BACKBENCH BUSINESS Debate

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Department: Department for Education

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Robin Walker Portrait The Minister for School Standards (Mr Robin Walker)
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I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Miriam Cates), along with my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Jackie Doyle-Price) and the hon. Member for Canterbury (Rosie Duffield), on securing today’s debate. I extend my thanks to everybody who has spoken in the debate; I apologise if I do not have time to respond to every single point that was made, but I think I can respond to many of the points made by the hon. Member for Portsmouth South (Stephen Morgan).

I have listened carefully to some of the examples that have been given by Conservative and Opposition Members, in particular those cited by my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge. There is no doubt that some of those things are totally unsuitable for school-age children: “age is only a number” is clearly an unsuitable phrase to be used in the context of consent, and the Department has been clear that the Proud Trust’s dice game is unacceptable for use as a school resource. I have to say that, despite a lot of coverage of that particular issue, we are unaware of any individual cases in which that game has been used in schools.

High-quality relationship and sex education is important, and—as my hon. Friend has set out, based on her own experience—can play a key role in keeping children and young people safe, equipping them to understand and resist harmful influences and expectations. It can do so only if it is taught well and appropriately, and good teachers working in good schools that engage expertly with parents can find the right balance. To support teachers to deliver in the classroom, we have run expert-led teacher training webinars that covered pornography, domestic abuse and sexual exploitation—topics that teachers told us they find difficult to teach. We also published additional guidance to schools on tackling abuse, harassment, and other sensitive topics.

It has been almost three years since the Department published statutory guidance on relationship, sex and health education, and almost two years since relationship education became a compulsory subject for all schools and relationship and sex education became a compulsory subject for all secondary schools. As has been acknowledged, primary schools can choose to teach sex education in order to meet the needs of their pupils, but if they do so, they must consult with parents on their policy and grant parents an automatic right to withdraw their child from sex education lessons.

Rosie Duffield Portrait Rosie Duffield
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Does the Minister agree that, given that point about parents wanting to see the material, it is disturbing that my colleagues and I have heard reports from headteachers that they are not allowed or enabled to share that material from some of the groups because it is deemed “commercially sensitive”?

Robin Walker Portrait Mr Walker
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It is concerning, and I want to come to that in more detail, because I think I can help provide some clarification.

At the heart of RSHE is the need to keep children healthy, happy and safe. The hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown (Lloyd Russell-Moyle) gave a very powerful example of where more education could make a difference in terms of safety. I sympathise with his deep hurt. My hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock also spoke passionately about safety and the centrality of consent. That includes knowing the law on relationships, sex and health, teaching about relationships from primary school onwards and ensuring that younger children understand the importance of building caring friendships and learn the concept of personal privacy, including that it is not always right to keep secrets if they relate to being safe, and that each person’s body belongs to them.

In the schools White Paper, the Government committed to keeping children safe by strengthening RSHE, as well as our statutory safeguarding guidance “Keeping children safe in education”. The hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Neale Hanvey) spoke about the centrality of safeguarding in that. That will support schools to protect children from abuse and exploitation in situations inside and outside school. The guidance is updated annually, and it is clear that schools and colleges should be aware of the importance of making it clear that there is a zero-tolerance approach to sexual violence. Sexual harassment is never acceptable. It should not be tolerated and never be passed off as banter, just having a laugh, part of growing up or boys being boys. Failure to do so could lead to an unacceptable culture of behaviour, an unsafe environment or, in the worst-case scenarios, a culture that normalises abuse, so that children accept it as normal and do not come forward to report it.

The RSHE statutory guidance advises schools to be alive to issues such as sexism, misogyny, homophobia and gender stereotypes and to take positive action to tackle those issues. As part of relationships education, all primary school pupils are taught about the importance of respect for relationships and the different types of loving, healthy relationships that exist. Pupils will also be taught about boundaries and privacy and how to recognise and report feelings of being unsafe. To support teachers to deliver those topics safely and with confidence, we have produced RSHE teacher training modules, which are freely available on gov.uk. We have also committed to developing a further package of support for teachers to deliver lessons on sensitive topics, such as abuse, pornography and consent. That package includes teacher webinars delivered from March 2022 onwards and non-statutory guidance, which offers practical suggestions for supporting children and young people to develop healthy, respectful and kind relationships. The guidance has been informed by an evidence review, stakeholder input and an expert teacher group, and we will publish it this autumn.

