From September 2020, secondary schools will be obliged to provide “relationships and sex education”. Many parents and teachers are justifiably worried about the increasing pressure for schools to teach children about sexuality – especially when some senior leaders in schools may see it as an opportunity to impose their own views by stealth. As we have seen from the campaigns associated with primary schools in Birmingham and elsewhere, the wishes of parents, especially from particular faith communities, are not always fully respected.
The Department for Education emphasises that school leaders must fully engage with and listen to the concerns of parents around sensitive issues. Thus it has given schools the freedom to design their own programmes for educating children about relationships. From the Catholic perspective, this could be an opportunity to be much more dynamic and innovative in using and delivering programmes of study that more closely reflect the life-giving message of love and responsibility of an authentic Christian anthropology.
Thankfully, several programmes already exist which are a good fit for Catholic schools in conveying the right message about the centrality of matrimony and its place in God’s plan for humanity. Good examples would be the resources from Ten Ten Theatre, especially their new “Life to the Full” programme for primary schools.
The carefully-crafted “A Fertile Heart” – a comprehensive curriculum from Key Stage 1 to Key Stage 4 based on Theology of the Body – is available from www.pandapress.net. There are others designed for parents to use, such as “As I Have Loved You” and “Sexuality Explained”, published by Gracewing. We could also learn from the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, which has introduced a Theology of the Body-focused curriculum (see www.ruahwoodspress.com) in all of its schools, and now supplies both resources and teacher training in 60 dioceses.
Here in Britain, another effective programme is run by the educational charity Explore. Founded by Rex Chester, a Catholic from Winchester, Explore has just celebrated its 18th birthday, having given workshops for more than 150,000 young people. It provides what you might call an experience of “remote marriage preparation”, by bringing married couples into schools to talk honestly about marriage, its importance and its realities.
Explore gives young people aged 14 and over a chance to dialogue with married couples about what makes their marriage work. The effectiveness of Explore is that spouses can share their own lived experience: the joy and fulfilment of marriage, but also subjects such as the challenge of forgiveness, the pressures of childcare and work, and the need for honesty in communication.
The volunteer couples come from various Christian denominations, but some Catholic dioceses have managed to have some Catholic spouses included for the workshops in their schools. This is especially helpful when spouses want to explain how Catholic spirituality – including prayer, liturgy and the sacraments – sustains their married lives and their identity. It also assists Catholic RE teachers in supplementing the course work they do with pupils on the sacrament of matrimony as well as lifelong commitment and vocation to marriage. This is a kind of living catechesis, something with a special power which no textbook can provide. It leaves a lasting impact.
Explore’s methodology is unique. As their useful website (explorerelationships.org.uk) points out, “less than five per cent of today’s young people have ever had the opportunity to hold a detailed and open conversation with a parent, relative, teacher or adult on the subject of their relationships. Scant provision is, therefore, made to prepare young people to make the biggest decisions in their lives.”
When that chance is offered, young people’s response is grateful: in my experience both as Director for Marriage and Family in Westminster Diocese and latterly as schools commissioner for Portsmouth Diocese, pupil feedback is always overwhelmingly positive. Students have said things like like “It gave me a better understanding of how marriage works,” and “You can overcome anything in a relationship if you truly love each other and want to try.” These and countless other realistic but positive comments testify to an important experience, one that may often inspire them to aspire to a fulfilling marriage later in life.
Over the years, schools in the Westminster, Brentwood, Portsmouth, Shrewsbury and Northampton dioceses have all actively engaged with the charity. Even the Diocese of Armidale in Australiahas picked up on the idea. Bishop Michael Kennedy submitted a report on it to all the Australian hierarchy to encourage wider use of the charity’s approach.
The new DfE guidance on Relationships and Sex Education is far from perfect and is not without significant challenges for Catholic education. But it can be an opportunity to look afresh at how Catholic schools present and affirm the centrality of matrimony to the life of the Church and wider society. Good programmes can help children see that – as one year 10 pupil wrote on his feedback form after an Explore workshop – “Marriage is cool.”