HC Deb 28 January 1997 vol 289 cc240-7

'—(1) Section 351 of the Education Act 1996 (General duties in respect of the curriculum) shall be amended as follows.

(2) At the end of subsection (1) there shall be inserted including marriage and parenthood.".'.—[Mr. Leigh.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough and Horncastle)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Under section 351 of the Education Act 1996, the national curriculum must prepare people for the opportunities, responsibilities and experiences of adult life. My new clause simply suggests that marriage and parenthood constitute one of the key aspects of adult life, and should be included in the national curriculum.

Politicians of all parties tend to make vague generalisations about being "committed to the family". When politicians say that they are committed to the family, do they mean that they are committed merely to maintaining the status quo, or do they mean that they want to support a stable, lifelong relationship between a man and a woman, and to support the notion that being a parent means being a parent for life?

There is a danger that the definition of the ideal family has been stretched to include any configuration of adults and children. Given that we have a detailed national curriculum, I consider it appropriate for Parliament to lay down clear objectives about the aims that we want our state schools to achieve.

Parents are rightly concerned about examination results and academic achievement, and we should do all we can to ensure that standards are raised; but education is education, not only for the purposes of employment but for the purposes of life itself. Schools, whether they like it or not, have a key role in communicating values to young people. It surely cannot have escaped many people's attention that today's society faces serious problems as a result of the breakdown of the family.

Of course young people can be profoundly affected by a parent's leaving the family home, but education must deal with the fact that, one day, most young people will grow up and become parents themselves. My concern is to see our schools promote responsible attitudes towards marriage and parenthood. I strongly believe that the time has now come to extend the objectives of the national curriculum to include preparing pupils for the responsibilities of marriage and parenthood.

Dr. Lynne Jones

I do not think that anyone would disagree with the hon. Gentleman's view that marriage—and parenthood in particular—represent an estate on which many people will embark, and that for that reason they should be included in the national curriculum. Surely, however, the hon. Gentleman hit the nail on the head when he said that they were "one of" the key aspects of the national curriculum.

Why should those matters be singled out in the new clause—given that they are already covered in the Bill as it stands—in preference to any number of items that could be added, relating to the responsibilities and opportunities of adults? Does not the new clause invite people to add an infinite number of items, according to whim and to their particular interests?

Mr. Leigh

I am grateful for that point. I shall refer to it in detail, but marriage and parenthood are such an integral part of life that they should be part of the national curriculum, and should be taught.

Some people might say, "Surely schools already cover marriage and parenthood in their courses on personal and social education." I accept that, but my main concern is that such courses can often put marriage on an equal basis with temporary relationships, and fail to promote a responsible attitude to marriage and parenthood.

The book that I have in my hand is a well-established teacher's book for primary schools. I think that most Members reading the book would be appalled by its suggestions. The introduction is a guide to flouting the law so that sex education can avoid being within the framework of "moral considerations" and "family life" as required by Parliament. The introduction gleefully points out that Parliament—that is us—has failed to define what it means by the family.

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Later, the book says: Parenting can be carried out just as successfully by people who are not necessarily the child's natural parents. That may be true in some circumstances, but it is a somewhat offhand dismissal of natural family ties. Of course I accept that, in some cases, adults who are not the natural parents can do a great job of raising children, but common sense teaches us that the ideal is for children to be cared for and nurtured by both natural parents. To pretend that that is not true is to distort the truth and to deceive children.

I would never claim to be able to look after other hon. Members' children as well as the hon. Members themselves. Obviously, we must assume that it is overwhelmingly the case that natural parents are the best carers and models for children. The book adopts a completely irresponsible attitude to human relationships. For the book, one-night stands are just as valid as marriage. In my view, they are not.

There is an accompanying teaching book for secondary schools. It is clear on the moral values that it promotes. Let me read just one sentence from a story to be read to pupils—school children—to help them to feel more confident about the subject: Deb and Philip had been together for two years, and … they both had other close friends with whom they slept occasionally". What sort of example is that for young people? This is a well-known teacher's manual.

Of course these are only two teacher's manuals, albeit fairly typical ones. We do not know what is taught in every classroom. Parliament cannot control every classroom, but it can act to give general guidance to schools. My new clause addresses the national curriculum as a whole. Here, we can make a difference and state what we want.

My worse fears have been fully justified by the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority, which recently considered the moral values that schools should promote. Their moral framework was drawn up by SCAA officials after it appointed 150 people to a National Forum for Values in Education and the Community.

In the first draft last September, the family was not even mentioned. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Employment intervened. She called for the curriculum to support traditional family values. That intervention led to the next draft including the family.

By January, the "moral framework" included a weak reference to marriage. The framework says that schools should support families in raising children and caring for dependants, support the institution of marriage and recognise that the love and commitment required for a secure and happy childhood can be found in families of different kinds". Fine. I accept that the guidance says that the institution of marriage should be supported, but it qualifies that by implying that other sorts of families are equally secure and happy. Such a caveat ignores all the evidence that, normally, children thrive best of all when they live with their two married parents. That is just common sense.

