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Session 2009 - 10
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Children, Schools and Families Bill

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairmen: Mr. David Amess, †Janet Anderson, Mr. Clive Betts
Brooke, Annette (Mid-Dorset and North Poole) (LD)
Coaker, Mr. Vernon (Minister for Schools and Learners)
Cryer, Mrs. Ann (Keighley) (Lab)
Flint, Caroline (Don Valley) (Lab)
Gibb, Mr. Nick (Bognor Regis and Littlehampton) (Con)
Johnson, Ms Diana R. (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families)
Laws, Mr. David (Yeovil) (LD)
Linton, Martin (Battersea) (Lab)
Loughton, Tim (East Worthing and Shoreham) (Con)
McCarthy, Kerry (Bristol, East) (Lab)
Prentice, Bridget (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice)
Purchase, Mr. Ken (Wolverhampton, North-East) (Lab/Co-op)
Stuart, Mr. Graham (Beverley and Holderness) (Con)
Timpson, Mr. Edward (Crewe and Nantwich) (Con)
Waltho, Lynda (Stourbridge) (Lab)
Wiggin, Bill (Leominster) (Con)
Sarah Davies, Sara Howe, Committee Clerks
† attended the Committee

Public Bill Committee

Thursday 4 February 2010


[Janet Anderson in the Chair]

Children, Schools and Families Bill

Written evidence to be reported to the House.
CS43 Local Government Ombudsman
CS44 Local Government Ombudsman (additional memorandum)
CS45 Jacquie Cox
CS46 John Friel
CS47 Newspaper Society
CS48 Pamela and Terry Perryman

