Sex education guidance proposal ‘drifted into partisan language’, says Labour

Schools require new sex education guidance although current proposals have “drifted far too much into partisan and unnecessary language”, according to the shadow education secretary.

Bridget Phillipson said a Labour government would aim to ensure “children’s wellbeing is at the heart” of the guidance, adding there is a need to “stop this being a political football” or a “culture wars” issue.

The Department for Education’s draft guidance, published last month, states that schools should not teach about the concept of gender identity.

Shadow education secretary Bridget Phillipson walking to the BBC studios
Shadow education secretary Bridget Phillipson arrives at BBC Broadcasting House in London, to appear on the BBC’s Sunday With Laura Kuenssberg (Lucy North/PA)

Students should be taught the law on gender reassignment, the revised guidance said, but if asked about the topic of gender identity, schools should “teach the facts about biological sex and not use any materials that present contested views as fact, including the view that gender is a spectrum”.

Ms Phillipson, when asked if she would ditch the proposed ban on teaching about the concept of gender identity, said trans people’s “existence should be recognised” before saying discussion on the issue “drifts sometimes into a slightly bizarre conversation”.

Education Secretary Gillian Keegan has previously said the Government’s approach would still allow children to “explore ideologies”, but that “gender ideology” should not be being “taught as fact”.

Ms Phillipson acknowledged the importance of the principle of guidance, adding teachers want “clarity on how to manage what is a sensitive and difficult area for them”.

She told the BBC’s Sunday With Laura Kuenssberg: “We absolutely do need to see guidance, the Labour government – if we win the trust of the British people – will make sure that happens, but let’s make sure children’s wellbeing is at the heart of this.

“Let’s stop this being a political football. This is our children’s lives, their wellbeing, it’s too important to make this a culture wars issue on the front pages of newspapers. Let’s take a more responsible approach, give schools the clear guidance that they need and make sure our young people are supported as well.”

On what Labour believes teachers should be advised to do, Ms Phillipson said: “Many aspects of the draft (guidance) had good and straightforward principles in it, other elements of it I think drifted far too much into partisan and unnecessary language that I think makes it harder for schools to navigate this.

“So if I were education secretary, I’d want to look at all of the responses we’ve received to the consultation.”

Ms Phillipson said school leaders have flagged areas they feel are “still outstanding” within the draft guidance, adding: “We would want to look at that, do it responsibly, work with parents, with young people and with the profession to get this right.

“Ministers have been rowing about this for months and months. That is not the way to deal with such a sensitive issue.”

On whether she would drop the proposed ban on teaching about the concept of gender identity, Ms Phillipson said: “There are trans people within society and their existence should be recognised.

“This drifts sometimes into a slightly bizarre conversation. There are trans people, they have a right for their existence to be recognised, many trans people are vulnerable and are deserving of support.

“Alongside that we’ve got to make sure that schools have got clear guidance about how best to support children and young people that are experiencing distress and issues around their wellbeing.

“That is not well served by ministers picking fights, seeking headlines.

“Let’s take a more responsible approach, let’s take the heat out of it, let’s do this properly and seriously.”

Elsewhere in the interview, Ms Phillipson indicated Labour would not consider imposing a legal ban on smartphones in schools for under-16s.

She said: “Where it comes to schools I don’t believe that children should have their phones available to them to use during the school day, it’s so much of a distraction, it causes so many problems, but the vast majority of schools already do that so that’s happening already.”

Pressed on whether she would impose a legal ban to ensure every school in England complies, Ms Phillipson replied: “Well, they do it already and schools do struggle sometimes to enforce this, let’s be clear, because not all schools, for example, would have lockers where children can put phones away.

“But I believe the simple straightforward expectation is that children do not have phones that they are using during the school day.”

Ms Phillipson went on to say there are wider challenges, including the impact of social media on children.

Ms Phillipson was also asked about whether she would use taxpayers’ money to bail out a university.

She replied: “I don’t believe that will be necessary and I think there are measures that can be taken to stabilise the sector – that will be a day one priority if we form the next government.”

Ms Phillipson said the Office for Students is looking at areas to strengthen financial regulation and oversight of the sector, adding Labour currently does not have the same level of access to Treasury modelling as ministers.