placed on making sex and relationship education a statutory subject. It is seen as a panacea for the way in which we will improve the current situation. As my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley says, sex education is not something that will be dealt with in the same way in every school, community and family. Simply by saying that the subject will be compulsory will not make it more effective. It is a sticking plaster and something that grabs a headline rather than providing a solution.

Two or three years ago, Ofsted said that making something statutory—this was in the context of sex and relationship education—does not ensure that it is effective. That is correct. While the Minister considers a number of other measures to improve the effectiveness of sex and relationship education, I urge him not to see making it statutory as some sort of panacea that will solve all ills, because he will be disappointed.

I was quite disappointed that the recent report from the Government seemed to side step the role of parents. As my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley said, parents want to have an important role in this part of their children’s lives. For many parents, it can be a difficult issue to talk about. Others, however, want to ensure that they have control over the way in which sex and relationships are talked about, particularly to young children. Like my hon. Friend, I have a six-year-old and I know that I want to talk to him about the matter in a way that is proper and right.

Philip Davies: My hon. Friend will note that the Liberal Democrats, who did not want to indulge in a debate on the subject, showed that they were neither liberal nor democratic because they support making the
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subject compulsory. Can my hon. Friend tell me why the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole and the Minister know so much more than their constituents or I about how to bring up children and how to tell them about such things? Surely, parents should be the ones to decide what is right for their children, and not Ministers or Liberal Democrat spokesmen.

Mrs. Miller: I share my hon. Friend’s concern that parents may feel that they are being marginalised in the process. At the moment, we are fortunate that very few parents withdraw their children from sex and relationship education—I think that it is less than 1 per cent. The Government must understand how that might change if sex and relationship education were made statutory. I know from talking to various organisations that in cases in which the issues are a little sensitive—either for cultural or any other reasons—ways are found to ensure that children have the information that they may require. If the subject is made statutory, will that flexibility still be there? I will be interested to hear what the Minister has to say about that. The last thing that he wants to do is to push more parents than currently is the case towards excluding their children from such discussions.

It is important that we understand the concerns of the teaching profession when it comes to sex and relationship education. Too many feel that there is inappropriate, or insufficient, training to be able to undertake the roles that they are all too often given in school. I urge the Minister to consider the work done by organisations such as Relate in developing good, solid, very professionally developed course work that can be delivered in a way that will help children to understand such important issues.

I urge the Minister to reassure us about the role of parents within this process, and pick up on some of the points that my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley has made. Will he also talk about the importance of age- appropriateness? I probably share the concerns of the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole that some of the media coverage on the matter has been less than helpful. Perhaps the Minister should shoulder some of the blame for that. It is important that the media is on our side and working with us. A great variety of briefings went out to various newspapers at the time of the Government statement, and there was a great broadness of interpretation as to what would happen. I know that the Rose review will consider the content of sex and relationship education. I hope that the Minister can reassure us that that will not include primary school-age children being exposed to inappropriate sexual material, because that is very important.

I should like to pick up on the importance of relationships in sex education. In her intervention, the hon. Member for Bristol, East (Kerry McCarthy) mentioned the Youth Parliament. It is important to ensure that sex education is delivered in the context of relationship education. That is something that has been lacking and has been picked up in the Youth Parliament’s work. It is important that we have a good structure for young people in this country to learn about appropriate behaviour.

In the past couple of weeks, the headlines have been talking about the increasing problems of inappropriate behaviour. There has been a worrying increase in the numbers of children who witness domestic violence, and who are abused and neglected. There is a powerful
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argument for parenting skills to be included in the sort of relationship education that we are talking about. That argument was put powerfully to me by a group of students who were studying children’s care in education at Basingstoke college of technology. I ask the Minister to consider in detail the proposals that they have put forward.

Time is running out, so I should like to end by applauding the contribution of the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen). He had to leave to be in a meeting elsewhere. As always, he made a very powerful case for the importance of earlier intervention in such cases.

In closing, I should like to say that my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley is right to question whether we are being effective in what we are doing here. He is right to make us debate and consider in detail some of these issues. I urge him always to challenge us and to bring his thoughts on such issues to the fore. It is right that all communities have a different approach. We must ensure that that flexibility continues and that the Government instil flexibility in the systems that are used for sex and relationship education.

