Parents have no “veto” on what is taught in relationships, health and sex education (RSHE), and should complain to schools about “inappropriate” content rather than withdrawing their children from class, a minister has said.
Schools minister Nick Gibb also told MPs today his “heart sinks” when he hears of schools narrowing the curriculum to focus on reading and maths, despite his government’s focus on the subjects for the past 13 years.
He appeared in front of the education committee this morning to answer questions about persistent absence and support for disadvantaged pupils, among other issues.
Here’s what we learned.
1. No parent ‘veto’ on RSHE content…
The government recently brought forward its review of RSHE guidance issued three years ago, in response to claims some schools are using teaching materials that are not “age-appropriate”.
Gibb said the guidance had “landed well right across the education sector”, but added that he shared MPs’ concerns.
He said the government had been “very clear” that schools “do need to share” teaching materials with parents.
“Parents don’t have a veto on what’s taught, but [schools] will reflect on parents’ concerns.”
2. …but families should complain not withdraw
Gibb also urged families to use school complaints procedures rather than withdraw their children from lessons.
“If parents are unhappy, every school has a complaints procedure to go through and I would counsel parents to use that rather than to withdraw their children from school.”
The minister added that he would not advocate allowing parents to remove their children from relationships education lessons, as they can currently for the sex education element of RSHE.
“There are some elements of relationship education that are important in a modern world. It is important that children are introduced to the different kinds of families that there are and so on.
“In some of the more orthodox schools that that might not happen without this guidance, and without there being compulsory RSHE.”
3. ‘My heart sinks’ when creative subjects shunned
As schools minister for much of the last 13 years, Gibb has been central to the government’s focus on core academic subjects. But critics warn this has come at the expense of creative subjects.
Gibb admitted today that his “heart sinks when I hear of schools saying that in year 6 they have dropped all subjects except English and maths”.
He acknowledged these schools were “worried about SATs, but the schools that do best in SATs are the ones that don’t do that”.
Pressed on how government would make sure the focus on reading and maths does not “squeeze out” other areas, Gibb said “it shouldn’t and it mustn’t”.
“I’ve never seen it as an either-or. I want both.”
4. Daily attendance tracker will become mandatory
Last year, the DfE began trialling a live attendance tracker, which scrapes school registers to provide ministers with real-time information on absences.
They have said they hope to replace existing data collections with the scheme, which is now used by over 80 per cent of schools.
Gibb said today the programme had been “very successful on a voluntary basis”, but “I think we will ultimately move to mandation”.
“We don’t have a timescale for that. But it’s a very successful project.”
Graham Archer, the DfE’s director-general for families, said “we do want this to replace the existing data collections and that will imply mandation”.
“But we want to make progress with that 19 per cent [not taking part] first so that we’re clear that this is a process that is owned, understood by the whole of the sector.”
5. Gibb resists call for mental health absence ‘code’
The government consulted last year on changes to the way absences are recorded, and Gibb confirmed today that ministers would bring forward new secondary legislation to enact them “in due course”.
However, he said he would “resist” calls from MPs for “a sub-category of illness that reflects mental health”.
“It’s difficult for schools to define when someone is ill – is it mental health? Is it a combination of mental health and something else?
“The more complicated you make filling in these codes for schools, it’s a burden on schools, they have many other things to do. But also you can damage the accuracy of it if you start demanding more precision than the schools actually have.”
6. DfE mulls advance of not-in-school register
Ministers scrapped their flagship schools bill last year following two changes of government, but said they wanted to salvage some elements, including plans for a register of children not in school.
Conservative MP Flick Drummond has introduced legislation for such a register in the Commons, and is hoping for government backing to allow it to progress.
Gibb said it was still a priority for the government, “but again we just don’t have a legislative vehicle to introduce it but we are still committed to doing so”.
Asked if the government would take on Drummond’s bill, Gibb said: “I think our officials are talking to you about what the vehicle in Parliament is that we can use.”
But Gibb’s comments were criticised as lacking an “element of urgency” by Labour MP Ian Mearns.
“The government is hardly over-burdening Parliament with excessive use of time at the moment…there is time within the Parliamentary session to do something urgently about this.”