Relationships and Sex Education in School: Some Good News!

The latest issue of Affinity's Social Issues Bulletin is out now. It is free to download, as are all previous editions. One of the articles, by John Denning, looks at the recently-issued guidance for schools on implementing the controversial new RSE curriculum, and finds some things that are encouraging...

Perhaps nowhere in our society is the rejection of Christian belief more obvious than in the area of sex and relationships. The attendant problems of shattered relationships and broken homes represent a betrayal of trust which fosters deep insecurity. As we have departed further from any belief in norms and boundaries, some are trying to erode even the biological distinctions between male and female, with tragic consequences for young people. Today’s youth can be encouraged to interpret normal adolescent insecurities as signs they are transgender, potentially leading to irreversible hormonal and even surgical treatment. Against this background, the preciousness of what God has done in making us male and female and the beauty of marriage stands out more starkly. The church community should also stand out, called out from the world, our imperfect relationships with one another nevertheless pointing beyond us to the love of Christ for his people.

It would be easy to be discouraged by the moral decline in our society and the pressure that is often felt by members of our churches, none more so than by our children and young people. They are too often marginalised in their views, not just by their peers at school but by teachers themselves. However, recent good news gives us cause to praise God and strengthens the opportunity for Christians in England to be an influence for good in our schools, an opportunity which we must avail ourselves of in faithfulness to our Lord.

On September 24, the Government released two pieces of supplemental guidance for schools: ‘Teaching about relationships, sex and health’ and ‘Plan your relationships, sex and health curriculum’ (available online here and here). These respond to the frankly appalling teaching in some schools, giving them strong direction.

First of all, there is a recognition that people hold different opinions on issues of relationships and sex, and on ‘equalities issues’. Schools must treat these views with respect and, in particular, have a duty to teach about them in a fair and balanced way:

‘...[schools] must... secure that where political issues are brought to the attention of pupils, they are offered a balanced presentation of opposing views... the meaning of political issues does not refer solely to the discussion of party politics... political views... may include... equalities issues, religion...’

Schools should not, for example, promote same-sex marriage. They may teach that there is provision for same-sex marriage and encourage respect for people who enter into same-sex relationships, but if discussing the merits of same-sex marriage, they would also have to present fairly the view of those opposed to it. This may be a challenge for some teachers who might never have seriously engaged with such views, so the guidance directs schools that they:

‘might also consider activities that support teachers to reflect on their own values around the subject and consider ways to present an unbiased and evidence-based curriculum to pupils.’

In fact, legislation already directs all schools in England to teach:

‘the nature of marriage and civil partnership and their importance for family life and the bringing up of children’. (Education Act 2002, s.80A 2ai)

We might be dismayed by the equating of civil partnership and marriage. Nevertheless, the nature of marriage and its importance must be taught. The new guidance, furthermore, instructs schools that they must be careful in their choice of teaching resources used:

‘You should assess all resources carefully to ensure they are age appropriate… and are in line with your school’s legal duties in relation to impartiality… When deciding if a resource is suitable, you should consider if it… is evidence-based and contains robust facts and statistics.’

There is indeed robust evidence about the benefits of marriage, for example in the recent report from the Centre for Social Justice, Family Structure Still Matters, available online. Naturally, schools must be sensitive in how they address this, bearing in mind the family backgrounds of their pupils. Nonetheless, schools should not deny the clear evidence of the benefits of marriage. This knowledge could inform some of the most important decisions they will make in their lives.

The new guidance reserves some of its strongest words for schools which allow groups to come into school to teach children about transgender issues:

‘You should not reinforce harmful stereotypes, for instance by suggesting that children might be a different gender based on their personality and interests or the clothes they prefer to wear… teachers should not suggest to a child that their non-compliance with gender stereotypes means that either their personality or their body is wrong and in need of changing… Materials which suggest that nonconformity to gender stereotypes should be seen as synonymous with having a different gender identity should not be used and you should not work with external agencies or organisations that produce such material.’

This rules out organisations such as Mermaids, which teach that someone’s gender sits on a scale from ‘Barbie’ to ‘GI Joe’. They suggest those who have a gender that doesn’t match the one they were ‘assigned at birth’ are transgender and may consider medical treatment to ‘confirm’ their true gender. There have been well-founded concerns about the materials some schools expose children to. The new guidance helpfully instructs schools not to expose children to over-sexualised content, especially in primary schools.

Parents in our churches can be encouraged to speak up where schools fail to abide by these requirements. The new guidance states:

‘When planning their curriculum, state funded schools should be mindful of the requirement under the Human Rights Act 1998 to respect the right of parents to ensure education and teaching in conformity with their own religious and philosophical convictions.’

This is in addition to the existing duty of schools to consult parents before they write their policy on Relationships and Sex Education. If all else fails, parents can withdraw their children from sex (not relationships) education and the additional guidance tells schools:

‘Stating clearly exactly what aspects of sex education are covered in what terms and years is helpful to allow parents and carers to make this decision.’

In fact, the law already directs schools to provide relationships and sex education which is ‘appropriate having regard to the age and the religious background of the pupils.” (Education Act 2002, s.80A 2b)

Consultation is a key opportunity for schools to find out about the religious background of pupils and to understand the implications of those religious beliefs for relationships and sex. This is a significant opportunity for Christians to wisely explain a Christian view and, in so doing, influence schools for good.

There may also be opportunities for Christian ministers. The statutory guidance for schools notes the importance of positive relationships between the school and local faith communities to create a constructive context for the teaching of these subjects. This is a good opportunity for church leaders to build relationships with schools and help them understand religious viewpoints, assisting schools in fulfilling their legal duty.

By firmly and winsomely taking a stand on these issues, we can safeguard our own children and benefit other children and society at large. Let us take this opportunity and pray God will use us to be salt and light in this crucial area. For further information, please see The Christian Institute’s guides to Relationships and Sex Education available here or in hardcopy by phoning 0191 281 5664.

John Denning, Education Officer, Christian Institute

(This article was originally published in the Affinity Social Issues Bulletin for November 2020. The whole edition can be found at www.affinity.org.uk)


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