Thursday, 25 February 2010

Balls to sex education

The government's plans for better sex education in all schools has been watered down by an amendment to the Children, Schools and Families Bill allowing faith schools to 'reflect [their] religious character' in the way PSHE (personal, social, health and economic education) is taught.

The amendment comes after what the Catholic Education Service described as a period of 'extensive lobbying'.

The Schools Secretary Ed Balls is insisting that the amendment is not a watering down but teaching unions and the
National Secular Society have condemned the move, saying that it betrays children in faith schools. These children are often the most in need of accurate, impartial information as devoutly religious parents are unlikely to give it to them.

In
a letter to The Guardian, Balls writes that the legislation 'will not allow the teaching of homophobia'. Schools will have to 'teach the full programme of study. This includes promoting equality and encouraging acceptance of diversity. (...) what they cannot do is suggest that their views are the only ones. (...) The bottom line is that all young people should receive accurate and balanced information and discrimination is prevented in all schools'.

I've
written before about what some hard-core religious groups think about sex education and while not all schools will be this extreme, it's hard to see how a school with a strong religious ethos will be able to fulfill both the legal requirement to teach the full programme and get its religious message across without these two aims coming into conflict. They may not 'suggest that their views are the only ones' but there are ways of presenting alternative views without giving them equal weight, making it perfectly clear what you think about them.

Teenage pregnancy rates have
started to fall. Stats from the Office for National Statistics show that in 2008 pregnancy in under 18s fell by 3.9% and in under 16s by 7.6%. While that's good news, this is not the time to start introducing amendments that could risk them going back up again. And they are still some of the worst in Western Europe. Hard-core religionists are particularly keen on denying women the power to understand and control their own bodies. When it comes to sex education, knowledge is power. Young women should know, for example, how to avoid needing an abortion and, if they do need one, how to get it - without any judgemental moral overtone.

The Government pledged to halve teen pregnancies by 2010. Ed Balls admitted that "It was a really ambitious target - it was a 50% fall. I think it was right to set an ambitious target and it is going to be really hard to make that amount of fall. But it is not enough. I'm still worried about it and there is a lot more to do."

The current amendment doesn't look like it's going to help achieve this target, whatever he says.

Teaching teenagers about sex is hard enough as it is, as an excellent article on
Scarlateen points out. Allowing religious schools to mix facts with faith will make it even harder for young people to get the impartial information they need to protect themselves and to explore their sexuality.

It may be problematic for teachers who are not used to talking about contraception, pre-marital sex, homosexuality and relationships to present the information well - even if their intentions are good. How will children be taught to use condoms if the school's stance is that contraception is a sin? At best, there will be a mixed message leaving them confused. A school may teach that homosexuals are equal under the law in this country but that, according to their God, it's a sin, against natural law. Which message will be stronger?

Some religious leaders are campaigning hard for schools' right to discriminate against gay people in employment, for the right to opt out of equality law - what message does this send to pupils?

Giving equal or greater weight to
abstinence won't work either.

Rabbi Dr. Jonathan Romain called on the Government to withdraw the amendment, saying, “Children at faith schools have just as much right to information that could help them avoid an unwanted pregnancy or sexually transmitted infection" but many religious leaders disagree with him.

PSHE is not just about contraception and STIs. Children and teenagers often have no idea how relationships work, when to have sex, whether to have sex, what kind of sex to have, how to talk about feelings, what to do about sexual abuse and so on. Many will just muddle along and be fine but many will not. Most teens worry at some point about being 'normal' and need reassurance.

The aim of PSHE is to teach more than just the mechanics of sex but there's a difference between teaching young people that they must be responsible, that acts have consequences, and loading them with moral judgements, fear, guilt, insecurities, doubt and prejudice.

We've already seen how the Catholic Church tried to prevent teenage girls having the HPV vaccine that could save their lives because, they said, it would encourage them to have sex. After protests they reluctantly allowed the vaccine as long as no sex ed accompanied it, thus leaving girls vulnerable to every other kind of infection, along with pregnancy. This does not bode well.

Are Catholic nuns going to be happy showing teenagers how to put on a condom?

Of course, it's not just Catholic schools that may be a problem and of course some faith schools will provide good quality PSHE but in some cases, while the head teacher and the school governors may be in favour of impartial teaching, individual teachers of strong belief may find ways to subvert that.

The Tories' position on the Bill is no better. Proposed
Conservative amendments would strike the requirement that PSHE should 'endeavour to promote equality', 'encourage the acceptance of diversity' and 'emphasise the importance of both rights and responsibilities'. They would mean that schools would not be required to teach PSHE and also allow parents to withdraw pupils of any age from SRE (sex and relationship education).

Balls may think he has set up enough safeguards to protect young people and to ensure that they all receive an adequate preparation for adult life, but unless schools are closely and constantly monitored, how will he ensure that all children are being well served? If a teacher oversteps the mark, unless a pupil reports them, no one will know. Teenagers won't be able to judge the quality of the information they get, they may not know they are being sold short until they fall pregnant or get an STI - and may not recognise that they have one until they've passed it on.

And let's not forget that what are often described as 'Christian children' or 'Muslim children' (etc) are more realistically described as the children of Christian (etc) parents who have chosen what school to send them to. On the other hand, many (mostly middle class) parents send their children to faith schools thinking they will get a better education there. They may have liberal values and be keen on full sex education but the children won't be getting it. It's unlikely that many children will feel comfortable discussing sex ed with parents, who may therefore not find out what is being taught them. All privileges have losers and, in allowing religious schools this leeway, it can only be the children who lose out.

Finally, even in non-religious schools, the maximum age for parents to keep children out of sex ed classes has been dropped from 19 to 15. But by that age, many teens are already experimenting. The Bill is a step in the right direction but falls far short of making sure that all young people are fully equipped to understand and enjoy their sexuality.

Mark Steel has commented on the story here.

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