The Education Select Committee this week published ‘Life lessons: PSHE and SRE in schools’ its report into PSHE/SRE provision, based on a wealth of written evidence and committee interviews. The report shows sympathetic consideration of the many strongly-held views that were expressed, and arrives at a workable solution to the thorny issue of compulsory provision and statutory curriculum content; a solution which also shows that the committee was not brow-beaten by the mouthpieces of identity politics.
There was a strong pull in the evidence base towards using SRE to protect all children from exploitation and abuse, and to protect women and girls against violence. The report acknowledges this need, but also determines that SRE education should not be a social defence mechanism – it should play a positive part in the raising of children who are empowered to live with integrity.
The report recommends that SRE should be renamed RSE, acknowledging the priority of relationship. It also concludes that provision should become statutory, but with a number of very significant restraints. While parental opt out should be retained (the report appears to accept that ceding this point allows for compulsory provision to go ahead without further opposition), the role of parents is to be strengthened, thus rendering opt out unnecessary in most cases. Curriculum content should not only remain the business of each individual school, but parents and pupils should be actively involved in deciding what is taught – there was even a suggestion that Ofsted should ensure that this is happening.
Based on my experience, this is vitally important, because context is everything. I once taught in a community where, if you were female, still at school and baby-less at the age of 16, you were more to be pitied than applauded: self-respect was derived from early motherhood. Here’s a conversation I had one day with a proud and delighted nine year old in my class whose 15 year old sister had just had her first baby:
Child: How old were you when you had your first baby?
Me: 27, why?
Child: You poor thing. Were you a minger?
Me: No. There were lots of other things I wanted to do first, and I didn’t want to have a baby until I was married, and I had a home and a job.
Child: Why? Couldn’t your Mum have helped you look after a baby? You’re entitled to a flat once you’ve got a baby. Don’t you know about benefits?
The child was both curious, and genuinely sad and concerned for me. In that particular community, I was the counter culture. Their family structures were matriarchal but very strong, with mothers, aunts and older sisters all providing love and support. The transitory nature of the men (many of whom were service personnel) wasn’t seen as a problem and most mothers could work part time, because there was always someone in the extended family to provide loving childcare. The child’s mother even told me (because she was feeling sorry for me) that I must be a ‘sad cow’ for having had to go to university and having to work. The idea that I chose to pursue a career was complete anathema to her and she certainly saw her life as being significantly better in quality than mine.
So how do you address the issue of teenage pregnancy when it isn’t seen as a problem? And how would centrally determined SRE address the complexity of a community culture into which early motherhood is so strongly woven? You don’t change an embedded culture with one single SRE policy.
What these recommendations do offer is the opportunity for parents, as first educators of their children, to determine what their children are taught and when. The strength of response to the proposed changes to SRE provision has shown how important it is to parents to be involved in decisions about moral and ethical education, and the report acknowledges this.
For faith schools, it offers the opportunity to teach within the doctrines of their faith. For parents of faith, it offers the opportunity to get involved, to be part of the discussion, and to influence outcomes in a way which isn’t possible under current provision.
What this report tacitly accepts and affirms is that parents, not the state, should have the right to decide what their children are taught. One key subtext of this debate has actually been about the rights of parents versus the rights of the state, particularly those parents whose views are informed by religious belief. If the recommendations are adopted in amendments to education law, it will establish an important precedent. Parents are the first and best educators of their children. Of course we should create a safety net for those children for whom this isn’t their experience, but don’t use it to justify wresting control from all parents. Involve parents. Engage parents. But above all, respect their right to parent.
When solving problems, is it better to dig at the roots, or trim back the leaves? I ask, because it’s the roots that secure plants in the ground, and the stronger the storms, the deeper the roots delve. Leaves can be trimmed and whole branches hacked or pruned, but the roots will just continue to get stronger. And so it is with problems.
A report this week from the Early Intervention Foundation shows that some £17bn is spent each year addressing acute social problems of children and young people, including mental health issues, drug and alcohol abuse, going into care, unemployment and youth crime. The bill is shared between Local Authorities, schools, the NHS, the police and the criminal justice system. Wouldn’t it make sense, the charity suggests, to deal with the root causes of the problems through early intervention strategies? It would transform young lives before they were blighted, and would certainly make more effective use of public money.
The same is true of bullying, which Ofsted now inspects as a safeguarding issue, with particular reference to transphobic and homophobic bullying. This gives inspectors the power to go into schools and question children about gender identity and same-sex relationships, regardless of the school’s SRE policy or parental consent. But sending teachers to the naughty step by putting a school into special measures does nothing to address the root causes of bullying – it’s an endemic social problem. Race, disability and religious belief are also protected characteristics under the Equality Act 2010, but laws can’t deal with the attitudes of prejudice, hatred, bigotry, anger, and the wilful abuse of power that are the root cause of bullying.
