HL Deb 05 March 1992 vol 536 cc977-80

The Earl of Liverpool asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they consider that 11 year-old children are ready for compulsory and explicit education on HIV and AIDS, as required by the Science in the National Curriculum document 1991.

Baroness Denton of Wakefield

My Lords, the requirement in the revised National Curriculum Science Order is that pupils at key stage three—that is, those children aged between 11 and 14—should study the ways in which the healthy functioning of the human body may be affected by diet, lifestyle, bacteria and viruses (including HIV). Given that HIV constitutes probably the most serious threat to public health this century, it is our view that children should learn about it at an age when the majority are sufficiently mature to understand its implications.

The Earl of Liverpool

My Lords, I thank my noble friend the Minister for that reply. I would be the first to agree with her that this is a subject which, in view of its seriousness, should be taught at schools. However, is she aware that the pamphlet issued by the DES entitled HIV & AIDS: A Guide for the Education Service contains deviant sexual practices of an explicit nature and asks teachers to explain these to children from 11 years of age upwards? I believe that that could have long-term psychologically damaging consequences if taught indiscriminately. Bearing that in mind, will my noble friend consider employing the services of specialist organisations such as AIDS Care Education and Training (ACET) who I believe would be much more sympathetic in teaching this subject? Would it also be possible for the Government to consider raising the age for such education from 11 years to 13 years?

Baroness Denton of Wakefield

My Lords, I stress that the booklet to which my noble friend referred is for guidance only and, as such, would have to cover all aspects of the subject which teachers would need to know. In this instance we must trust the teachers to decide whether the children at the beginning of the period or later on in their years are mature enough.

Baroness Phillips

My Lords, are the Government seriously wanting to defend a pamphlet, whoever has it, which explicitly describes oral sex? Does the Minister agree that that cannot be of any assistance to the subject being dealt with and that it can be totally misunderstood? I suggest that the Government are very unwise to publish this document.

Baroness Denton of Wakefield

My Lords, as I said earlier, this is a virus which can kill. I suggest that it is probably so important that the Government believe that sensible, factual information can do a great deal to protect young people.

Lord Kilmarnock

My Lords, will the noble Baroness accept that many 11 year-olds have already received AIDS education in an informal way through television, newspapers, family and from their peers which has often amounted to misinformation—that is to say, partial information which can lead to misapprehension? Therefore, does the Minister agree that in those circumstances it is better that the children should be taught properly and sensitively by professionals, as the Government propose?

Baroness Denton of Wakefield

My Lords, the noble Lord puts the point with great common sense. I believe that it would help lead to the protection of children.

Lord Elton

My Lords, does my noble friend appreciate that one of the principal reasons why many of us find this document disturbing is that the whole of the information in it is put forward in an entirely amoral context with no element of value-judgment at all? Does she accept that we would be reassured were the subject to be transferred from the science curriculum to the sex education curriculum where the method of instruction and the moral context is quite different?

Baroness Denton of Wakefield

My Lords, I stress that this booklet contains nothing new. It simply brings together and updates the information and advice contained in two earlier booklets which the department published in 1986 and 1987. There is the same opportunity for parents to be involved with teachers and discuss the moral implications of their teaching whether the matter is in the science area or the sex education area.

Lord Ennals

My Lords, does the Minister agree that while sex education should always be conducted in a sensitive way, we have a major problem in that not enough explicit sex education is carried out? Does she further agree that such education is often too late for young people who become sexually active very early? Does the Minister also accept that the position which she has taken is warmly supported by the Family Planning Association, the National AIDS Trust, health education authorities and by all those bodies specifically involved in this problem?

Baroness Denton of Wakefield

My Lords, the Government recognise that schools cannot avoid tackling controversial issues if they are to maintain their responsibility.

Baroness Elles

My Lords, my noble friend will be aware that everybody is conscious of the fact that there are many things that we learn throughout life, but do we have to learn all these things at 11 years of age? I draw the attention of my noble friend to an article which was published in the Sunday Times last Sunday. We all know the dangerous effects of AIDS and the suffering that goes with it. Is my noble friend aware that in a recent study of 130 men and women who have contracted HIV there was only one high-risk partner? Does she agree that the danger of HIV has been greatly exaggerated by the DHSS?

Baroness Denton of Wakefield

My Lords, I saw the piece to which my noble friend refers. I state again that young people have to be convinced that the risk of contracting HIV and AIDS is real and that running that risk could all too easily prove fatal.

Lord Stallard

My Lords, will the Minister accept that I agree with her original reply to the Question? Does she recall the official press release made on 20th December 1991 in which the Secretary of State said, Outside the statutory consultation process, we received a large number of letters, mainly from minority religious groups, concerned about the inclusion of a reference to HIV in the science curriculum"? The Minister continued: I am confident, however, that the overwhelming body of opinion is in favour of including education about HIV within the National Curriculum and I have retained this reference". I belong to what the Minister would call "a minority religion" which is called Christian. Is the Minister aware that there are millions of us throughout the country who are very concerned about the approach which the Government have taken to this issue? I believe that those minorities and Christians—

Noble Lords


Lord Stallard

My Lords, will the Minister accept that I, in common with all those people to whom I have referred, are asking for a debate on this question so that their views can be openly expressed? We should begin that debate as soon as possible. Will the Minister use her good offices to persuade her noble friend the Leader of the House to initiate a debate on a Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper seeking such a debate?

Baroness Denton of Wakefield

My Lords, I am sure that the noble Lord will understand that a debate is a matter for the usual channels. I stress that the department does not believe—although totally respecting the views which have been expressed—that these views are shared by the majority of parents.

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the document that has been referred to applies to children aged between 11 and 14 and that it is therefore up to the schools to decide at what age, within that age range, this material is introduced? It can be as late as 13 if that is considered appropriate. In the light of the increasing evidence that large numbers of young people are becoming HIV positive, does the Minister also agree that it is vital to protect them at the right age? That may be younger than many of us might feel appropriate. Nevertheless, it is needed and that means this age group of 11 to 14.

Baroness Denton of Wakefield

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for that comment which contains all the facts very accurately.

Baroness Faithfull

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that under Section 1 of the Children Act 1989 the welfare of the child is paramount? However, parents also have a responsibility. Are the parents to be consulted as to whether their children should, or should not, receive this education in schools? Should not this be a combined effort?

Baroness Denton of Wakefield

My Lords, I doubt whether many people would disagree that the best way is for parents to educate their children in these matters. However, that does not always happen. Recent legislation provides several ways for parents to become involved and informed about this important aspect of their children's education. In fact, the Government have involved parents considerably in our education policy.

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