3.49 pm

The Minister for Schools and Learners (Jim Knight): I thank the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) for securing this debate. He made an interesting and provocative speech. He seemed to spend the first half arguing that higher rates of teenage pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections in this country were due to sex education and the second half arguing that low rates elsewhere had nothing to do with sex education.

My hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) gave a thoughtful speech based on his experience representing an area where the consequences of inadequate sex and relationship education are acute. I was particularly struck by his phrase “The more they know, the more they understand.” That is the basis of our argument.

The hon. Member for Monmouth (David T.C. Davies) repeated some of the misconceptions about the quality of schooling in this country. Perhaps, because he does not represent an English constituency, he is not fully aware that this year, for example, 88 per cent. of 11-year-olds achieved the national standard of level 4 in their SATs in reading. Every year, 100,000 more young people leave primary school able to read, write and add up than when his party was last in power.

The hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke) gave a passionate speech and usefully set out the detail of what the UK Youth Parliament says on the matter in its authoritative work. The hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs. Miller) made a welcome speech, and I appreciate her constructive approach. I will certainly consider the proposals that Basingstoke college of technology came up with. The new personal, social, health and economic education programme of study on personal well-being includes the roles and responsibilities of parents, carers and children, but at the moment, obviously, it is non-statutory.

Sex education is a serious subject that we should not shy away from, which is why I welcome this debate. It is the Government’s ambition not only to build a world-class education and children’s services system for our young
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people but to make this country the best place in the world to grow up. Sex and relationships are a crucial part of the process of growing up, and our approach to those relationships, the choices that we make and our ability to keep ourselves safe is what marks us as independent, free-thinking adults. All are fundamentals of any good education.

It is no less than part of our moral duty to teach young people how to relate one another, keep themselves safe and treat each other with respect in order to stand them in good stead for happiness and success in later life. Sex and relationship education is a vital part of that, and it is particularly important for young people growing up in the highly sexualised climate of this country in this century. Mass marketing aimed at children, a celebrity and image-conscious culture, T-shirts for girls as young as six reading “So many boys, so little time”, magazines, soaps and music videos create an increasingly sexualised climate in which young people are regularly confronted with sex in some form.

It is vital that we get the other side of the story across—information about sex and relationships, advice on how young people can keep themselves safe and straight answers to their questions—so that they are well equipped to cultivate meaningful relationships and make safe choices. In the classic comedy series, Blackadder proudly declares himself to be

Our children’s social and emotional development cannot be as haphazard as that. By the time they get to the university of life, it is too late. It is particularly important during those years when young people are tempted to experiment with alcohol, drugs, cigarettes and other things, and when they are operating within different social situations and the parameters of peer pressure. Our education system must not shy away from the task of preparing young people for life as fully rounded human beings.

That is why, following the sex and relationship education review that I chaired and whose report was published last month, we took the decision to make PSHE statutory in order to ensure that every child benefits from high-quality education on those issues and to establish greater consistency across the country, so that those not receiving good advice at home get it at school.

Philip Davies: What gives the Minister the right to know better how to bring up my child than I do as that child’s parent? Why does he insist on making it compulsory? Why can he not allow parents to decide for themselves what is in their own children’s best interests?

Jim Knight: As I will go on to say, parents certainly need to be actively engaged with schools in how it is delivered, but we need greater consistency because some are not getting good enough advice at home.

We need consistency to help us to make inroads in three major areas. First, we will be able to provide better-quality and more consistent advice, something that young people themselves tell us that they want. We heard from the UK Youth Parliament report that 40 per cent. of the 20,000 young people who responded on sex and relationship education rated the information that they received as poor or very poor. That is not good
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enough. By requiring schools to provide high-quality PSHE, we can raise standards across the board and increase the priority that it receives in schools.

Secondly, high-quality PSHE education will help us make major inroads into tackling some of the wider social issues that we face, such as rising rates of sexually transmitted diseases, obesity, aggression, violence and teenage pregnancy, the rate of which, although falling, is still high compared to other European countries. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, we want sex and relationship education to help build a partnership between parents and their children as they approach the issues. At the moment, almost a third of teens—I say this to the hon. Member for Shipley—say that sex is not discussed openly at home. We want to help parents address the issues with their children.

David T.C. Davies: Will the Minister give way?

Dr. Evan Harris: Will the Minister give way?

Jim Knight: I really do not have time, I am afraid.

