HC Deb 05 May 1981 vol 4 cc125-32

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Berry.]

11.45 pm
Mr. Richard Page (Hertfordshire, South-West)

The purpose of this debate about the need for marriage guidance in schools is to highlight what is for me, and, I am sure, for all other hon. Members, a matter of extreme concern, which is essentially the breaking down of the family unit in our society. As I regard the family unit as the foundation of our society, I am talking about the breaking down of society itself.

I should point out that I am not an expert on marriage or on marriage guidance. I raise the subject not only as someone who is concerned, but as someone who has a slight mathematical turn of mind and therefore an increasing concern at the appalling trend in the increasing divorce figures and the misery and heartache that they represent.

All hon. Members have experienced more than once in their surgeries the problems that are thrown up by divorce. On hearing the background that emerges from one or other of the distraught parties, they often think that the marriage was doomed from its first day. I hope that the views that I shall put forward in this debate will be supported, because it is time that we took positive action to tackle the problem at source rather than attempting to pick up the pieces at the divorce court door.

I shall outline briefly the statistics of the present problem, so that we can appreciate its sheer size and distinguish the main ingredients that make up the horrific total. At this point, I express my appreciation to Mr. Lock of the statistics section of the House of Commons Library, who has helped me to compile the data.

We are all aware of the appalling and increasing number of cases in the divorce courts. They are steadily increasing year by year. They seem to set at odds the theory that premarital cohabitation, which is now more common, would eliminate any incompatibilities in couples before their unions are legalised and thus reduce divorce. It appears that that is not so. The statistics show that, of every four couples who leave the church door or the registry office, one couple will appear later in the divorce court. Concealed within those frightening figures is an even worse figure, showing that if a bride is in her teens on her wedding day there is a one-in-three chance of the marriage breaking down. As about 25 per cent. of all ladies marry when they are in their teens, it is not surprising that the current divorce rate is approaching 200,000 a year.

Let us consider the parallels in one or two other countries. We have the highest divorce rate in the EEC. As a rough guide, it is approximately twice that of our fellow EEC countries. However, in the United States, out of every 1,000 marriages today, about 40 per cent. will have failed within 15 years. That figure does not include the black population, which tends to make liaisons outside the formality of marriage.

Although those figures are profoundly depressing, they do not seem to have reduced the attraction of marriage as an institution. The amount spent annually on celebrating and commemorating weddings is estimated at a staggering £1½ billion. However, there is a down side to that statistic of joy and nuptial planning, because it has been estimated that the cost to the taxpayer of marital breakdown, including such items as supplementary benefit and children in care, is approximately £1 billion per year.

As I mentioned earlier, there is a need to approach this problem at source. In addition, when our teenage children are about to leave school, they should be educated in some of the responsibilities and obligations that are attendant upon marriage.

It is because of these horrific statistics and the trend which seems remorselessly to be climbing higher and higher that we should introduce marriage guidance into all our schools. The logical question should be asked, why could this not be undertaken by a teacher as part of the sociological studies which take place in the last year of compulsory education? The answer should be that the pupil-teacher relationship is not the right one for advising on the responsibility of marriage. A pupil-teacher relationship is essentially one of a person in authority imparting information to one in the role of supplicant. That might be ideal for passing on knowledge of maths, English or even sex education, but it should certainly not be used to impart knowledge of the delicate relationships which exist within marriage.

For that reason, I should like to see external advisers, experienced in marriage counselling, brought in to talk to each class in its last year on the responsibilities which exist within marriage. They should try to dispel some of the illusions that have been created, mainly by the media, which portray conjugal bliss, sex and violence in equal proportions.

This debate was sparked off by a long report from one of my constituents, Mrs. Williamson, who has undertaken marriage guidance in one of my local schools. In it she details some of the more unreal reasons given to her by school leavers for getting married and which were obvious foundations for an early appearance in the divorce court. Some were fairly common, such as the need to escape from an unhappy home. But, as evidence portrays, children from unhappy homes tend to make unhappy parents and in turn produce even more unhappy children.