The Ofsted review of sexual abuse in schools and colleges found that online forms of sexual abuse are increasingly prevalent, with 88% of girls and 49% of boys reporting being sent unwanted sexual images and 80% of girls and 40% of boys pressured to provide sexual images of themselves. The review also showed that children, even in primary schools, are accessing pornography and sharing nude images. We want to make sure that children receive appropriate teaching in schools on topics that are relevant to their lived experience, rather than going online to educate themselves. Through the RSHE curriculum, pupils will be taught about online relationships, the implications of sharing private or personal data—including images—online, harmful content and contact, cyber bullying, an overreliance on social media and where to get help and support for issues that unfortunately occur online. Through the topic of internet safety and harms, pupils will be taught to become discerning customers of information and to understand how comparing oneself with others online can have an impact on one’s own body image. The Department is reviewing its guidance on teaching online safety in schools, which supports teachers to embed teaching about online safety into subjects such as computing, RSHE and citizenship. The guidance will be published in the autumn of this year. The Online Safety Bill will also ensure that children are better protected from pornographic content, wherever it appears online.

The statutory RSHE guidance sets out the content that we expect children to know before they complete each phase of education. We have, however, been clear that our guiding principles for the development of the statutory guidance were that all the compulsory subject content must be age-appropriate and developmentally appropriate. It must be taught sensitively and inclusively, with respect for the backgrounds and beliefs of pupils and parents, while always with the aim of providing pupils with the knowledge they need. Given the need for a differentiated approach and the sensitive and personal nature of many of the topics within the RSHE curriculum, it is important that schools have the flexibility to design their own curricula, so that it is relevant and appropriate to the context of their pupils. The Department’s policy, therefore, has been to trust the expertise of schools to decide the detail of the content that they teach and what resources they use.

As mentioned previously, we have made a commitment in the White Paper to strengthen our guidance in this respect. We will also review and update that guidance regularly—at least every three years. We are confident that the majority of schools are capable of doing this well and have been successful in developing a high-quality RSHE curriculum that is appropriate to the needs of their pupils, but, in the context of this debate, it is clear that that is not always the case and that there are genuine concerns about many of the materials that have been used.

I stress that allowing schools the flexibility to make their own decisions about their curricula does not mean that they should be unaccountable for what they teach. Schools are required by law to publish their RSHE policies and to consult parents on them. As their children’s primary educators, parents should be given every opportunity to understand the purpose and content of what their children are being taught. In the RSHE statutory guidance, which all schools must have regard to, we have set out a clear expectation for schools to share examples of resources with parents. Schools are also bound by other legal duties with regard to the delivery of the wider curriculum. All local authority maintained schools are required to publish the content of their school curriculum, including the details of how parents or other members of the public can find out more about the curriculum that the school is following. There is a parallel requirement in academy trust model funding agreements for each academy to publish the same information on its website. It is our intention that that should form part of the new standards for academies.

My hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge raised the point, which my hon. Friend the Member for Aberconwy (Robin Millar) echoed, that last week, in a Committee debate on the Schools Bill in another place, peers highlighted the fact that some schools believed that they were unable to share resources with parents because intellectual property legislation placed restrictions on them. We are clear that schools can show parents curriculum materials, including resources provided by external organisations, without infringing an external provider’s copyright in the resource. For example, it is perfectly possible for a school to invite parents into the school to view materials on the premises. Although of course we have to be mindful of not overburdening schools with repeated requests, we do expect schools to respond positively to all reasonable requests from parents to share curriculum material. We therefore expect schools to share RSHE content and materials with parents openly and transparently, where requested. We are clear that they should not enter into any contracts with third parties that seek to restrict them from sharing RSHE resources with parents.

The RSHE train the trainer programme, which we delivered from 2020 to 2021, brought to light several examples of good practice, including in schools that had engaged with parents effectively, but I apologise that I will not have time in this debate to address those.

Many schools draw on the expertise of external organisations, as we have heard, to enhance the delivery of RSHE, and many will use resources that are produced externally. To help schools to make the best choices, the Department published the non-statutory guidance, “Plan your relationships, sex and health curriculum”. That sets out practical advice for schools on a number of topics, including using externally produced resources. Indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge quoted from it.

Concerns have been raised today about what schools teach pupils on transgender issues. School should be a safe and welcoming place for all pupils. We believe that all children should be supported while growing up. However, we recognise that gender identity can be a complex and sensitive topic for schools to navigate and that there is sometimes tension between rights based on the two protected characteristics of sex and gender reassignment. We are working with the Equality and Human Rights Commission to ensure that we are giving the clearest possible guidance to schools on transgender issues. We will hold a full public consultation on the draft guidance later this year. Given the complexity of the subject, we need to get this right and we want to take full account of the review being conducted by Dr Hilary Cass.

I realise that my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge will need time to respond, so I conclude by saying that I hear very clearly the concerns that have been expressed. As a parent of both a girl and a boy, I know that we need to address these issues and to do so in a way that can reassure parents but continue to deliver high-quality relationships, sex and health education.

Peter Dowd Portrait Peter Dowd (in the Chair)
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We only have just over a minute left, so I call Miriam Cates to wind up very briefly, please.