And it’s true of wider society, as well. Bashing bankers is a favourite media sport; blaming banks for every form of economic woe. But what about the people and businesses who borrowed money they couldn’t possibly ever pay back? Regulation provides control, but it does nothing to address the root cause of irresponsible lending and borrowing – human greed.
The PSHE Bill and SRE (Curriculum) Bill are currently awaiting a second reading in Parliament. Their aims, among others, are to educate on ending violence against women and girls, develop resilience against bullying, and educating about child sexual exploitation. Trimming the leaves, instead of dealing with the roots? Society needs to address the root problem, not educate its children in the hope of reforming society.
According to the Bible, the root cause lies in the heart – the ancient prophet Jeremiah describes it as ‘hopelessly dark and deceitful’. He went on to say that God gets to the heart of the human and to the root of things. In his gospel, Mark also makes it clear that all that is bad comes from inside an individual, from the heart. The Christian gospel offers each of us not only forgiveness for what is in our hearts, but also the power to transform our hearts and minds.
So, is it better to trim the leaves, or go to the roots? Schools are reflections of the society they serve. Legislation and education programme can’t transform hearts and minds – only individual people can do that.
The definition of bullying: using superior strength to influence someone or force them to do something. It’s endemic at every level of society. But is the most effective way to deal with it for Nicky Morgan and Tristram Hunt to score points off of each other in a ‘I’m doing more than you to stamp out homophobic bullying’ pre-election competition: Nicky Morgan even claims to be on a moral mission?
The Labour Party published its Ending Transphobia Together document this week. It aims to eradicate homophobic bullying from ‘every classroom, dinner hall and playground’ It won’t, but it raises some questions. Firstly, the definition: bullying is personal, prolonged and persistent. Casual, throwaway use of derogatory words is thoughtless, it’s unpleasant and it needs to be dealt with, but it isn’t necessarily bullying.
Secondly, why the moral campaign against just one form of bullying? When did you last hear a politician talk about racial bullying? The anti-semitic bullying that necessitates guards on Jewish schools? The careless and widespread use of ‘spaz’ as a term of abuse? Or the malicious, targeting of SEND children in a ‘You’re a spaz. Why didn’t your mother abort you?’ type of comment. The Equality Act 2010 lists several protected characteristics. Focusing on just one group might win votes, but it tacitly minimises the seriousness of other forms of bullying and so denies equality of protection. Level the playing field, politicians, and comply with the Equality Act. Oh, and mention it to Ofsted while you’re about it. I’ve read a great many Ofsted reports since British values reared its head and Nicky Morgan went on her moral crusade. I haven’t read one comment on the bullying of any other protected group than LGBT.
Thirdly, dealing proactively with use of certain words will lessen the use of those words, but it does nothing to deal with the ignorance, prejudice, bigotry or malice that are the root of every kind of bullying. People will just find new words. Any effective anti-bullying policy needs to address the root that feeds the words and actions.
Finally, and most concerning, is the slipping in of a significant change to SRE policy under the guise of dealing with homophobic bullying. This is becoming a bit of a habit of Tristram Hunt’s – last autumn it was about manipulating the ethos of faith schools by changing admissions procedures whilst appearing to support faith education. This time, it’s about compulsory SRE in all schools ‘including faith schools’.
So faith schools will no longer be able to teach the sexual ethics which derive from their doctrinal views. There’s the real possibility that faith schools which don’t offer an SRE programme at all, because of a 100% parental opt out, will be compulsorily taken over. In doing so, their distinctive faith ethos will be destroyed.
But the deliberate use of the phrase ‘including faith schools’ indicates not only that Hunt knows this, but that he’s going to impose his agenda and is up for the fight against anyone, particularly people of faith, who wants to determine their own provision on ethical and moral issues. The Foreword makes that quite clear : ‘changing the law is a lot easier than changing hearts and minds. That process has to start with education’. Since when was it the job of a political party to use education to change hearts and minds to comply with its way of thinking? Just because you have an opinion, it doesn’t make you right.
We need to prepare our children and young people for life in modern Britain. We need to ensure the equal opportunity for each and every one of them to flourish as human beings . We need to create strong, caring families, within communities that contribute to a mature society. But we don’t do that by manipulating hearts and minds to conform to liberal secularist thinking. Diversity, not homogeny.
The definition of bullying: using superior strength to influence someone or force them to do something. Oh, wait, that’s exactly what politicians are promising to do. Using their superior strength to influence faith schools. Using Ofsted to force conformity with their agenda. That’s bullying. Under the 2010 Equalities Act it’s forbidden for protected characteristics, of which religious belief is one.
Unless, of course, you’re a Catholic, or a Muslim, or a Jewish or a Christian parent who doesn’t want to embrace a secular ideology. In which case, your religion is protected only until it informs your ethics, your morals and your worldview and so becomes inconvenient. No room for complacency – or no room for faith?