The British Government is ignoring parents’ concerns on sex education. Can the Church speak up for the voiceless?
Across the world, parents are engaged in battles with local and national governments over their right to decide how sex education is taught to children in schools. Some have had more success than others in standing up to the sex education establishment and also, regrettably, in recruiting the Church in their support.
In the Canadian province of Ontario, there was huge public upset over the graphic nature of a sex education programme which became mandatory for all schools. In response, Conservative leader Doug Ford promised to repeal the programme and this played a significant role in his election in 2018. This success was no thanks to the Catholic headteachers in Ontario who, quite remarkably, opposed its repeal. In contrast, parents in Colorado received full backing from the Catholic Archbishop of Denver in their opposition to a new law banning schools from taking a more traditional approach to sex education.
Over the past few months, the focus of the issue has switched to England. In a year’s time, schools will have to implement a radical new approach to sex education being imposed by the Government and which will fundamentally overturn the long-standing principle that parents are the primary educators in matters of sexuality. Worryingly, there is little sign that the Church is prepared for the challenge.
From September 2020, all state schools in England, including faith schools, will be subject to new Government guidance on Relationships and Sex Education (RSE). Currently secondary schools have to provide some form of sex education but schools are free to implement this as they see fit. Primary schools must have a policy on sex education but the policy can be that the school does not deliver it. Most importantly, parents have a right to withdraw their children from inappropriate sex education at any stage.
The underlying principle in the current approach, if not its practical application, is largely consistent with the teaching of the Catholic 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.
This principle has been under attack for years by the sex education industry, represented by groups like the Family Planning Association, the sexual health charity Brook and the Sex Education Forum. They have campaigned for RSE to be statutory (ie following a compulsory curriculum), that it should start with very young children and that parental rights should be watered down.
The general public take a somewhat different view. In the formal Government consultation on the guidelines, according to Schools Week, “64 per cent of respondents said the proposed content for relationships and sex education at secondary level were not ‘age-appropriate’, while 58 per cent raised the same concern about relationships education at primary.” Opinion polls similarly suggest most parents are unhappy with such a change.
The Government, under the auspices of the then education secretary Damian Hinds (ironically a Catholic), decided simply to ignore these concerns and confirmed that parents of secondary school children will lose the right to withdraw their children from sex education. Parents can still “request” withdrawal but the final decision will now be taken by the headteacher. Even that limited right will not apply for children over the age of 14. Further, parents have no right at all to withdraw their children from the new “Relationships Education” which all primary schools have to introduce for children from the age of five.
The response to the guidelines by the Catholic Education Service (CES), an agency of the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, has been, shall we say, curious. Rather than try to defend Catholic schools and parents against this serious attack on their fundamental rights, the CES welcomed the guidelines, saying: “The proposals announced by the Government are compatible with the Catholic model curriculum.”
Perhaps the CES has missed the statement in the guidelines that secondary school pupils “should know how to get further advice including how and where to access confidential sexual and reproductive health advice and treatment”. Putting this into plain language, it is expected that pupils, even those below the age of consent, will be told where they can obtain contraception and abortion without their parents knowing. This is something that no Catholic headteacher should ever agree to happening at their school.
In fact, the majority of academic research on the issue tends to support the Catholic approach. There is copious evidence demonstrating that providing “confidential” access to contraception for minors does not reduce rates of teenage pregnancy or abortion. Even worse, research from Britain and United States has found that providing minors with easier access to the morning-after pill has actually contributed to higher rates of sexually transmitted infections.
One argument put forward by proponents of the guidelines is that the new approach will help reduce sexual abuse. Unfortunately this ignores the overwhelming evidence from a number of serious case reviews in the past 10 years that the provision by schools of contraception and abortion advice to underage girls without parental knowledge has actually contributed to a number of child sexual abuse scandals.
The individual stories can be heartbreaking. Consider the case of “Child F”, a vulnerable 15-year-old with special needs from Hampshire who was being sexually abused at school. As the school judged her to be engaging in “consensual” sexual activity, her parents were not informed and, as a result, she continued to suffer abuse for years.
