TEACHING SRE: PARENTS NOT INCLUDED

The media clamour for compulsory SRE has reached the point of hysteria in the last few days, with one report even claiming that without it, women will become infertile. SRE provision is being blamed for everything from body shaming and mental ill-health, to child abuse and grooming. So, how did we get here? Should schools be solely responsible for addressing the problems that society faces as a result of total sexual freedom? And is it the role of democratic government to impose statutory regulation on the teaching of moral issues, regardless of a school’s ethos?

Historically, sex education was restricted to biology: human reproduction is still part of the science curriculum and is therefore statutory for all pupils. During the 1990s, sex education also became part of the PSHE programme; although PSHE has no prescribed content, it must form part of school curriculum provision. By 2010, the concept of relationships education had entered the arena and, completely ignoring the roles and responsibilities of parents, the DfE was stating that ‘children need high-quality SRE so they can make wise and informed choices’. Then the lobbying began in earnest, with women’s groups and LGBTQI+ activists among the most vociferous callers not just for statutory SRE provision, but for a centrally imposed curriculum with no parental opt out. It’s all about control – seize central control and remove parents from the loop, then you can influence whatever brand of propaganda you wish to be imposed on children and young people.

It’s no longer about the biology of reproduction, or about how to behave in a relationship, but about how young people should feel about sex. It’s no longer about how to stay physically safe and avoid pregnancy, but about how to stay emotionally safe and avoid getting harmed by your choices. Consent has become a twisted form of risk assessment, to be conducted before you embark on a physical activity: SRE teaching has become a matter of self-defence and safeguarding. As Ofsted determined, SRE should ‘promote equality in relationships and emphasise the importance of seeking and gaining mutual consent through positive and active communication’. Saying no isn’t enough – people must be taught to mediate consent.

This week’s media hype is probably due, in no small part, to NC5 – an amendment clause in the Children and Social Work Bill that is currently going through Parliament. If it becomes law, some very significant rights will be protected.

Successive governments have procrastinated on SRE policy revision, but it is widely expected that when the DfE finally acts, it will impose a centrally designed curriculum with no right of parental opt-out and consultation, or consideration of religious belief. Activists have taken advantage of the delay, using the media to build up a head of steam. As a result, the majority of parents and students themselves are now calling for high quality SRE, so the DfE can finally move with impunity, even though parents and students have little idea of the likely implication of their wishes when shaped into policy.

The NC5 amendment was designed to pre-empt that by protecting parental opt-out (except where Sex Ed is already part of the statutory science curriculum), to enforce parental consultation and to protect religious belief. It effectively ties the hands of the liberal lobby as they can no longer dominate central policy. ‘Consultation’ could be anything from parents being able to view materials (the current situation) to parents being involved in policy formation, curriculum content and resourcing (one model the DfE has considered as part of its best practice study). The amendment is also designed to make the building of strong, lasting relationships part of SRE. It’s a positive view of relationships that is lacking in any other proposals.

So that is how we got here. But what about the role of schools? Schools have always been good places for the delivery of centralised messages, as MP Diana Johnson acknowledged when presenting a Ten Minute Rule Bill on the issue of compulsory SRE in October 2014. She stated:

‘of course we want parents and families to be part of the discussions with youngsters about relationships and keeping safe, but … leaving it to parents, which is the current approach and the approach of decades past, is not working, it’s failing and it isn’t fit for the challenges of the future.’

Some parents don’t accept their responsibilities, but the solution is not to remove control from those parents who do, and who feel strongly about what their children are taught concerning relationships, identity and morality. Removing parental rights of opt-out and consultation is a denial of an essential freedom. The idea has little to do with feckless parents and everything to do with finding an excuse to enforce conformity to the liberal agenda.

For Christian schools and parents, the concept of an ‘anything goes’ SRE curriculum in which they have no say is alarming. The Bible teaches that sex is a gift from God, to be enjoyed between a man and a woman within marriage. It teaches that relationships are about building one another up in loving and supportive partnerships. The Bible also teaches that parents are responsible for their children’s education. So if NC5 allows parents to continue to do just that, using the Bible as their guide in raising their children to live in relationship with God, then the amendment is to be welcomed for ensuring that parents are included.

SHOULD WE STILL BE TEACHING RE?

Religious Education is a statutory subject which must be taught in all schools. There are constant calls from those embracing the ideology of a secular state for it to be removed from the curriculum. But the vital question is not ‘Should we be teaching RE?’ but, ‘How should we be teaching RE?’ The Commission for Religious Education, the body which is responsible for advising on legal, education and policy frameworks, is currently seeking answers to that question through a ‘once in a lifetime opportunity to think deeply and broadly about the character, significance and role of religious education in our current local, national and global context’.

The importance of religious education and the compelling case for it to remain statutory is well argued by Charles Clarke and Linda Woodhead in their 2015 document ‘A New Settlement’ They present the case for children to be brought up with an understanding of the historical and social significance of religions, and how they have shaped diverse human behaviours and values. They write persuasively of the need for religious literacy as we navigate a multicultural society in a global context. They want to adopt a one-size-fits-all approach that reduces religion to a sociological phenomenon and they want all schools to follow a common curriculum, regardless of their religious character or ethos. Is that enough?

No, because studying religion as a series of cultural artefacts in order to improve cohesion and global communication is to miss the point altogether. Religions seek to answer the big questions of life: Who am I? Why am I here? How then shall I live? To deny students the opportunity to consider these questions and to pursue a search for truth is to deny them the path to personal answers.

