Bishop of Durham speaks on new Relationships and Sex Education Regulations

On 24th April 2019 the House of Lords considered a motion to approve the Government’s Relationships Education, Relationships and Sex Education and Health Education (England) Regulations 2019. The Bishop of Durham, Rt Revd Paul Butler, spoke in the debate. The House approved the Regulations without a vote on the motion.

As human beings, we are relational. Relationships with others, and indeed with God, matter. They are primarily formed rather than taught. Our parents, siblings, wider family and friends shape our ability to relate from our first breaths. Our love for God shapes how we relate to people. We do well to remember that any relationships education can only ever be rooted in our experience of relationships, both good and bad; yet education is required.

Given the rapid and drastic change to society in what has been almost two decades since the existing legislation was introduced, I am enthusiastic about updating the policy. When that guidance was written, fewer than 10% of households were connected to the internet and connection speeds were snail-like.

The guidelines are to be commended in their placing of RSE and health education in the context of wider personal development of character, virtues and values. Conversations about relationships will be empowered by discussions of honesty, courage and humility. Sex education is crucially paired in this framework with conversations about relationships: an incredibly important shift in how the curriculum is constructed. I understand that much of the response has been against existing resources that may flex the guidance too far. There has been a great misunderstanding of the requirements of the new framework, but many of those misunderstandings and concerns are rooted in at least some truth.

I am pleased that schools must take into account the faith background of pupils and work in collaboration with parents in drawing up their policies, and that they must consult parents on the planning of sex education and the resources used. It is worth noting in this debate that the Church of England has been in close contact with our Muslim friends, who share a number of our concerns.

I am also glad that sex education will be optional in primary school. However, I am deeply concerned that the same cannot be said of relationships education. Psychologists, ethicists and paediatricians often debate at what age and developmental stage it is appropriate to be exploring early concepts of relationality and sexuality. For example, girls continue to hit puberty earlier and earlier, while the average age of boys maturing remains more constant. How are schools to come to a conclusion about how and when they teach on such issues, and how will such decisions and resources then be adequately monitored? This is particularly important in the light of the comments made by other noble Lords about the importance of teachers being well trained, well prepared and able to teach the subject well.

Development is not uniform, and parents should be able to determine what is appropriate for their children, especially during vulnerable ages. Why cannot parents’ decision regarding what is appropriate for their children be respected?

The relationships curriculum highlights the unique space that families occupy in our society, often acting as a nurturing space for children. It teaches children to respect the diversity of families. Although its motives are honourable, I do not believe it lives up to its own standard in respecting the diversity of parental concern. In other deeply necessary spaces, the framework fails to give sufficient guidance. It is imperative that children are taught from a young age of their bodily autonomy so that they may be able to identify unsafe touch. How will such safeguarding teaching, which is necessary, be widely taught without extending into sex education, which the parents may have opted out of?

I support the emphasis that my noble friend Lady Massey placed on ensuring that the voice of children and young people is listened to carefully in future in reviewing the outworking of the guidance. The voice of children and young people themselves needs to be placed alongside the voice of the parents. The Minister may have seen my right reverend friend the Bishop of Ely’s comment piece in the TES welcoming the new guidance in his role as lead bishop for education. Our concern is that the views of others, especially respecting the beliefs of people of faith—and, indeed, some of no faith—about parental responsibilities and rights, are not simply brushed aside. The lines between relationships and sex education are far more blurred than is recognised, so I ask that great care is taken to monitor that this does not lead to inappropriate sex education being offered at an early age in the name of relationships education.

I conclude by returning to my opening point. Relationships are primarily formed, not taught. The family is the key place where this happens: schools only follow this. Let us together agree that we should not presume that what we debate today will offer all the answers that our children and young people need.


…Article 2 of the first protocol to the European convention, which includes these words:

“In the exercise of any functions which it assumes in relation to education and to teaching, the State shall respect the right of parents to ensure such education and teaching is in conformity with their own religious and philosophical convictions.”

I am concerned about that aspect of the regulations. There is no right of withdrawal from relationships education in primary schools at all, as the right reverend Prelate said…

Lord MacKay of Clashfern (Con): …As the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham said, religious convictions vary: different people have different convictions. Therefore, if you are to teach according to those convictions, you have to be mighty careful. The answer appears to be that you do it in such a way that is “objective, critical and pluralistic”…

Lord Farmer (Con):…After these draft regulations were laid before Parliament, the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee received evidence from over 430 members of the public. All expressed concern about the regulations and many made it clear that they were Christians and that their concern arose out of their religious belief.

The committee set out the main issues raised in these submissions, including,

“a very widespread concern to protect the right of parents to educate their own children on matters such as relationships and sexual health”.

One particular quote stood out to me:

“The assumption seems to be growing that it is the state which educates children, assisted by parents. It should always be the other way round. It is the parents’ job to educate, train and guide their children”

And, as the right reverend Prelate emphasised, those relationships should be formed at home—

“and the state should not take this upon itself”…

“The House may wish to ask the Minister for a fuller explanation of the interrelationship between these two subject areas”.

That is a fair point that was put to the committee by very many people….

Baroness Barker (LD)…I want to address the point made by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham about why it should be important to teach relationship education in primary schools. The education of small children—children in primary schools—is about educating them to understand the world. They learn from the world around them. They learn from the relationships that they know and understand. It is a process of explaining to children what good relationships are, which may not be the relationships they know. This is important. It is about educating them as individuals to know what a good relationship is like and what should be happening to them. It is not about encouraging them to develop sexual relationships inappropriately at a young age; it is the opposite. It is about protecting them from relationships that are inappropriate.

The Lord Bishop of Durham: If the noble Baroness heard me say that I do not believe relationship education should be given in primary schools, she completely misheard me. What I raised was the question of whether parents should have the right to withdraw their children if they so wish. I agree with everything the noble Baroness has just said about why we teach about relationships in primary school.

Baroness Barker: In that case I hope that, when the right reverend Prelate looks at some of the materials from the Catholic Education Service and from the NSPCC—its PANTS materials, for example—he will understand that it is possible to arrive at an education in primary school that should be acceptable to a parent who wishes the best for their child…

Lord Watson of Invergowrie (Lab):…As the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham said, a major change in the world that young children are growing up in since the sex and relationship guidance was last updated two decades ago is the development of the internet and the spread of social media. Of course social media has benefits, but it can also have a genuinely detrimental effect on the lives of children..

The right reverend Prelate also asked about Ofsted, which was raised by several other noble Lords. It has recently consulted on a new arrangement for school inspections but while it will not be making a discrete judgment on the delivery of RSE, there will be a strong emphasis within the new inspection arrangements on schools ensuring that pupils access a broad and balanced curriculum. That will include the new requirements around these subjects and there will be a new judgment on pupils’ personal development, which is of course very relevant to these areas…

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