Education Secretary Damian Hinds has defended changes to sex education after MPs accused him of “a fundamental shift of power to the state” with the potential for headteachers to overrule parents who want to remove their children from such lessons.
A number of Tory backbenchers challenged him on this aspect of the new policies as he unveiled them in the Commons.
Sir Edward Leigh said: “All previous Conservative Governments have given an untrammelled right to parents to remove their children from sex education.
“But here in certain circumstances that right has been transferred to the headteacher.
“A fundamental shift of power to the state.”
The new guidelines state that if a parent wishes to withdraw their child from sex education they can still do so, but only if the child is under 15, and in “exceptional circumstances” that request can be denied.
Mr Hinds said he expects schools would “respect the parents’ request”, but that was not enough to convince several MPs, with Matthew Offord (Hendon) saying there were “huge amounts of concern in his constituency”.
He said some in the chamber “feel that the state knows better than parents”, but added: “The last time I looked, the Conservative Party believed in freedom of choice to decide your own future.”
And Tory grandee Dr Julian Lewis, chair of the defence select committee, took issue with the phrase “exceptional circumstances” being written into the plans, asking on what grounds “would a headteacher overrule a parent”, suggesting that if that were to happen more parents would take their children out of school.
It came after Mr Hinds had said it was “difficult to codify what constitutes exceptional circumstances”.
He replied to Dr Lewis that the “long-standing right to withdraw children from sex education” will remain, but added it was “a right to request”, and that children should be able to “have some sex education for at least a term before they reach the age of consent” if they choose to.
Steve Double, Conservative member for St Austell and Newquay, asked the minister: “Can he just reassure the House that there is no intention whatsoever in these guidelines to usurp or undermine the right and responsibility of parents to educate their children in these matters if that is what they choose to do?”
The Education Secretary said he could indeed confirm that, adding schools were there to “complement what parents do”.
His colleague Philip Hollobone (Kettering), wanted the right to withdraw pupils by parents extended to the new lessons on relationships, as well as those on sex.
But Mr Hinds rebuffed him, saying “it is important that every child has the right to learn about and to discuss the different types of relationships there are in the world”.
Adding that the new curriculum “does not refer to intimate relationships, it starts with sharing and taking turns” as well as “permission and consent”.