Clause 14

Exemption from sex and relationships education
Amendment proposed (2 February): 63, in clause 14, page 15, line 31, leave out ‘15’ and insert ‘16’.—(Tim Loughton.)
9 am
Question again proposed, That the amendment be made.
The Chairman: I remind the Committee that with this we are discussing 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Amendment 65, in clause 14, page 15, line 35, leave out from ‘withdrawn’ to end of line 36.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.’.
Before we begin our deliberations, I wish to draw the attention of hon. Members to the fact that, as Chairman, I have a duty to ensure that as much progress as possible has been made in our consideration of the Bill by the time we conclude our business at 5 pm today. I therefore urge members of the Committee to be succinct, and I shall be listening carefully to ensure that all contributions are relevant to the amendments under consideration.
Annette Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole) (LD): I belatedly welcome you to the Chair, Mrs. Anderson. We had an interesting debate up to 10 o’clock on Tuesday, in which we heard many weasel words but, in reality, nothing has changed for the Conservatives. In supporting compulsory personal, social, health and economic education, I wish to make the point that all the major children’s organisations support the provision, including the National Children’s Bureau. The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children also supports it, as does UNICEF, which has provided briefings for me in the past. We should operate from such a background. There has been a strong call for the move for a long time; it is critical.
The clause allows us to deal with the opt-outs. I have tabled four amendments, two of which propose the age of 14 instead of 15. They are probing amendments to find out why the Minister favours the age of 15. There are strong arguments for making sure that all children have education about sex and relationships earlier than at the age of 15. My personal view is that there should not be opt-outs. I accept that the Government agree, but I am interested in why they favour the age of 15.
The other amendments relate to my concern that the age of 15 is late for many pupils. I suggest in amendment 163 that the curriculum for children and young people should still have a relationships part. That is important. It should cover not only sexual relationships but getting on with one another, not bullying and confidence and self-esteem. Important education centres on the whole issue of relationships.
If the opt-out remains, amendment 164 suggests that it should apply only if the parent has met the head teacher of the school or the relevant teacher to discuss their concerns and to establish the nature of what is to be taught. There are many misconceptions—sorry about that—about what sex and relationships education involves. I have received a letter from a parent begging me not to take the innocence away from their child. If I thought that such education was taking innocence away from children, would I support it? No.
The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham challenged me on the subject of children being allowed to opt out. He needs to take on board the views of the very organisations that always ask us to put forward the rights, wishes and feelings of children. They are 100 per cent. behind this approach, particularly the Children’s Rights Alliance, which does not support an opt-out. It sees matters in terms of the rights of the child and says that the
“state has the duty to ensure children and young people receive a good, broad and balanced education”—
we have discussed that before—
“which develops their personality, talents and physical and mental ability. SRE education is part of this duty.”
It does not see sex and relationships education as any different from history, citizenship or science. No one would want to suggest that a child should have the right to withdraw from history or science; that would not fit in with the vision of the curriculum objectives. Currently, parents can withdraw their children from sex education, but not from the parts of the science curriculum that teach the biological aspects of human growth and reproduction. What nonsense. To teach children about the mechanics in the abstract and without providing the important relationships education that goes with it would be a disaster. People who argue against this are living in the past. There is no modernisation at all.
It is clear that children and young people want to receive high-quality sex and relationships education. We have already mentioned the United Kingdom Youth Parliament. The state has a duty to educate children on health. The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, which monitors Government implementation of children’s rights, including the right to express their views, is clear that all children and young people should receive good-quality, age-appropriate health education, which includes sex and relationships education. That is important.
In the England submission to the Committee on the Rights of the Child in 2008, more than 100 non-governmental organisations endorsed a report recommending that the Government remove parents’ right to withdraw children from sex and relationships education in school. The case for compulsory PSHE is well made.
Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham) (Con): The hon. Lady started by saying that one of her amendments was a probing amendment to find out the Government’s justification for 15. Her amendment reduces the age to 14. She has said nothing to justify why 14 rather than 13, 12 or whatever age. Will she address the reason for her amendment?
Annette Brooke: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. It is pretty obvious that I am simply asking the question, “Why 15?” The easiest way to probe that was to table an amendment. I am sure that the Minister understands the reasoning behind it. “Why not 12?” is a perfectly reasonable question. There should not be an opt-out at all. I want to hear from the Minister why 15. Organisations consider this to be so important that they reached a consensus around the age of 15. I am not sure that that is right, but I know that we must get this on the curriculum. We must have high quality PSHE and sex and relationships education, in particular.
With those words, Mrs. Anderson, and bearing in mind what you said earlier, I beg to move the amendments tabled in my name and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil.
Mr. Ken Purchase (Wolverhampton, North-East) (Lab/Co-op): The question is, “What message are we sending out?” It is perfectly clear that there is overwhelming support in the country for properly structured, well-delivered, high quality sex and relationships education. When a poll is taken on such matters, more than 80 per cent. of people approve. They wish it to remain compulsory and on the curriculum for all children. I move that section 405 from the Education Act 1996 is removed, which would render the new clause—“Exemption from sex and relationships education”—redundant.
I understand the arguments with regard to “Why 16 or 15?” “Why 35?”, as I mentioned the other day. There is no logic in any of the answers. The other day, we had an exchange about the works of Piaget, the child psychologist. He identified differences between the maturation rates of boys and girls and between each boy and girl. We know that girls in particular are entering puberty at an earlier age. Many girls need help and often that is not forthcoming.
The argument here is not about the quality of sex education or whether it should be taught—we all agree on those things—but about the messages we are sending out. I share the view of my hon. Friend the Minister for Europe that:
“Britain has the highest rate of teenage pregnancy in Western Europe and the second highest, after the USA, in the world. Depressingly, the map of teenage pregnancy is the map of British deprivation.”
I have no argument with people who decide that the way in which a school delivers sex education does not suit them and so take their children elsewhere. However, in Wolverhampton and another 300 or 400 constituencies, that choice does not exist.
Tim Loughton: Although there are close links between deprivation and teenage pregnancy levels, it is not exclusively so. Last year or the year before, the highest increase in teenage pregnancy levels was in the royal borough of Windsor and Maidenhead—hardly a ghetto of poverty.
Mr. Purchase: I accept the hon. Gentleman’s point. Of course the levels can be quite random. However, when mapped across Britain, the picture is as the Minister for Europe described it last year.
The message is all important. As far as we know, only a small number of children are withdrawn from sex education; about 40 children in every 10,000. That is almost too small to measure. Why do we make this fuss? Is it really about parental choice, or is it about parental prejudice? When the matter was challenged in the European Court, there was an unequivocal ruling that it was an infringement of a child’s rights to take them out of sex education lessons.
Let me make it clear that I think it is the right of the child to withdraw from Christian prayers or those of other religions, but not to withdraw from religious education. I do not believe a parent should be able to withdraw a child from religious education. Without a good knowledge of the King James Bible, the whole world of English literature is probably closed off for many children. Education must be seen in a broad sense. There must be consensus about what should be in the curriculum. Sex education is included.
We are talking about a tiny minority of people who insist that this matter is very personal to them and that in the broad sweep of education, they must be an exception and be able to deny their children the right and opportunity to have good-quality sex education. I agree with the hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole that quality is at the heart of this issue.
I believe that there is no age at which withdrawal from SRE can be justified. As Opposition Members said, why is it 15? Why should it not be 16, 19, 12 or 14? We do not include this equivocation in any other subject in the curriculum. Children in my constituency learn their sex in the playground, in dirty books and from TV. The other night in “EastEnders”, two younger people were clearly having sex in a cabin. It was aired just after 8 o’clock. These people were virtually stripped off. In my opinion, the 9 o’clock watershed is sensible and should apply.
9.15 am
Children are so far down the road of knowledge that it is vital that they get advice from expert teachers in the calm atmosphere of a classroom. The TUC argues that health workers should be involved so that they can support teachers who do not have the wide experience that is necessary to deliver the subject in a top-quality way. I argue that clause 14 is redundant and out of date, that it sends the wrong message, is an infringement of children’s rights and a sop to prejudice that we should not be considering in 2010.
Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley) (Lab): I assure you, Mrs. Anderson, that I will be as brief as I can. I agree with much of what has been said, and there is no point in repeating it because we want to finish this matter.
Over the weekend, I was fortunate enough to address two meetings. One was a group of Asian women between the ages of 30 and 40 who were discussing problems with divorce, and the other was a group of people who were concerned with health matters. I took the advantage of the two gatherings to ask for people’s opinion on this clause. The view, by and large, was that those parents who wish to withdraw their children from sex and relationship lessons are very likely to be the same parents who will not broach the subject themselves at home. Therefore, their children will be completely deprived and very vulnerable. The other view was that 16 is far too old, and most thought that the age should be brought down to 12 or 13, but I will not go down that path.
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