Tories must support statutory sex education, says Thatcher’s Health Minister

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Margaret Thatcher’s former Health Secretary is urging the Tories to back statutory Personal, Social, Health and Economic (PSHE) Education, in a bid to safeguard the health and wellbeing of young people.

Lord Fowler, a former Conservative Party Chairman and long-serving member of the Thatcher Cabinet, told PinkNews it was time to heed the clamouring views of parents “who are desperately in favour of this”.

“I think it’s just what we should be doing in a modern society,” said the Conservative peer, who served as Health Secretary from 1981 to 1987. “The more knowledge people have the better it is for them”.

Lord Fowler suggested post-war National Service had given his generation a more vigorous and useful understanding about the risks of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) compared to teenagers leaving school today.

The peer expressed dismay over the ignorance shown by young people when it comes to protecting their own sexual health. He said many young people had taken the view that HIV was “no longer an issue”.

A survey published last month by the charity MAC AIDS Fund found that a third of 12 to 17-year-olds wrongly think they cannot catch HIV through unprotected sex.

Lord Fowler believes the Tories can borrow political lessons from the past.

He praised the late Deputy Prime Minister Willie Whitelaw as one of the “unsung heroes” for helping him to overcome Margaret Thatcher’s hesitation in launching the ‘Don’t Die of Ignorance’ HIV/AIDS campaign of 1986.

“Whitelaw was one of the unsung heroes of all of this”, Lord Fowler told “I don’t know if he’d recognise that as a description – but he just did it in the old soldier way.”

The former Health Secretary explained that Whitelaw’s experience of being responsible for sexual health provision during his army days led him to approach the issue of HIV in a “pragmatic and sensible” fashion.

Lord Fowler argues today’s ministers should adopt a similar no nonsense approach to Personal, Social, Health and Economic (PSHE) Education, adding that it was time for some “common sense”.

“It can’t be beyond the wit of man to produce a syllabus if you like going forward which takes the child through his or her development,” the peer questioned.

“The opinion polls show that the parents are desperately in favour of this,” Lord Fowler said of statutory PSHE. “I mean it’s all very well saying ‘we should leave it to the parents’ – we know very well if we leave it to the parents it just won’t be done at all.”

A YouGov survey published in May last year showed 86% of adults believe sex education should be compulsory in secondary schools.

A previous poll by the influential family group Mumsnet found 98% of parents said they were happy for their children to attend SRE lessons.

MPs and campaigners warn that SRE continues to be taught poorly in schools – and that statutory PSHE would mean teaching SRE as a subject in its own right, allowing teachers to receive proper training and for it to be taken seriously.

Under Michael Gove’s reign as Education Secretary, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats whipped their parliamentarians to vote against statutory PSHE.

But Downing Street has indicated to PinkNews that a new position could be struck by Mr Gove’s successor, Nicky Morgan, allowing for support to be given to statutory PSHE.

Such a move could lead to the abandonment of the whipping arrangements, meaning Tory MPs who support the motion would be free to vote in favour.

Last month, Green MP Caroline Lucas tabled a new Private Members’ Bill urging for statutory PSHE. It will receive its second reading in the autumn.