Thursday, 5 May 2011

Small parliamentary majority backs abstinence education

I am grateful to Fiorella Nash (pictured), a researcher in SPUC's parliamentary department, for her comments on yesterday's debate [from column 679] on Nadine Dorries's sex education bill. My headline, however, must be tempered by the fact that less than 20% of MPs actually voted on the Dorries bill:
Nadine Dorries, Conservative Member of Parliament for Mid Bedfordshire, opened yesterday’s debate by expressing her concerns about the sexualisation of society, concerns that are shared by SPUC. She quoted a number of relevant studies and details from sex education programmes, including referring at length to the Living and Growing series and the negative reactions of both parents and children to this programme. Mrs Dorries focussed exclusively on the damaging effect of sexualisation of girls, rather than addressing the effect on boys too. This fact drew criticism from Chris Bryant, Labour MP for Rhondda, a leading advocate of classroom sex education, who led the opposition to Mrs Dorries. It is surely important to examine how boys are affected by early sexualisation and peer pressure to engage in sexual activity.

Moreover, her criticism of current classroom sex education is valid and timely, as is her view that graphic, values-free education encourages sexual activity. Mrs Dorries is not against the provision of contraceptive advice per se, nor is she against abortion in principle, and her reasons for teaching abstinence are weak, focusing too closely on avoiding negative situations. She made no attempt at providing a positive alternative for young people beyond saying "no" to risky early sex, though it must be acknowledged that this was a speech to Parliament, not to a group of teenagers.

Chris Bryant dismissed the amendment as "the daftest piece of legislation that I have seen brought forward" but claimed to share the concerns about the sexualizing of young people. His major points of disagreement were that the Bill only concerns girls, that abstinence programmes do not work, and that the real causes of teenage pregnancy are poverty and what was needed was more explicit sex education at a younger age. He used the discredited argument that Holland’s low teenage pregnancy rates are due to explicit sex education started at a young age. He also claimed that teenage sexual health and behaviours improved under the Labour Government, with reductions in teenage pregnancy, binge-drinking, drug taking and suicide. He made a link between alcohol abuse and risky sexual behaviour, concluding with the claim that teachers are afraid to teach children about sex if it is not a formal part of the curriculum and that Ofsted had criticised the ‘patchy’ provision of sex education around the country.

While Mrs Dorries’ lacks the consistent, principled approach to this issue that such difficult matters demand, her boldness and determination are commendable and it is encouraging that an alternative to explicit sex education is being promoted in Parliament. The vote went in favour of abstinence education, albeit with only a small proportion of MPs voting.
Mrs Dorries was given leave to introduce her Bill by 67 votes to 61. The Bill is due to come up for its Second Reading on Friday 20th January 2012 where it will be 8th on the Order Paper. Its chances of being debated are extremely slim.