Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Catholic pressure causes Government to water down sex education measures

Catholic pressure causes Government to water down sex education measures
The Government has reneged on its commitment to ensuring all children will receive broad, balanced and objective sex and relationship education (SRE).

Ed Balls MP, Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, this week tabled an amendment to the Government’s Children, Schools and Families Bill which in effect will provide an opt-out for religious schools when Personal, Social, Health and Economic (PSHE) education, which includes SRE, becomes compulsory in schools from September 2011. The Government originally intended all governing bodies and head teachers to have regard to a set of "principles" which include statements about how PSHE should be taught. Such principles stated that PSHE should be taught in a way that endeavours to promote equality and encourages acceptance of diversity. However, the Government has now laid an amendment to this Bill which many fear would curtail the implementation of SRE and PSHE in religious schools. The new amendment states that the principles “are not to be read as preventing the governing body or head teacher of a school within subsection (7B) from causing or allowing PSHE to be taught in a way that reflects the school’s religious character.”

The Catholic Education Service (CES) was quick to claim the credit for the Government’s apparent U-turn. A statement on its website claimed the amendment was tabled following a period of extensive lobbying by the Catholic Education Service for England and Wales.

National Secular Society spokesperson Stephen Evans said, “It is disgraceful that the Government is seen to be willing to sacrifice the health and well being of children in order to satisfy the demands of a minority religious lobby. The Government has already agreed that the issues that Personal, Social, Health and Economic education covers are central to all children and young people’s well-being and to their healthy development as they grow up. It is therefore a betrayal of children’s rights for the Government to now say that children in religious schools can be denied the same entitlement to objective teaching on issues such as contraception, safe sex, sexuality and abortion as children in community schools.

“Only this week the Joint Committee on Human Rights welcomed the Bill saying it welcomed the Government's explicit acceptance that the teaching of sex and relationships in faith schools must present material that is accurate and balanced, must not present that faith's views as the only valid views, and must promote equality and diversity. However, the new amendment casts serious doubt on the Government’s willingness to ensure the rights of children in religious schools are protected from opt-outs demanded by self-interested religious groups.”

The Government’s amendment was also criticised by the Children's Rights Alliance for England. Carolyne Willow, national coordinator of the Alliance said, “This amendment was completely unnecessary as there is already provision in the Bill for PSHE to take into account different perspectives, including religious beliefs. It is absolutely vital that sex and relationships education funded by the State occurs within the context of commitment to equality and respect for diversity; anything less is discriminatory.”

In the Guardian, a spokesman from the Department for Children, Schools and Families dismissed the complaints. Faith schools would not be able to opt out of statutory SRE lessons when they came into effect in September 2011, he stressed.

"All maintained schools will be required to teach full programmes of study in line with the principles outlined in the bill, including promoting equality and encouraging acceptance of diversity.

"Schools with a religious character will be free to express their faith and reflect the ethos of their school, but what they cannot do is suggest that their views are the only ones."

This meant a Catholic school would be required to teach the facts about contraception, but would also be able to reflect the church's views on its use.

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