Mrs. Elizabeth Peacock (Batley and Spen)

My hon. Friend will recall that it was suggested that putting marriage into such teaching in schools was irrelevant for many children. I might suggest that talking about going to the moon could be just as irrelevant, and it could be included with marriage as an ideal to which they might aspire.

Mr. Leigh

Yes. I am glad that my hon. Friend has made that point. I will return to it. We should not frame national policy making on the basis just of the lowest common denominator, but seek to provide an example to young people.

Of course there are always individual exceptions to the rule that I have outlined, but that does not change the fact that, on average, children thrive best when they live with their married father and mother. The reason why the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church have objected to SCAA's wording is that marriage is supported in the document, not promoted. Marriage is not held up as the ideal, but is just one configuration of family among many others. The wording that SCAA has chosen is therefore pretty meaningless.

The public, however, are very clear about what they want. Opinion polls clearly show that people want schools to promote marriage, not just support it. A Gallup poll, which was reported in The Sunday Telegraph on 3 November, found that 75 per cent. of people believe that schools should teach children that marriage is a good thing. Another poll, conducted by Audience Selection, which was reported on the same day, found that 73 per cent. of people believe that the teaching of moral values in schools should focus on marriage and traditional family values.

Only after massive public controversy—reported on the front page of virtually every national newspaper—and intervention by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State did SCAA include marriage in its framework document. That shows how out of step educational bureaucrats can be with the general public. I hope that my right hon. Friend will take firm action to ensure that her own quango issues sensible guidance in future.

The two most important commitments that a person can make in their lifetime are to marriage and to parenthood. Our law recognises that both should be lifelong. The English legal definition of marriage is the voluntary union for life of one man and one woman to the exclusion of all others. That definition was given by Lord Justice Penzance as long ago as 1866.

Legislation, such as the Child Support Act 1991, recognises that parenthood is for life. Children need a mother and a father; they need to be cared for and nurtured in a stable environment of love between mother and father.

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury)

I thank my hon. Friend for giving way during his excellent speech. Does he agree that the whole point of education about parenthood is not to consider the rights and needs just of children in a classroom but to train them to be parents for the generation of children they will bring up in the future?

Mr. Leigh

I am very glad that I gave way to my hon. Friend, because his point leads directly to the one made by Norman Dennis, a Labour party member and sociologist, who has argued that all studies show that, on average, children from married families do better than children from broken homes or lone-parent households.

I of course accept that many children from broken homes do better in terms of their health, education, employment, and so on, than some from married homes, but the point is that, on average, that is not so. Dennis argues that men are no longer tied to the responsibilities that they once had for the family. The social constraints on them to act responsibly have been substantially relaxed. My amendment calls for schools to prepare boys and girls to face up to and prepare for the responsibilities of marriage and parenthood.

Dr. Nick Tate, chief executive of SCAA, has argued that official documents cannot promote marriage, because, in some classes, 60 per cent. of pupils come from broken homes—precisely the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Batley and Spen (Mrs. Peacock). I do not doubt that such classes exist, but Tate's argument is a recipe for despair.

Are schools to affirm, against the evidence, that any kind of family is just as good as any other—no matter whether children have a male and a female carer or what the adults' commitment is to the children? Not all families are equally effective. It is nonsense to pretend that they are. There is a danger that Dr. Tate is promoting the very relativism that he claims to be against.

I strongly believe that we should reject the "stand idly by" approach to breakdown of families, for two good reasons. First, instead of promoting responsibility and family stability, that approach panders to the lowest common denominator of instability and irresponsibility to which I have referred. [Interruption.] There is no point in the Whip constantly trying to make me sit down. I have prepared my speech, and I shall make it.

There are, of course, children whose mothers or fathers have deserted the family home. Many realise that life is not what it should be. My amendment calls for schools to point them to a better way—not to become the absent fathers, the deadbeat dads of the future. Yes, there needs to be respect and sensitivity for all children, from whatever background. Children do not choose their parents, but they grow up to be the parents of the future.

The second reason why we should reject the fatalism of Dr. Tate is that the analysis is factually wrong. Yes, there are serious problems with the breakdown of the family, but they are not as serious as some would have us believe. Reports of the death of marriage and the nuclear family have been greatly exaggerated. If one accepts that children need a mother and a father, marriage is still the norm. Only 3 per cent. of children live with a cohabiting mother and father, whereas 71 per cent. live with their married mother and father. Those figures surprised me and I had to double-check them, but they are true.

Dr. Tate is wrong in arguing that we should not promote the family type in which 71 per cent. of children live. Of the remaining family types, 7 per cent. of children live in a step-family—of which 4 per cent. are married step-families and 3 per cent. cohabiting; 2 per cent. live in a lone father household; and 17 per cent. live in a lone mother household. Therefore, the overwhelming majority of children come from married households.

Most adults will marry, and most marriages will be for life. According to the general household survey, only 9 per cent. of men and women aged 15 to 59 are cohabiting. The question is which form of human relationship schools should promote. Not to answer that question is to advocate a completely laissez-faire approach—a family free-for-all—and children deserve better than that. Unfortunately for them, the choices that adults make are not equally valid. At the very least, however, those choices will have a profound effect on children.