There is growing pressure from various ideologues for RE to be diluted to the point where it becomes an amalgam of world religions. The result of this approach is people who know a range of facts about religion but have no understanding of individual belief. It is vital that the distinctive nature of each religion is taught: we all believe something and in believing something, we necessarily reject everything else. That is how we develop a personal system of belief and it is an opportunity that high quality RE teaching should provide.

In teaching the distinctive beliefs of each religion, it’s important that Christianity remains the core study. Although we live in a pluralist society, it’s a society founded on Christian values and principles. Many of our great thinkers, scientists and social reformers were motivated by their faith, so Christianity underpins our heritage – it would be quite simple to argue that Christianity is a core British value and as such, should be understood by everyone living in Britain, regardless of their personal worldview.

There are concerns, regularly expressed in the media, about the continued existence of church school RE curricula, which are determined by each diocese, rather than the local authority. Critics argue that church schools are successful because they cherry pick the brightest pupils, even though the evidence clearly shows otherwise. They are successful because their curricula are founded on a Christian worldview which focuses on human flourishing, not on test results. To impose a common RE curriculum on Christian schools is to entirely miss the point – faith is the DNA of each school’s ethos. Diluting RE will not change that, although it will deny pupils the opportunity to understand the Christian faith on which their education is founded and to make up their own minds about what they learn.

The future of RE teaching in our schools is at stake, so it’s important to make your views known. Anyone with an interest in religious education can respond to the call for evidence – simply click on the survey and answer the questions. A list of the questions is also provided so that you can take time to think about your responses in advance. The consultation closes at 9am on Monday morning (13 February) so you don’t have long. But it is vitally important that you log your views and argue the case for religious education to retain Christianity as the core religion for study; for the distinctive theology of each faith to be taught, and for the curriculum to allow time for pupils to evaluate what they hear and to reflect on their personal responses to belief.

RAISING CHILDREN IN A DANGEROUS WORLD

Calls for compulsory PSHE and SRE are nothing new and the government is lobbied regularly about the issue from a range of sources. This week, the BHA’s Andrew Copson added yet another call, arguing that we are raising children in a dangerous world where compulsory SRE is necessary for their protection.

Reading the reasons that campaigners give is like reading a list of reasons to book in for self-defence classes: violence against women, abortion, porn, sexting, online grooming, abuse, forced marriage, FGM, sexual harassment and homophobic, biphobic and transphobic (HBT) bullying. There are a whole range of issues there, none of which relates to sex as an expression of love within a stable relationship, which is the basis of family life and therefore of societal strength.

Whenever calls are made for compulsory SRE, the responsibility of one vital group of people is deliberately omitted – that of parents. The Bible is quite clear that parents are their children’s primary educators: Psalm 127:3 tells us that ‘Children are a heritage from the Lord’ a gift in His image, given to us by God to be nurtured, loved and raised to know God. Deuteronomy 6:6 tells us how we should teach our children: ‘These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up’. While parents often choose to entrust parts of this task to others, the responsibility ultimately rests with them to make a good choice and to help their children navigate a path through the many voices that clamour for their attention, particularly when it comes to matters of morality and relationships.

An increasingly secular state is eroding both this responsibility and right, and the push for compulsory SRE is part of this. One of the arguments is that this is necessary because some parents are abdicating their responsibility, leaving their children vulnerable. But that is not a justification for imposing a centralised curriculum on all children, particularly those whose parents want to protect their innocence until such time as they consider it right to talk about the many forms that abuse take.

Another powerful argument says that our children are in danger and that we need to teach them to protect themselves. But that, again, comes full circle to parental responsibility. Adults have created this dangerous world where children are exposed to explicit sexual information from an early age. The answer is easy – protect our children by creating a safe society, not by preparing them to live in a dangerous one. Except that to do that, adults have to accept limitations on their liberty and freedom to live as they wish.

But there’s another strand to the article, which actually has nothing to do with SRE, and that is the profiling of HBT bullying. The fact that this is now considered a necessary part of SRE is proof of how embedded the LGBT activist agenda has become. Copson argues that the role of Osfed in inspecting SRE is not viable because a BHA analysis of 2000 inspection reports showed that this form of bullying is only mentioned in 14% of the reports, although it is reported by 86% of secondary teachers.

The problem here is the lack of proper scrutiny of the data. That percentage of teachers may well have heard words like ‘gay’ being used inappropriately and, as with all name calling, should have dealt with it appropriately. But name calling does not constitute bullying. Nor does the mere perception of it. Bullying is planned, prolonged and persistent. When analysed using that definition, the figures look rather different. One study shows that in Year 9, when bullying is at its worst, only 6.2% of students who reported being bullied gave HBT bullying as the cause. The other 93.8% of those bullied gave a range of reasons, mostly relating to appearance, clothing or disability. You’re far more likely to be bullied for having red hair, than for being gay. So why should one group within a diverse society claim the bullying problem for its own?

The other argument is more subtle, but none the less corrosive, and that is the equalities agenda. The Equalities Act 2010 marks a significant departure in English law, because for the first time it establishes the protection of characteristics. English law is founded on person and property, dating from a time when there was a common understanding of personhood as being created in the unique likeness of God. The protection of characteristics offers an open door to identity politics and creates a hierarchy: that is not how God designed us to live.

So how can a Christian educator respond? The answer is to create genuine diversity in your classroom, not based on characteristics, but on personhood. Each student is uniquely made in the image of God, and deserving of respect not because of how they identify, or how they look, but because God loves them. In creating a context where each and every student is equally respected, accepted and valued just because, you are living out the principle of welcoming all in the name of God.