Some girls wanted marriage for no other reason than that it would stop them being pestered by other boys. Others were motivated by the media in the belief that it would be a life of romance, love and escapism for ever more, with little concept of the responsibilities that go with marriage.

Some schools have already introduced this type of teaching, although, I am afraid, very few. I know that the Marriage Guidance Council in London works in about 40 London schools, supported by an ILEA grant of £4,500—less than the cost of one child in care.

It is sad that today it appears impossible to solve any problem without throwing money at it. I should like to think that, given a clear direction from the Department of Education and Science, schools and people with marriage guidance experience and qualifications could come together to provide, at minimal cost, a service to try to halt this remorseless rise in divorce.

Naturally, I have raised this matter in my own constituency. The county education department in Hertfordshire has been most encouraging in its reaction. However, if the idea is to spread nationally and if all schools are to provide this essential advice the direction must come from the Department of Education and Science. I should like a clear instruction to go from the Department, through the county education departments, to each school that every class of school leaver should receive advice and information on marriage.

I believe that today we are seeing the smashing of the family unit. The divorce rate and the resultant emotional debris form one example of what happens when people are encouraged to abrogate their responsibilities to the State. I believe that at present marriage is too lightly regarded. It is thought of almost as a hire purchase contract which can be terminated by an emotional, if not financial, final payment in the divorce court. Some advice from an external source for those about to leave school might make them stop and consider before taking that plunge into marriage. That additional consideration could reduce the ever-increasing number of teenage divorces.

11.55 pm
The Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science (Dr. Rhodes Boyson)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Hertfordshire, South-West (Mr. Page) for raising the important question of the need for marriage guidance inside society, especially in schools. I agree with his sentiments.

The decision about the school curriculum lies with local education authorities, school governing bodies and head teachers. The Department can act only in an advisory role. The way in which education has been built up with teachers on one side and local authorities on the other, with governors inside schools, together with the Department, means that there has not been a centralisation of educational power. In many ways that is good, and in other ways it is bad. It depends on who is in charge. I am sure that my hon. Friend believes that if the Conservatives were in charge all the time matters would be perfect. You, Mr. Deputy Speaker, might not agree with that. As the power will not for ever more be in our hands, its dispersal will prevent abuse.

The Department has been concerned about marriage guidance and health education. We produced a paper about health education. The chapter on sex education in the handbook "Health Education in Schools" lays emphasis on the importance of teaching in the context of responsible personal. relationships and with due regard to the wishes of the parents.

As my hon. Friend is aware, the tentative suggestions that we made in a school curriculum document produced a great outcry from certain people who thought that we were interfering with what they were doing locally. That shows how carefully we must proceed. The document states: Health education, like preparation for parenthood, is part of the preparation of the individual for personal, social and family responsibilities. Health education should give pupils a basic knowledge of health matters both as they affect themselves and as they affect others, so that they are helped to make informed choices in their daily lives. It should also help them to become aware of those moral issues and value judgments which are inseparable from such choices. Preparation for parenthood and family life should help pupils to recognise the importance of those human relationships which sustain, and are sustained by, family life and the demands and duties that fall on parents. I am sure that my hon. Friend agrees with that.

The curriculum paper also states that sex education is one of the most sensitive parts of the broad programmes of health education and that the fullest consultation and co-operation with parents is necessary before it is embarked upon. Because we recognise the parents' sensitivity, we have introduced regulations under section 8 of the Education Act 1980, which were laid before the House on 1 May. The debate is topical. It shows how wise is my hon. Friend not only about family life but about the calendar. We have required local education authorities to inform parents of the manner and context in which sex education is provided in their schools. Later I want to tie that together with the question of the parents and the structure of the family. If parents want more information or have any doubts about what their child will learn, they should approach the head teacher.

