The controversial new Relationships and Sex Education (RSE) Statutory Instrument completed its passage through Parliament last Wednesday when it received the approval of the House of Lords.
The regulations are controversial because they make the teaching of LGBT relationships and sexual practices compulsory. They also downgrade the right of parents to withdraw their children from sex education at secondary school and replace it with a right to “request” withdrawal. The head teacher can refuse this “request”.
Downgrading the right of withdrawal breaches Article 2 of Protocol 1 of the Human Rights Act 1998, which requires the State to ensure education is in conformity with the ‘religious and philosophical convictions’ of parents.
The government had initially committed to keeping the right of withdrawal as it was. But now, they claim that ‘an absolute parental right up to 18 years old is no longer compatible with English case law and the European Convention on Human Rights.’
Lord Morrow called out this claim during the Lords’ debate. He said that the government ‘have not published their legal advice to back any of that up, which makes it impossible for us as lawmakers to properly scrutinise these proposals.’
The materials in schools includes teaching children about high risk sexual practices popular amongst LGBT people.
He also noted that the Supreme Court has not ‘made a human rights declaration of incompatibility with respect to the right of parents in the existing legislation to withdraw their children from relationships and sex education.’
Lord Mackay, however, argued that campaigners fighting to keep the right of withdrawal as the prerogative of parents had got this wrong. Citing a European Court judgment that the State ‘must take care that information or knowledge included in the curriculum is conveyed in an objective, critical and pluralistic manner,’ (italics mine) he contended that a right of withdrawal was not relevant to compatibility with the Human Rights Act, since all that was necessary was to be ‘objective in every respect.’
If campaigners want to see the right of withdrawal reinstated they will now need to make a priority of challenging this in the courts.
Whatever comes of such action, however, one thing came across loud and clear in the debate. There is a prevailing mood in government and amongst lawmakers that it is more important that children are taught whatever the State in its wisdom thinks is in their interest as regards sex and LGBT relationships than that parents’ rights to educate their children according to their own convictions are respected.
Time after time in the debate, peers argued that the rights of parents needed to be ‘balanced’ with the rights of children, by which they meant the rights of the State to educate children according to its idea of their best interests.
Baroness Massey, for instance, referred to the ‘rights of children to receive information and develop good attitudes towards sexuality and relationships’ – completely failing to recognise that what is in dispute here is what constitutes a ‘good attitude’ towards sexuality. That is precisely where the religious and moral convictions of thousands of parents conflict with the agenda of the sexual progressives eager to assure children that all consensual sexual activity is good and healthy.
There were also numerous references during the debate to the needs of ‘LGBT kids,’ ‘LGBT pupils’ and the like – with no recognition that projecting adult labels and sexual identities like gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender onto immature children is a category error and wholly inappropriate. If the idea of a ‘gay child’ is what progressives have in mind as an objective fact then they are going to find themselves with an argument on their hands.
Another big problem with talking about teaching facts and being objective is that people differ on which facts they think are relevant and ought to be taught to young people.
For example, the new guidance requires sex and relationships education to be LGBT inclusive. In most of the educational materials now being used by schools this has meant teaching children about, among other things, various unconventional and high risk sexual practices popular amongst LGBT people.
Some of these I confess I had never heard of until I researched this article, and wish now I could return to my former state of innocence. Why do children have to be exposed to such ideas, and have the possibility of them implanted in their minds? There are many facts that we might present to children but clearly not all of them are equally appropriate or salutary.
‘Healthy sexual development’ for children from the age of 13 includes taking an interest in pornography.
In any case, though, is sex and relationships education really going to remain limited to what could reasonably be called objective facts? Under this guidance it would seem extremely unlikely, if not utterly impossible.
Consider, for instance, the advice being provided to schools by one prominent sex education charity, Brook. In it they state unequivocally that ‘healthy sexual development’ for children from the age of 13 includes taking an interest in pornography and engaging in sexual relationships that include ‘consenting oral and/or penetrative sex with others of the same or opposite gender who are of similar age and developmental ability.’
They also categorise as only potentially ‘outside of safe and healthy behaviour’ for 13-year-olds to use violent pornography or join ‘adult-only social networking sites’ and arrange ‘a face to face meeting with an online contact alone.’ Potentially? A 13-year-old using violent pornography and meeting up alone with adults he or she has met online?
Is this the ‘good attitude’ to sexuality that Baroness Massey claimed children have a right to and for which the State must now usurp the rights of parents to educate their children? Is this the State being ‘objective in every respect,’ as Lord Mackay supposed?
Clearly not. But one thing such ‘education’ is surely doing is putting children at increased risk of abusive relationships, and of themselves becoming abusers.
There are facts about sex and relationships that young people ought to learn. Such as that young people do best when they delay becoming sexually active. Or that the very best and safest context for sexual activity is monogamous marriage. Or that it is far from easy as a same-sex couple to start a family, and simply impossible to have joint biological children. But these don’t appear to be the kinds of facts the proponents of RSE have in mind.
The new regulations and guidance are now, regrettably, in law. What remains is for parents (especially) and others around the country to remain vigilant. To make use of the rights provided in law to see educational materials, to be consulted, to raise concerns and to withdraw or request withdrawal.
The government have left it up to schools to determine for themselves what is to count as relationships education (and therefore mandatory with no right of withdrawal) and what is sex education and therefore optional for primary schools and admitting of withdrawal rights.
Where parents are concerned about relationships education they should challenge it and argue that it is in fact sex education and claim their right of withdrawal – as parents effectively did at Parkfield Community School in Birmingham in March.
In the debate, peers described the new regulations as a ‘big change’ and, for progressives, a ‘breakthrough moment’. On that we can agree. Considerable pushback is now required by all who care about our children and their future.
(Dr Will Jones is a maths graduate with a PhD in political philosophy and author of Evangelical Social Theology: Past and Present [Grove, 2017]. He writes on his website Faith and Politics)