Government seeks to overhaul law on SRE
On Wednesday, the Government announced that it will amend the Children and Social Work Bill to make changes to the law on sex and relationships education in England which will erode, and some ways undermine, the role of parents. The amendment will be the subject of a debate and vote in the House of Commons this coming Tuesday.
It is impossible to understand the changes that the Government is proposing to sex education without first understanding the current law.
The Current Law on Sex and Relationships Education
The law on sex and relationships education is widely misunderstood. Calls are regularly made to make sex and relationships education ‘statutory’ as if the law does not already require schools to teach the subject. The truth is that all maintained secondary schools are required by law to teach sex and relationships education. In primary schools, meanwhile, the teaching of sex and relationships education is optional.
The actual curriculum is not determined centrally but by school governors who should be mindful of both guidance issued by the Secretary of State for Education and the views of parents. This arrangement (although in practice all too often parents have not been consulted) is very positive because it provides scope for a significant role for parents.
Research demonstrates that children are far less likely to engage in risky behaviour if their parents have talked to them about sex. A way of making these conversations more likely is to give parents a stake in the curriculum by consulting them on it. If parents have input to the curriculum they will have greater awareness of, and interest in, this subject going forward than would otherwise be the case. This is also more likely to generate interest in when the subject is being taught and to follow up with conversations with their children at home.
The current arrangement also provides an important safety mechanism in that, if a parent is unhappy with the curriculum that a school develops, they have a right to withdraw their children from sex and relationships education.
CARE strongly supports this basic approach but believes it could be greatly enhanced by making the Government’s advice to schools to consult parents about the sex education curriculum mandatory.
The aspect of the current arrangements which arguably may seem surprising is that Academies are not under an express statutory obligation to teach sex and relationships education. This is because the general approach to Academies has, up until this point, been to devolve decisions to the school.
The Government’s proposed changes
The Government is proposing that Academies, like maintained secondary schools, should now be required to teach Relationships and Sex Education. CARE has no issue with this.
The Government is proposing that there should still be a parental right of withdrawal from sex education elements of this, although the terms of this withdrawal have not yet been defined and it has been suggested that going forward this might only apply to children of a certain age. This is a cause for concern.
However, what is perhaps most troubling is that the Government is now proposing that all primary schools must teach Relationships Education and that parents should have no right to withdraw their children.
At first glance this seems innocent enough; after all, the main concern parents have regarding SRE is teaching about sex at an inappropriate age and in an inappropriate manner. However, in the current climate, the definition of family and healthy relationships is just as controversial. If some ‘modern’ relationships were taught in a promotional way, as they have been by some resources, having the option of withdrawal will be very important to many Christian parents of primary school children.
A further problem with the Government’s amendments is that rather than defining the new legislation by simply amending the Children and Social Work Bill, they are proposing to make these changes largely through what is called ‘secondary legislation’. This is very concerning for two reasons:
- secondary legislation is only subject to limited scrutiny (just one short debate in the Commons and the Lords with no scope to amend it); and
- the definition of the scope of the legislation in secondary legislation, as well as through the Government’s amendment to the Children and Social Work Bill, opens the door for the curriculum to be defined far more tightly than is the case at present, giving far less scope for parents and governors to shape the curriculum.
The Government has said that it will be consulting prior to publishing the proposed secondary legislation. CARE is calling on the Government to apply the right of withdrawal to Relationships Education and to strengthen the role of parents in setting the Relationships and Sex Education curriculum going forward.
To this end CARE very much supports Sir Edward Leigh’s amendment to the Government’s Relationships and Sex Education amendments, both of which should be debated on Tuesday.