Yes, there are irresponsible fathers and mothers. In moving this new clause, I ask only that schools promote responsibility and the concept of a permanent relationship between a man and a woman. It is in the interests of our nation's future children that they do so; it is therefore in our national interest.

Lady Olga Maitland

I warmly welcome new clause 7, which has been moved by my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle (Mr. Leigh). It is not enough to prepare children for adulthood without advocating positively and without any equivocation the importance of a stable and committed marriage and parenthood. There is plenty of evidence to suggest and support the belief that families and children flourish if they develop within the context of a traditional marriage, and that the life chances of a child reared outside that context are very much reduced.

Britain's rates of divorce and of children born outside marriage are the highest in Europe, and our marriage rates are far lower. The cost to society is so high that we cannot skimp on action or prevaricate on the issue. The nation spends more than £9 billion to support unstructured parenting—the "never-marrieds", the lone parents and the divorced—and the cost in children's development is cripplingly high. Parenting chaos plunges many children into the poorest percentile of society, and 90 per cent. of single parents aged 16 to 24 are on income support.

Children's life chances suffer because of constantly changing homes and an unorthodox type of parenting—whether it is a mother alone or with a succession of partners and stepfathers. Instability means that children suffer from poor performance in school and lack of concentration. They are anxious, clinging and attention-seeking, especially when they are young. As they grow older, they have a greater tendency to fall prey to solvent, drug and alcohol abuse, and to commit vandalism and other juvenile crime. They are rootless youngsters, whose life chances can be affected to the point that they lose the spirit to carry on with further education. Teenage girls become pregnant without stable relationships and marriage.

That vicious circle cannot be allowed to continue. We are being unfair to children if we do not give them a positive model to which they can aspire. They may have been denied a stable home themselves, but they should be encouraged to hold an ideal and aspiration, to stop the vicious circle.

One difficulty is that schools have fought shy of discussing traditional marriage, partly because some teachers have chaotic lives of their own and do not share such a commitment, and partly because schools believe that such discussion would embarrass children who do not come from stable homes. Children are being sold short if there is any equivocation on the virtues of marriage. The National Forum for Values in Education and the Community fails on that count, because, although it states that it supports marriage, in the same breath it states that the love and commitment required for a happy childhood can be found in families of different kinds. That gives legitimacy to single parenthood and to the "never-marrieds", and it undermines the traditional family.

We should be bold in our support of marriage, and the theme of marriage should permeate all aspects of education. Children should be taught that walking out of a marriage, divorcing or never marrying are not easy alternatives, and that such actions can wreck lives and destroy the life chances of others.

We must follow the firm line of the Anglican and Roman Catholic Churches, that, if we do not support marriage clearly and unequivocally, we undermine the institution. I very much hope that my hon. Friend the Minister and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will reflect carefully on this important new clause.

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Mr. Forth

My hon. Friends who have spoken in support of the new clause are knocking on an open door. Few would take issue with the substance of what they say. I ask them to reconsider pressing the clause at this stage, for pragmatic and practical reasons.

My hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle (Mr. Leigh) generously acknowledged that there are already elements in the curriculum that point us in the right direction, even if they do not go as far as he wishes. He referred to one such measure, and there are others—under the provisions for sex education, for example.

I ask my hon. Friends to bear in mind two points. There are always pressures on the curriculum and on schools to include many subjects that have wide support from different areas. Of course, the issue that my hon. Friends have raised has enormously wide support, as they have pointed out, and as we know from the many hon. Members who have given their support. Other subjects also have widespread support—citizenship is often mentioned in this context, as is giving young people an awareness of financial responsibilities.

Those issues may not be in the same category as those raised by my hon. Friends, but the point is that there is always pressure to include ever more in the curriculum. We are trying desperately to hold on to core skills and to use the curriculum to best effect to teach young people the basic skills—literacy, numeracy and so on. We have to be careful about allowing other subjects, even though they are important, to be brought into the curriculum.

I could also say—although it would be risky to do so—that to assume that putting something into the curriculum means that it is automatically carried forward into the consciousness of young people is interesting, but sometimes rather dangerous. I shall not press that point, because it would take me down a road that I do not want to go too far down.

I understand the views of my hon. Friends about the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority and the forum, but I ask them to be patient. Much good work has already been done. A real effort is being made to find as much common ground as possible and to bring as many people as possible behind the values that my hon. Friends have supported. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is well aware of their concerns.

I have listened carefully to what my hon. Friends have said, and my right hon. Friend will be made well aware of the points that they have made. She is happy to give the undertaking that my hon. Friends have asked for that we will give the closest consideration to what they have said. My right hon. Friend will particularly bear in mind what has been argued in the House this evening when she considers what emerges from the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority and the national forum.

I ask my hon. Friends to accept that undertaking in the spirit in which I offer it. I hope that they will not press the new clause for inclusion in the Bill at this stage.

Mr. Leigh

I am grateful for the generous way in which my hon. Friend has dealt with our concerns. In view of the fact that he said that we were knocking on an open door and that our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has particularly seized on the arguments that we have made this evening, I am happy to beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

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