It is not just about the provision of advice about contraception and abortion. Most of the evidence concludes that school-based sex education in itself is remarkably ineffective in terms of improving outcomes such as teenage pregnancy rates, delaying sexual activity or reducing sexually transmitted infections.
Indeed, research published in the Journal of Health Economics by Liam Wright of Sheffield University and myself found that local authorities which implemented the biggest cuts to teenage pregnancy projects, such as new sex education programmes or birth control clinics for teens, actually saw bigger reductions in pregnancy rates than areas that had kept those projects going.
It does not follow that there should be no sex education in schools. Indeed, we can all agree that young people have the right to accurate information about sex and relationships. Further, schools can have a useful role in supporting parents in their duty to educate children in this area. The evidence does, however, suggest that parents, teachers and governors should have confidence in rejecting the secular approach inherent in the new guidelines.
The muted response from the CES may reflect its belief that Catholic schools will be able to incorporate most of the new guidance in such a way that does not compromise Church teaching. The Government has now conceded that primary schools will not be forced to cover LGBT content, although they are encouraged to do so. The guidelines also state that schools may implement the whole curriculum in a way that is consistent with their ethos.
But whether it will be possible in practice for Catholic schools to continue to promote Catholic teaching unambiguously without falling foul of the new guidelines remains an open question. In any case, that does not help the many thousands of Catholic children who are taught in non-Catholic schools. They will henceforward have little or no protection if a school decides to promote an approach to sex and relationships which is opposed to the family’s values or which the parents feel is too graphic or inappropriate to the age of the pupils.
This is not just a theoretical problem. Last month two 10-year-olds – a Catholic boy and Pentecostal Christian girl – were both suspended from their primary school for five days for asking their teacher to be excused from lessons on LGBT issues. The same school had previously dismissed complaints from parents objecting to their children being forced to take part in a gay pride parade organised by the school.
This not about whether children should know about same-sex relationships but whether parents or the state should decide how children should be taught about these issues and when. Yet the bishops and the CES have so far seemed reluctant to put their heads above the parapet to defend families in situations like these.
There are signs that parents are getting increasingly frustrated by schools overreaching on sex education. We have already seen the long-running campaign by mainly Muslim parents in Birmingham against what they see as inappropriate lessons about lesbian, gay and transgender issues being given to their primary school-age children. No one wants to see children having to run a gauntlet of protesters to attend school, whatever the cause. It is also imperative that all schools tackle bullying of any sort. At the same time, who can be surprised when parents are angered by an approach to sex education which seems to conflict with their family values or, at worst, contributes to the early sexualisation of children?
We should also not forget the plight of those teachers, not all of them Catholic, who are trying heroically to promote an authentic vision of human sexuality to their pupils. They too need more support from the Church to do their job properly.
Despite the difficult public policy context, there is much that the CES could do. In the first place there is the need for RSE programmes which are truly reflective of Church teaching. Organisations like the Ten Ten Group, SPUC and Life do sterling work in this area and the resources they provide deserve active promotion by the Church.
Another priority should be for the CES to provide formal guidance to headteachers in Catholic schools that they should always seek to support a parent’s request that their child be withdrawn from RSE lessons. Governors in Catholic schools should be instructed to ensure their policies do not permit organisations opposed to Catholic teaching to deliver any aspect of RSE. In particular, we need to see an end to the scandal of groups opposed to Church teaching like Stonewall or the transgender group Mermaids being invited into Catholic schools to deliver sessions to pupils or teachers.
There is of course a balance to be struck between a confrontational approach and quietly working behind the scenes. But it is surely time now for the Church openly to recognise and face up to the coming challenges. Over the next few years we will see more cases of Catholic parents and teachers in the line of fire for daring to stand up to the sex education orthodoxy. They need to know that their priests, bishops and the CES will defend them, even at the risk of unpopularity and unwelcome headlines.
David Paton is professor of industrial economics at Nottingham University Business School and is visiting professor at St Mary’s University, Twickenham