Will Catholic schools resist state pressure on sex education?

Parents and protestors demonstrate against the 'No Outsiders' programme at Parkfield Community School in Birmingham (Getty)

Catholic schools will soon find themselves having to make a difficult choice on sex education

In 2007, the government shut down Catholic adoption agencies. They didn’t put it like that, of course: they just insisted that, as a result of the Equality Act, agencies would be legally required to place children with same-sex couples. As a result, agencies which wanted to stay Catholic had to close their doors. It was, the prime minister Tony Blair claimed, a policy which “reasonable people” should be able to accept.

This sad episode illustrated the clash between Catholicism and 21st-century beliefs about sexual freedom. It also suggested that, in the post-Equality Act era, Catholic institutions might find themselves on the wrong side of the law – even if they were providing an essential and highly regarded service.

Could something similar happen to Catholic schools? It’s not as absurd a question as it might sound. There is a limit to what Catholic schools can teach about sex, if they want to be genuinely Catholic. And the authorities seem eager to test that limit.

But in other ways, this is a very different situation from 2007. The clash is not a matter of a single command from central government, which will either be obeyed or bravely disobeyed. It involves a complex negotiation between the government, the inspectorate, schools, teachers, parents and pupils.

Government policy, as of next year, will require that every primary school teach “relationships education” and every secondary school teach sex education. Until age 16, parents can withdraw their children from sex education; after 16, the state can overrule the parents if the child wishes. This extension of state power may be alarming, but the official guidance is also framed in pretty vague terms. (Primary school children should, for instance, be informed “how important friendships are in making us feel happy and secure”.) Quite a lot is left up to schools – at least in theory.

On the ground, schools have to worry about a knock on the door from Ofsted, whose inspections vary wildly in quality. In a few notorious cases, mostly at Jewish schools, inspectors have reportedly interrogated pupils about their sexual knowledge. The chief rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis, said last year that relations between Ofsted and the Orthodox community “urgently” needed “repairing”.

Ofsted chief Amanda Spielman has often been asked about the concerns of religious communities. But her responses suggest that she has scarcely begun to hear them. In a BBC Panorama programme in July, Spielman was asked by the presenter Sima Kotecha: “Are you concerned that religious groups will start withdrawing their children, and perhaps homeschooling them?” That seems a realistic concern, given the scale of parental anxiety: in the London borough of Ealing alone, 11 schools have received letters from parents considering withdrawing children. But Spielman merely replied that “The law as it stands should work.”

The government also seems to underestimate the scale of discontent. The Department for Education has issued a slightly irritable FAQs on relationships and sex education. To the question “Has the government listened to the views of my community in introducing these subjects?”, the government says it had a “thorough engagement process”, including a public consultation which “received over 11,000 responses”. It doesn’t mention the fact that most of those 11,000 responses were negative. According to figures from the Christian Institute, a two-thirds majority said that the sex education proposals weren’t “age-appropriate”.

Perhaps, with this gulf between parents’ views and the government’s priorities, it was inevitable that the tensions would boil over. That has happened at two Birmingham schools, where (mostly Muslim) parents have protested outside the school gates. They object to the “No Outsiders” programme, which claims to be a harmless education in acceptance and general niceness. Parents see it differently. “Sex relationship education is being taught without our consent,” Fatima Shah, who has taken her 10-year-old out of the school, told the Birmingham Mail. “My child came home and told me, ‘Am I OK to be a boy?’ It’s confusing children about sexuality.”

According to the National Association of Head Teachers, at least 70 schools have received requests from parents to stop teaching about sex. At one school in Redbridge, parents said they were considering withdrawing more than 100 pupils.

It’s not only Muslims who are concerned: Catholic Family Voice, a Glasgow-based group, has been founded to raise awareness of the new demands on Scottish teachers to cover sexual issues. Its founder Pauline Gallagher says she has had a “mostly positive” response and that support is growing: “Many are relieved and encouraged to talk to other Catholics who share their concerns about the changes in the curriculum.” Gallagher observes: “The truth is that many ordinary LGBT people respect religious freedom, if exercised with discretion and compassion.” CFV are looking for a dialogue, she says, in search of “a workable solution”.

If the government refuses to allow dialogue, it will probably foster a grassroots movement – especially in 2020 when the new guidance comes into force.

The irony is that, just as the authorities are promoting a post-Christian sexual ethic, that ethic looks more destructive than ever: it has led to pornography addiction, sexual coercion and misogyny. The Catholic Church’s teaching, by contrast, offers a true education in love and human dignity – and there are well-developed resources, many based on John Paul II’s Theology of the Body, which can help parents and teachers to introduce that teaching in an age-appropriate way. The question is whether they will be allowed to.