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.