A vital task for all schools is to prepare children for the challenges of life both within and beyond the school gates. This includes the encouragement of understanding and respect between different groups in society. In England, this means that as part of a broader curriculum including RE and citizenship, we believe personal, social, health and economic (PSHE) education, which includes relationships and sex Education (RSE), has an important role to play. In Wales, we hold the same views, but the relevant subjects are called personal and social Education (PSE) and relationships and sexuality education (RSE). In Northern Ireland the equivalent subjects are called PSHE and relationships and sexuality education (RSE).
We unequivocally support making PSHE/RSE (or PSE/RSE) a statutory part of the curriculum, and believe that the religious character of a school should not deprive children of their entitlement to comprehensive, evidence-based, and age-appropriate teaching in this area. We believe that the right of children to PSHE is more important than any other consideration and consequently that any right of parental withdrawal (as is currently the case for sex education) should cease.
In 2019, following extensive lobbying from us and others, the UK Parliament finally passed new regulations and guidance meaning that, as of September 2020, RSE is now compulsory in all English secondary schools and relationships education is compulsory in all primary schools. The Welsh Government have similarly proposed to make RSE a statutory part of the new curriculum from 2022 and, in October 2019, announced that it is proposing to remove parents’ right to withdraw their children from these lessons, with a Bill making these changes passing stage on in the Senedd in December 2020. Nevertheless, to ensure that pupils who are educated before then receive the lessons they need to stay healthy, happy, and safe, we have also been calling for strengthened provision in the period before the new subject is introduced.
However, we are concerned that simply making the subject compulsory does not go far enough. The content of the subject must also be compulsory, with no right to withdraw, or else we will see issues as have been occurring in Birmingham and elsewhere, where hardline religious groups protested against LGBT inclusivity within the subject. Schools cannot be sufficiently supported in their teaching unless the subject is made compulsory.
Relationships and sex education
Good quality, age and developmentally appropriate relationships and sex education is vital. It is known to reduce unwanted pregnancies, to reduce the spread of sexually transmitted infections (STIs), and equip young people with the language and tools to be clear about personal boundaries, as well as understand appropriate and inappropriate behaviour, be able to resist pressure assertively, and know who to talk to and how to ask for help when necessary. It helps older children resist pressure, make safe choices, and be able to challenge and be critical of misleading and inappropriate messages about sex in the media and in easily available internet pornography. National and international research shows that young people who have had good RSE are more likely to delay having sex for the first time. And, when they do have sex, they are more likely to use condoms and contraception.
We believe that all children are entitled to comprehensive RSE, including education about forming and maintaining rewarding relationships and unbiased information on contraception, STIs, abortion, sexual orientation, as well as the many different forms of family relationship conducive to individual fulfilment and the stability of society.
Despite the obvious public health and children’s rights imperative for RSE, the current situation is that maintained schools are not obligated to teach any RSE beyond basic information on puberty, anatomy, and human reproduction found in the science national curriculum. Maintained secondary schools must also teach about HIV and AIDS. However, academies and free schools do not have to teach any of this and, even after the new English regulations are implemented in 2020, there is no guarantee that any of the other subjects covered in the UK Government guidance will be taught. This is because decisions about the content of the curriculum will be left to individual schools which, in the case of faith schools, will be entitled to deliver the subject in line with the tenets of their faith ethos and determine for themselves whether they consider certain topics (same-sex relationships, for example) to be ‘appropriate’.
Further, parents are entitled to withdraw their children from all aspects of sex education not found in the national curriculum for science (although the new guidance says that 15 year olds will be entitled to opt themselves back in to these lessons). On top of that, there is no initial teacher education for the subject, nor is any teacher training being introduced to help teachers catch up with the new legal provisions. As a consequence, even after the introduction of the new subject, RSE provision is likely to remain patchy, with the standards and scope varying widely between schools.
Our firm belief that all children are entitled to essential basic information about human reproduction and physiology in science and to broader and comprehensive RSE elsewhere in the curriculum means that we want it taught as a compulsory subject in all schools from primary age, with no parental opt out.
What we’re doing
- We are a longstanding member of the Sex Education Forum (SEF) and of the PSHE Association, and we recommend both organisations’ work to teachers, school managers, and governors. In recent years we have frequently had a staff member sit on SEF’s advisory group.
- In 2017, we published a report entitled Happy, Healthy, Safe? in which we demonstrated that Ofsted had not been inspecting the subject in sufficient detail to ensure that schools were delivering it adequately. We also recommended that PSHE (including RSE) should be made statutory and official guidance on the topic updated. Later that same month, the House of Commons approved Government proposals to make RSE compulsory. In January 2018, we responded to a consultation on what should be taught as part of PSHE and RSE and, in November of that same year, to a second consultation on the new regulations and guidance the Department for Education had produced.
- In 2020 we exposed Catholic RSE resources saying contraception is wrong, that gay and lesbian people cannot marry and must entirely abstain from sex, and that men were ‘created to initiate sexual relationships’ and women to be ‘receiver-responders’ being used in schools across the UK. The story also received coverage in the i newspaper.
- In 2019, we were successful in getting crowdfunding site GoFundMe to remove a hateful anti-LGBT page which was raising funds to cover the court costs of anti-RSE Birmingham protestors. GoFundMe said the page violated its terms of service after we exposed the story in the national media.
- In Wales, we welcomed the Welsh Government’s move to stop parents from withdrawing their children from objective RSE lessons. While it is still under consultation, we welcomed this progressive step and hope it will be passed by the Government in due course.
- In early 2019, as issues relating to teaching LGBT acceptance in relationships education in primary schools hit the headlines, we briefed MPs for a Westminster Hall Debate on the parental right to withdraw children from RSE, and raised concerns that faith-based carve-outs could mean that children from religious backgrounds failed to receive an LGBT inclusive education. We also ran a petition in support of inclusive education which was signed by over 8,000 people.
- In February 2019 we organised an open letter to the Secretary of State for Education urging him not to dilute guidance stipulating that independent schools must teach acceptance for LGBT people at both primary and secondary level. The letter, which featured in the Guardian, was signed by more than 50 religious leaders, humanists, educationalists, and other experts.
- When the final guidance was published, we were disappointed to learn that it allows schools to opt out of teaching this content if they deem that it was not ‘age-appropriate’. We will work to challenge this decision so that every child receives the inclusive RSE provision they deserve irrespective of their faith background or the type of school they attend.
- We worked with peers to introduce amendments to the Education Act 2011 which would have made PSHE compulsory – but these were rejected. We also supported private members’ bills aiming to achieve the same thing, and opposed attempts to introduce abstinence-only education. We later submitted a detailed response to the PSHE Review, and were disappointed that the outcome of that review was that there would be no change.
- In 2012, we worked with Education for Choice and others to expose groups that are ideologically against abortion which have been making unevidenced claims around abortion and contraception in schools. Groups such as SPUC, LIFE and Lovewise have been found to be making unevidenced claims such as that abortion causes breast cancer, or leads to depression and suicide. In 2013, Education for Choice published a report on this work.
- In 2013 we helped expose numerous schools with section 28-like statements in their SRE policies, prompting the UK and Welsh Governments to launch investigations.
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