For several months, parents in Birmingham have been gathering on the street. They are campaigning against what they see as inappropriate lessons about LGBT issues being delivered to their primary school-age children.
Kids having to run a gauntlet of protestors to attend school is not a good look, whatever the cause. But the parents have a point – one which the Church in England and Wales cannot afford to ignore.
LGBT rights campaigners and some politicians claim that children need these lessons so that they grow up with a tolerant and open-minded attitude. The parents, meanwhile argue they are simply trying to protect their children from being sexualised at too early an age. But at heart, this is not really about whether children should know about same-sex relationships, but whether the parents or the state should decide what children should be taught and when. That point was recently recognised by the Conservative MP Esther McVey.
The longstanding approach in this country has been that, as a rule, parents should be left to bring up their children as they see fit. The state should only intervene when there is clear evidence of harm. That is consistent with the teaching of the Church that education is both the right and responsibility of parents. Schools can play an important role in helping parents fulfil this duty, but parents should always be the ones in charge.
Some worry that this leaves parents free to indoctrinate children with intolerant views. Of course, some parents may be bigoted and all parents make mistakes. But let’s not forget that teachers also get things wrong – and so does the state. Long experience tells us that, we are better off trusting parents who, by and large, love their children and want the best for them.
In any case, who decides what we should tolerate and what attitudes are bigoted? Take the Catholic approach to LGBT issues. Church teaching is clear that unjust discrimination against those experiencing same-sex attraction is forbidden. Without doubt, schools should vigorously tackle all forms of bullying and harassment. But children also have a right to understand (at an appropriate age) Catholic teaching that sexual activity is a gift from God intended exclusively for a loving marriage between a woman and a man. The state has no right arbitrarily to decide that such an approach is “bigoted” and to prevent parents from passing on these values to their children.
Indeed, the recent legal changes to sex and relationships education (SRE) introduced by the government go directly against Catholic principles. For the first time, primary schools are being forced to teach relationships education from the age of 5. Crucially, there is no parental right of withdrawal from these lessons, a point which goes to the heart of the Birmingham protests. Further, the Government has downgraded the right of parents to withdraw children from actual sex education lessons to a “right to request” withdrawal, with the final decision to be taken by the headteacher. The right has been removed entirely for children over the age of 14.
The response of the Catholic Education Service (CES) to these attacks on parental rights has been odd. Far from opposing the reforms, they are on record as welcoming them. It is hard to know the motivation. As this week’s Vatican document on gender points out, Catholic schools should “maintain their own vision of human sexuality”. Perhaps the CES believes that Catholic schools will always do the right thing and so parents have nothing to fear. That suggests a somewhat naïve attitude. Moreover, the CES approach forgets that many Catholic children attend non-Catholic schools, where they will now be few protections against explicit and inappropriate approaches to SRE.
The irony is that the weight of academic research demonstrates that SRE is remarkably ineffective in terms of improving outcomes such as teenage pregnancy rates, delaying sexual activity or reducing sexually transmitted infections. That doesn’t mean children don’t have the right to accurate information about sex and relationships, nor that there is no place for any sex education in schools. It does mean, however, that parents, teachers and governors should have confidence in rejecting the secular approach to SRE encouraged by our politicians and chattering classes.
Sadly, we are stuck with the new regulations for now. But it is not too late for bishops, the CES and schools to take action in support of parents. Here are some suggestions:
The CES should advise all Catholic schools to follow a policy of maximum transparency regarding SRE. Parents should be consulted at every stage and any concerns taken into account. Above all, schools should make it easy for parents to find out exactly what is being taught to their children and when.
The CES should formally advise head teachers in Catholic schools that it is best practice never to refuse a parent’s request that their child be withdrawn from SRE lessons.
Governors at Catholic schools should ensure their SRE policies are explicit that organisations opposed to Catholic teaching are never permitted to deliver any aspect of SRE. In particular, we need to see an end to the scandal of anti-Catholic groups like Stonewall being invited into schools to deliver sessions to pupils or teachers.
Finally, Bishops should take every opportunity to defend the right of all parents (whether Catholic or not) to be the primary educators of their children on sexuality and relationships.
Taking up these suggestions will no doubt lead to criticism from the secular press and politicians but, unless our leaders are willing put their heads above the parapet, we should not be surprised if parents decide to take matters into their own hands.
David Paton is Professor of Industrial Economics at Nottingham University Business School and is visiting Professor at St Mary’s University