I know that some people are concerned that talking about sex might give young people ideas, but the fact is that they are having those ideas anyway. There is strong international evidence that comprehensive SRE, linked to easier access to contraception when young people become sexually active, results in lower teenage pregnancy rates. That is the strategy that we have used in this country since the teenage pregnancy strategy was introduced, with good results. Our teenage pregnancy rates are at their lowest for 20 years.

I quote an academic study by Douglas Kirby last year on positive outcomes from comprehensive SRE:


That is the international evidence. In contrast, there is no evidence that abstinence-only education is effective. A recent study examining the role of abstinence and contraceptive use in the decline in US teenage pregnancy
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rates found that 86 per cent. of the decline was due to improved use of contraception. It is also the case that children whose parents talk to them honestly about sex and relationships are less likely to have sex before 16 and more likely to use contraception when they do.

It is clearly better for our young people to get their information from parents and professionals than from their friend’s ill-informed brother or the hushed rumours of the locker room. It is clearly better to rely on facts in the classroom rather than myths in the playground. Given that young people spend only 15 per cent. of their time in school, parents are clearly our most valuable partners in educating young people. PSHE needs to be a partnership between parents and schools. We want parents to have greater input and to influence the content of schools’ SRE programmes.

However, it is also important to view SRE in its proper context. Our announcement was not that sex education only would be made statutory; it included personal, social, health and economic education. There has been much comment in the media and elsewhere that we are focusing on sex education for five-year-olds. That is not accurate, and it misses the point. We have always been clear that any teaching in that area must be age-appropriate. The focus in primary school is on giving children the skills that they need to develop and sustain positive relationships. Those skills will be taught in the context of relationships with family and friends, and they are the same skills that will help them to develop positive, mutually respectful sexual relationships in later life.

There is plenty more that I would love to say about what we want to do to improve the quality of delivery, staff training and so on, but time escapes me. In conclusion, as we continue to build a world-class education system, we must also create an environment in which young people feel able to discuss issues important to them, understand the risks that they face as they make the transition to adulthood and have the confidence and knowledge to keep themselves healthy and safe.

Sex and relationships are a part of life. Sex education needs to be more than just a biology lesson; it must reflect the issues that young people face, enhance their social and emotional development and be relevant to the complex issues of sexuality and different types of relationships that they face in this century. If we get it right, the lessons learned at school will stay with them for the rest of their lives. Although Euclidean geometry and the dates of the English civil war may fade from memory, the knowledge of how to practise safe sex will not.

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Interest Rates

4 pm

John Barrett (Edinburgh, West) (LD): I am glad to have triggered this debate today, because in recent months we have witnessed financial turmoil both at home and abroad. Currently we are in a recession, with the outlook for 2009 and beyond being as uncertain as at any time since the last world war, which happened long before I was born.

I requested this debate today because I believe that its full title—the effect of interest rates on mortgage holders—covers much of what has been at the core of our economy for many years. What has been the aspiration of the majority of householders in the UK? It has been to become home owners. At the heart of the property-owning dream is the need for a system of finance that makes that dream a reality. In most cases, that means having access to a mortgage. Although having a mortgage and owning property is right for some, it is not right for all and for some people renting is the correct option.

The Chancellor’s statement on Monday was designed to stimulate the economy and to turn around our economic fortunes. However, I would like to put it on the record today that I have no faith in that prescription to cure a country that has a sick economy. Cutting VAT to help people to buy imported products will not solve the problem. Investing in a new deal with public works programmes, including the construction of hospitals and schools and house building to help those in the construction industry who have been laid off might help. I accept that that was part of the Chancellor’s programme. Investing in the infrastructure of the country, with the construction of a high-speed rail link, would not only produce jobs and boost the economy but would be good for the environment, by cutting down on polluting short-haul flights. However, before I digress on to a wider subject, I will return to the subject of today’s debate.

In the last 25 years, much has changed. Interest rates have gone up and down, and house prices have generally only gone up, with a few exceptions. Conventional wisdom would have indicated that low interest rates would be good for mortgage owners and high interest rates would be bad. As I go into more detail in this speech, it will become clear that that is not necessarily the case.

Today we have falling interest rates, which are at an all-time low. The Bank of England base rate has fallen this month by 1.5 per cent. to 3 per cent, which is the lowest rate in living memory. Mortgage rates are also low. Why then has the housing market frozen, with sales and mortgages granted also falling to an all-time low, house builders being made redundant and even estate agents and lawyers involved in conveyancing going on to short time or losing their jobs?

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