MPs quietly vote against compulsory sex education in schools

Tory MPs say the government would be bringing forward its own plans to reform sex education in schools

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The Independent Online

Conservative MPs have voted to block plans for sex and relationship education (SRE) to be made compulsory in schools.

Under increasing pressure from campaigners over the past year, Education Secretary Justine Greening repeatedly suggested she was open to reforming the current Government guidance on SRE, which currently allows free schools and academies to opt out of teaching the subject in class.

As the law stands, state schools are obligated to cover sex education from a biological aspect.

But no British schools are required to teach pupils about the social or emotional aspects of sex, or make classes LGBT inclusive.

Debating the matter in Parliament this week, an all-female group of MPs tabled an amendment to the Children and Social Work Bill to make lessons on “sex and relationships education, same-sex relationships, sexual consent, sexual violence and domestic violence” mandatory in all UK schools.

The new law would require schools watchdog Ofsted to evaluate schools on their SRE as part of regular inspections, judging “whether the information provided to pupils is accurate and balanced, age-appropriate, inclusive or religiously diverse”.

In a vote of ten Conservative and five Labour MPs, the amendment was rejected – with the vote divided 10-5 between parties lines.

No other party was represented on the bill committee.

Conservative MP for North Dorset, Simon Hoare told Parliament that the amendment did not offer enough protection for faith schools who oppose homosexuality.

He said: “Some form of protection is needed for those who run faith schools, all faiths, to make the position absolutely clear. 

“I have little or no doubt that I will receive emails from constituents who happen to read my remarks. They will say that this is all about promotion, and this or that religion thinks that homosexuality—or another element—is not right.

“To provide a legislative comfort blanket, for want of a better phrase, the new clause needs to include a clear statement that we are talking not about promotion, but about education, and where sex education is delivered in a faith school environment, those providing the education should not feel inhibited about answering questions such as “What is the thinking of our faith on this particular aspect of sexuality?”

Recalling his own faith school upbringing, Mr Hoare said he was much in “support” of the intentions behind the clause, but pointed out that it was tabled “solely in the name of Labour Members of Parliament who all happen to be women.”

Addressing Labour MP Stella Creasy, who led the amendment, he said: “A father, a husband and a boyfriend have as much interest in ensuring a high quality of PSHE as women do."

He added that she "might want to think about that point, which is why I hope that she will not press this new clause to a vote today but instead think about some proactive cross-party working on Report.”

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Junior Education Minister Edward Timpson said the government would be bringing forward its own plans to reform SRE in schools, but agreed the amendment was incomplete, with “lots of repercussions that need to be thought through”.

He added: “We hear the call for further action on PSHE and we have committed to exploring all the options to improve delivery of SRE and PSHE. 

“We are actively looking at how best to address both the quality of delivery and accessibility to ensure that all children can be supported to develop positive, healthy relationships and to thrive in modern Britain today. 

“We welcome the support in delivering this in a timely and considered manner.”

Pressing the new clause to a vote, Ms Creasy said: “Millions of children in our schools right now are simply not getting the right sort of information about relationships, consent and sensitive issues such as their relationships with the other sex and with the same sex, domestic violence and abuse, female genital mutilation and forced marriage.

She added: “I am sorry, but frameworks and guidance are what we have had for the past six years, and we are not making progress.”

The rejected amendment comes amid fresh criticism from charity campaigners, who claim present teachings are seriously out-dated for the “smartphone generation” of children who are exposed to the internet and influenced by social media.

SRE guidance for schools has not been updated in close to 17 years - making the current legislation older than the majority of pupils learning about the subject. 

A recent survey of more than 1,000 children conducted by Barnardo’s children's charity found that seven in 10 pupils aged 11-15 thought the government should ensure that all children have  age-appropriate SRE in school.

Barnardo’s Chief Executive Javed Khan called for the government to “give children the knowledge that will help keep them safe”.

He said: “It's time to listen to children who are clearly telling us that they need help in understanding the digital dangers and the risks of sharing images of themselves with strangers. 

“Online grooming is a very real danger facing all children and nearly half of the girls polled said they were worried about strangers contacting them online. 

”Compulsory SRE lessons for all children must be introduced as soon as possible- it will help prevent children being groomed and sexually exploited.”

Calling the vote "shameful", HIV charity the Terrence Higgins Trust said the vote was "another missed opportunity by the government to make SRE statutory in schools".

An Ofsted report in 2013 found 40 per cent of schools required improvement or were deemed “inadequate” in their provision of sex and relationship education.

A Department for Education spokesperson said in a statement: “High-quality education on sex and relationships is a vital part of preparing young people for success in adult life – helping them make informed choices, stay safe and learn to respect themselves and others.

“Education on sex and relationships is compulsory in all maintained secondary schools, and many academies and free schools teach it as part of the curriculum. We are actively considering what further steps we could take to improve the quality and availability of sex and relationships education.”

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