I want to say something about the withdrawal of children from sex education lessons. During the passage last year of the Education (No. 2) Act, with which I had some small connection, the Government made it clear that we did not think it right to give parents a statutory right to withdraw their children from sex education lessons. Sex education in schools is often treated in a broad context, including health education, moral education, social education and the parental responsibilities to which my hon. Friend referred. We think that it is best treated in that broad way. It would give rise to severe difficulties if the right of withdrawal were to be granted.

However, the absence of such parental right should not prevent a head from allowing a child to be withdrawn by his parents if the head is satisfied that this can be done and that it would be the best solution in the circumstances. The Department is funding a three-year research programme at Aston university to discover how education that is designed to prepare children for later life and parenthood may best be provided within the school curriculum.

I concur with my hon. Friend's contention that a stable society and a society with responsibility rests on two anchors. These are Professor Hayek's two approaches. First, there is the stability of the family. That is a unit in which children can grow and feel secure. If there is one thing that we need for children these days with the varied values of our time, it is the security of a home. The ultimate deprivation is not what money goes or does not go into a home but the lack of a secure home. Such a home can provide guidance, firmness at times and security.

Secondly, there are property rights, which in many instances are an extension of the family. Security comes with property rights and house ownership. These rights give the child who is growing up the opportunity to do something that all children must do if they are to grow up into full adulthood—namely, have the ability to grow roots so that they are not blown off course by every change in fashion. They must have property rights and security.

About one-third or one-quarter of marriages end in divorce. In many instances the serious feature is not the divorce of the parents but the effect upon the children, especially on young children, on knowing the separation of their parents. However good other people may be as step-parents, there is nothing like the security of natural parents.

Similarly, we have 30,000 abortions a year among girls under the age of 20 years. We have examples of child neglect. As an ex-schoolmaster, I can say that the problems inside schools of one-parent families require compensation from the rest of society. Those problems stem from a lack of security.

In the bringing up of children there is no replacement for the security of the family. The more we stress that, as has been done by my hon. Friend, the better our society will be and the more secure in future.

When I was in my previous headships in a previous incarnation and whenever someone wanted to put something else in the school curriculum, I always asked "What are you going to remove?" The risk is that we shall leave schools to deal with all the problems of society and then chastise the schools because they are not doing what we want them to do in English, mathematics and other subjects. That happens on occasion because they have to do so much social work on the side because of the failures of society outside.

The length of the school day is exactly what it was in 1939. However, the length of the school year is shorter now than in 1939. The length of school holidays now—I must not say this too loudly in case teachers are listening and think that it is a loaded statement—is greater, save for those of grammar schools before the war. They are longer now in comprehensive and primary schools than in 1939.

We must remember that schools have to provide basic literacy and numeracy in the body of knowledge with which they equip the pupil. I am not decrying anything that my hon. Friend has said, but that should be placed on record out of respect to the teaching profession.

Who should be involved in preparation for parenthood, of which sex education is a part? It was revealed in a survey that 80 per cent. of parents considered that it was their job and not that of the schools. It was even more interesting that only 30 per cent. of parents were involving themselves in the job.

There is a risk in the Welfare State. My hon. Friend rightly referred to the need of marriage guidance. The more responsibility we lay on schools for that education the more we are encouraging parents to opt out firmly from those responsibilities.

My hon. Friends the Members for Hertfordshire, South-West, for Hertford and Stevenage (Mr. Wells) and for Southgate (Mr. Berry) and I are idealists. We are probably the greatest idealists in the House of Commons. There are not many idealists on the Opposition Benches at the moment. We should like families to become so secure that that responsibility is taken within the values of the family.

One of the betrayals of our generation has been not just the question of the heavy divorce rate and the one-parent family but the retreat of parents from doing what is their responsibility. In many cases, they are brainwashed by the permissive people of our age and the "baby knows best" generation—I shall not mention the author of that philosophy—where people fear to correct, to lay down, to direct and to point out what values are.

