Last month, Fatima Shah took her daughter out of school. Shah, along with other parents, was shocked to find her child being taught about homosexuality and transsexuality. A programme called “No Outsiders” had been launched at Parkfield Community School in Birmingham. Officially, the programme is merely about welcoming people. But the parents say it includes much more. Two parents told Birmingham Live that children – one of them aged four – had come home asking if it was OK to change sex. “Sex and relationships education is being taught without our consent,” Shah said. “We’ve not been informed about what’s being taught.” They have launched a petition.
It’s a common story: parents, especially but not always from religious communities, feel that their children’s schooling has moved beyond the purposes of education and become something dangerously ideological. In 2015, it was claimed that Ofsted had gone into Christian schools to ask pre-teen children “Do you know what lesbians do?” and “Have you ever felt you were trapped in the wrong body?” The inspectors then reportedly criticised the school’s Christian ethos.
More recently, a Jewish parent has threatened legal action against the Education Secretary, Damian Hinds, saying that the Government’s official advice implies that same-sex relationships are “equally valid” to marriage. Although the government guidance is not clear, it has certainly been used in that way.
Recently the Catholic Herald was offered a brief phone interview with Hinds, specifically to discuss academisation. But I wanted to raise this subject too. What guarantee can Hinds give to parents that their children’s values, their children’s faith, won’t be threatened?
“Well, schools of a religious character are able to reflect the ethos of their school in these lessons, and in how some of these subjects are taught,” Hinds says. He sees “a really positive change” in the government’s decision to make “relationships education” compulsory in primary schools. The emphasis, he says, is on relationships: “family and indeed friends, and all the important relationships that go to make up our lives. It’s about much more than sex education.”
However, there is considerable alarm among some of Hinds’s parliamentary colleagues about the forthcoming “relationships education”, which will start in primary school. Parents will probably not have an opt-out – whatever is presented as “relationships education” is likely to be compulsory. Anne Scanlan of the charity Life said this could be exploited: “We have heard of calls to teach masturbation to four-year-olds.”
Hinds seems surprised by this: “That’s not material coming from the Department for Education, and it’s difficult for me to comment on it.” (Such ideas do not come from fringe groups: a 2009 Unesco report did suggest that children aged five to eight should be taught that “Masturbation is not harmful.”) But if a primary school does offer sex education as well as relationships education, Hinds says, there is a parental opt-out. “What we will have is materials available – and, by the way, some of those materials will actually be produced by the Catholic Education Service. To be really clear, it is not compulsory to cover sex education in primary school. It is compulsory to do relationships education. Some schools may elect to do sex education and if they do, then of course parents are able to withdraw their children from it. The schools should consult with parents, and talk to them about what the content is.”
Not all of Hinds’s colleagues find this convincing. Sir Edward Leigh has remarked: “If we respect the rights of parents over sex education, why trample all over their rights when it comes to relationship education? The state should not impose its values on parents. Or as Julian Lewis MP put it: “What is there to prevent sex education aspects being smuggled in under that label?” Wouldn’t it be easiest, I ask Hinds, to just allow the parental opt-out for relationships education?
“There is a longstanding right to withdraw your children from sex education,” he says. “Not out of the sex-related parts of science and the national curriculum, but out of sex education itself.” This continues to age 16. “I think it’s right that we have that in there.”
Some will wonder whether Church schools can necessarily take the Government’s word for it. The Tory manifesto promised that Catholic free schools – effectively prohibited under the technicalities of current legislation – would be able to open. But the promise was dropped. I ask Hinds whether that has harmed trust between Catholics and the government.
“I think there’s no issue with trust,” says Hinds, who is himself a Mass-goer. “I have a foot in both camps, both communities, and I think Catholic schools have always been a really important part of our system.” Though free schools won’t happen, the Government has permitted voluntary-aided (VA) schools to open under the supervision of the local authority. “What I wanted to make sure we could do was to be able to open new Catholic schools where there is a definite need for that, and the new VA route does do that.”
As for existing schools, Hinds sings the praises of academisation, especially of multi-academy trusts: “the benefits you get from sharing expertise and from things like [working on] curriculum development collaboratively, and career paths for teachers”.
Academisation has met strong resistance, but the Government continues to argue that it is the best model. For thousands of Catholic schools, it is an ongoing dilemma – though perhaps not the worst one they face.