‘Families are the most important institution in our society. We have to do everything in our power to strengthen them’, proclaimed David Cameron in 2009: very few would disagree. A recent amendment to the Children and Social Work Bill, to include Relationships Education in all schools, says that children are to be taught to respect relationships of every kind as being equal. Except that, by the government’s own declaration, they are not. One relationship – that of family, is the foundation on which a strong and stable society is built. So why is it not privileged above all other relationships?
From the beginning of human existence, people have lived together in families – the book of Genesis describes Adam and Eve living and working together, and raising their children together. Family is the place where we raise our young, giving them love and care, and creating a place of safety until they reach maturity and are ready to take their own place in the world. Family provides a framework within which we pass on values to the next generation – something we do whether or not we act intentionally. Every action we take and every conversation we have transmits something of our values to our children. Family is a place to share the fun and the sadness of life and a place where parents protect their children from the harm of outside influences until they are ready to meet the challenges of life. You just need to look at the depth of parental concern about protecting their children online to see that instinct in evidence.
But family is not just a private matter. Family is a public institution, because it is where we learn how to care for others as we are cared for, how to trust others as we are trusted, and where we learn to live at peace with others. Our belief in the value of family is so central to our thinking that children are adopted into a new family when their birth family breaks down.
And yet, Relationships Education won’t privilege family. Why not? Because relationships would no longer then be equal; because we would have to acknowledge that exclusivity and faithfulness within marriage are necessary for families to be strong and stable. Because to do so would be to create a hierarchy of relationship.
That would, of course, conflict with the liberal equality agenda, which says that everyone can live as they wish as long as nobody gets hurt. The outworking of that, though, is that the most vulnerable people, ie children, do get hurt, because they have no voice. And so, slowly but surely, we are teaching successive generations of children that relationships are transitory, only lasting until it’s time to move on, as if the need to please ourselves somehow makes us victims of circumstance, rather than being the person in control.
In 2014, David Cameron returned to his theme of family, saying, ‘I think it’s absolutely right that government should do everything possible to help support and strengthen family life in Britain today…doctors, teachers and police officers listen to their patients, pupils and the local community instead of ministers and bureaucrats in Westminster, Whitehall and the town hall.’ So, let that be the basis on which RSE is founded. Teachers and governors listen to parents and pupils, not central government. Consult parents on curriculum content and allow them to retain the right to remove their child when that content directly conflicts with their moral or religious views. And above all, privilege family and marriage as the key foundations on which to build society.
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.
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.