At the same time as we rightly emphasise the preparation for parenthood and for marriage, we must similarly put back into society and the family the responsibility that rests there. Parenthood is not an accident but is intended. It is a natural cause for which the father and mother have great responsibility. They should be responsible for bringing up their children in their home with the right values and the right security. Whatever we do in marriage guidance and in sex education in schools, that is but a secondary prop to what we must eventually do to return the responsibility to the family.

I was interested to hear of the work being done in Hertfordshire. Mrs. Williamson was referred to as doing that good work. There is much in what my hon. Friend said about someone coming in from outside, as someone comes to talk about careers. It is important that that person should be well trained, as is Mrs. Williamson. Children are not naturally inclined towards discipline, and they must be approached in the right way. I still do not agree in many ways with my old employer, the Inner London Education Authority, but I am glad to commend the fact that although it is not spending much money it has said that it is considering marriage guidance education, which is an important factor.

That guidance should be linked with the question of money and how it is handled in the family, the buying of houses, tax responsibilities and all the other matters which come into adult life. It would be dangerous if there were a division between the physical and responsibility sides of marriage. There has been a tendency towards that in recent years. I hope that it is now in retreat. With the speech of my hon. Friend, it will be in massive retreat as what he has said spreads around the country. That was indicated to the world outside earlier tonight. People are probably sitting up discussing not only what we are saying here—wishing that they were listening and that they were the favoured ones in the Gallery—but what was previously said about that topic.

I fear that in schools, once one talks about the preparation for life, it becomes a pure preparation for sexual mechanics, like a branch of the Olympics. My hon. Friend did not refer to that. I trust that that is a sign of the times. In marriage, the physical side is part of a totality. If one teaches sex education in schools as a sort of mechanical operation without bringing it within the pattern of the family, its responsibilities, the children born in it and the risks being taken, it is like mixing paints in art without anyone doing a painting. My hon. Friend is concerned about the painting of a responsible marriage, which is the aim.

Recently, sex education has tended to concentrate on the mechanical operation and not the fullness of the marriage relationship. Human relations are more than physical. We have a mental and spiritual responsibility to others, and we cannot isolate the separate aspects of a relationship. There is a risk if sex education is taken out of the total relationship. It should not be separated from moral responsibilities, especially at the age of discovery. When we teach by the discovery method, we cannot grumble if it is put into practice. It was all very well when pupils sat in rows and did what they were told, but we now teach by discovery, as in mathematics. Pupils may discover Euripides, although there is not much Euripides nowadays. Greek is declining. However, to return to the subject, with the discovery method being widely used, we are playing with fire if we have sex education without emphasising the parental bond.

Soon after I left Highbury Grove, there was a problem—I hope not physical, as I would never advocate violence—between the headmaster and teachers giving sex education irresponsibly. I was amazed at the headlines. The headmaster was a distinguished individual, whom I was delighted to appoint my deputy three weeks before I resigned to come to the House. He removed the teachers because their teaching methods were cruel and too physical.

My hon. Friend asks that society should be responsible. Children should be taught that marriage is not an experiment. It is not like hire purchase, where a contract is taken out and the purchase may be removed but one can start again and refurnish the room. It is a permanent relationship, intended for the procreation of children, so that they can grow up in a secure home. My hon. Friend referred to the divorce rate and the tragedy of one-parent families. No matter what help is given, those families are under a disadvantage.

My hon. Friend wants advice to be given to local authorities so that marriage guidance is undertaken by responsible counsellors. We cannot issue a decree, but attention will be paid to the debate. Many things happen as a result of debates here. My hon. Friend speaking from his experience, tells us that there is a need for marriage guidance in schools. I agree. Children need not only career guidance and help in understanding wages and taxes. They also need to understand that much of their lives will be spent in partnership, with the full fruition of a family. We shall advise authorities that proper marriage guidance is essential in schools—having regard to the pressures on the curriculum—to prepare children for the outside world. I hope that in 30 years we shall look back to this time when my hon. Friend started the movement for responsible marriage guidance in schools, which helped to make our children and our nation more secure.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at fourteen minutes past Twelve o' clock.