The Commons this week discussed New Clause 15, which will make Relationships Education statutory in all primary schools and RSE statutory in all secondary schools, regardless of their status or designation. Steve McCabe MP accused the government of being well-intentioned, but confused, in its objectives. He was right, for a range of reasons.
The first relates to the rights of parents. It is acknowledged that ‘parents are, of course, the primary educators and guides of their children’, yet no parental opt out will be available for relationships education. It will, however, be protected for sex education at both primary and secondary level. Spotting the false dichotomy, one MP several times sought (and failed to obtain) assurances that Relationships Education in primary school was not just a vehicle to smuggle in sex education under a different label.
There is an underlying assumption here that sex and relationships are separate issues. This is, of course, a convenient assumption, as it allows the government to impose a one-size-fits-all model on the teaching of moral issues, whilst appearing to protect parental rights. But for those who hold a religious belief (and for many more who don’t) this is nonsense. The Bible teaches that sex is designed by God to be enjoyed between one man and one woman, committed to live together in a supportive relationship, as far as is possible, for life. Sex and relationship are mutually inclusive and cannot be artificially separated.
The extent to which the government is going to enforce this separation became apparent when Gerald Howarth MP asked where the ‘moral dimension’ was in the proposals. Edward Timpson gave a curious response: ‘The moral aspect is already covered by British values’. So ‘British values’ is set to become the arbiter of state-imposed moral values, too? And all overseen by Ofsted enforcers – the debate made clear that Ofsted will place delivery of this policy centrally in their judgment of a school. In fact, ‘Ofsted is already seeking to appoint an HMI lead for citizenship and PSHE, whose role will be to keep abreast of developments in this area and oversee the training of inspectors in light of the new expectations on schools’. So Ofsted will be given statutory power to enforce the teaching of moral values, although only those defined by the government and its advisers.
Next is the confusion over protection of religious belief. There is provision for faith schools to teach in accordance with the tenets of their faith, yet Edward Timpson was quite happy to confirm that faith schools cannot avoid providing the required education even if they consider it inappropriate. So in what way is religious belief protected?
The concept of relationships education ‘creating the all-important building blocks’ to ‘make children resilient enough to deal with the pressures and risks that the modern world throws at them’ also reared its head. It’s a point of view which assumes that we can educate our way out of a moral crisis. Children are born or adopted into families. Families, not education policies, are the building blocks of communities and therefore of society. Yet nowhere do the proposals talk about strengthening families and empowering parents to raise strong, independent children. The problems our children and young people face are social, not educational, issues and we are all responsible. The failure to privilege the importance of family is particularly confusing since in other aspects of social policy, governments have acknowledged that strong, stable families not only give children the best possible start in life, but also have a lasting positive impact on life outcomes.
There is, however, some encouragement in the statement that Ofsted will ensure that teaching is religiously diverse. Because that raises a key point – the absence of moral red lights in contemporary society. This new, updated RSE, we are told, is about protecting children by teaching them the dangers inherent in online porn, sexting and risks of STIs. When we teach children road safety, we don’t educate them about the different makes and models of vehicles and then let them play in the traffic. We teach them that society conforms to a rule – vehicles stop at a red light so that they can cross safely. So where are the moral red lights in society? Do we really propose to send children to play in moral traffic on the basis that schools have delivered lessons in how to stay safe?
The concept of religious diversity is welcome, though, because it means that all schools, not just faith schools, will have to teach about fidelity and exclusivity within marriage, and the concept of abstinence. Not to teach it would be to deny diversity of view to children who are not growing up in religious communities.
And finally, there’s the view that it is never right to deny a child their entitlement to vital RSE. In fact, some campaigners believe that it’s a denial of a child’s human rights. There are two points here. One is that Article 2 of Protocol 1 of the European Convention on Human Rights states that: ‘In the exercise of any functions which it assumes in relation to education and to teaching, the State shall respect the right of parents to ensure such education and teaching is in conformity with their own religious and philosophical convictions.’ The other is the 1996 Education Act which states that: ‘The responsibility for a child’s education rests with their parents/carers’ although provision must be ‘suitable’. The term ‘suitable’ was defined by Mr Justice Woolf in case law in 1985 as being an education that ‘primarily equips a child for life within the community of which he is a member, rather than the way of life in the country as a whole’.
There is a widely held view that parents who want to raise their children with a sexual ethic informed by faith are not only denying their children an essential human right, but also leaving them unprotected in a hazardous modern world. But parents of faith choose to protect their children differently, by teaching them about God’s blue print for humanity and by raising them in families where faithfulness, and mutual love and respect are not only their protection, but their building blocks for a fulfilled life.