Compulsory sex education: Human rights campaigners criticise government over faith school 'get-out clause'

Rachael Pells
LGBT campaigner Peter Tatchell warned faith schools will be allowed to 'ignore LGBT issues', leaving a 'damaging effect on pupils': Getty

Education leaders and human rights campaigners have criticised Government proposals over compulsory sex education for "ignoring" LGBT issues and creating a "get-out clause" for faith schools.

Under new laws, all children from the age of four are to be taught about safe and healthy relationships, and children in secondary schools will be given age-appropriate lessons about sex.

The move follows years of campaigning from MPs and charity groups who have successfully argued that the current curriculum is years out of date and does not reflect the dangers faced by young people today.

The news has largely been met with praise, but campaigners argue current guidelines that allow parents to withdraw their children, as well as flexible teaching for faith schools, leave cause for concern.

Human rights advocate Peter Tatchell also questioned that Ms Greening’s announcement gave no mention of LGBT issues – a subject MPs and charity groups say must be included in compulsory teaching.

He told The Independent: “By allowing religious schools to teach sex and relationship education in accordance with the tenets of their faith, the government is giving them a get-out clause.

“They will be allowed to either ignore LGBT issues or to teach that same-sex relationships are immoral, unnatural, abnormal and sinful. In either case, it will have a damaging effect on LGBT pupils.”

“We already know that some faith have serious problems with homophobic bullying and that they often fail to challenge it. The government's proposals offer no remedy to ostracised and bullied LGBT kids in religious-run schools.

Announcing the move on Wednesday, Education Secretary Justine Greening said schools across England will now be bound by the same obligation and include lessons on online dangers, pornography and sexting.

She added that statutory guidance for SRE had been introduced in 2000 and is becoming “increasingly outdated”.

Her statement did not address whether the new SRE proposals will require schools to teach in an LGBT-inclusive manner, however, for instance by covering same-sex relationships.

Mr Tatchell added: ”Disappointingly, Justine Greening is not insisting on assertiveness training to give pupils the skills and confidence to resist and report unwanted sexual advances.

"This is the the single most effective way to reduce child sex abuse, yet the government is not insisting that it is taught in every school.“

Welcoming the announcement, Ian Green, Chief Executive of the Terrence Higgins Trust said that “in order to full address the sexual and mental health crisis among young people”, it was vital the legislation included “neglected topics such as sexual health and on LGBT relationships” to help tackle high rates of STIs among young people and homophobia in schools.

The Catholic Education Service also said it welcomed the Government’s announcement, stating: “Relationship and Sex Education forms part of the mission of Catholic schools to educate the whole person.”

The group, along with teaching unions, stressed a need for flexibility, however, adding: “We additionally welcome the Government’s commitment to protect parental right of withdrawal and involve parents in all stages of the development and delivery of RSE in all schools.”

According to the new proposals, schools will have "flexibility" over how they deliver subjects, "so they can develop an integrated approach that is sensitive to the needs of the local community; and, in the case of faith schools, in accordance with their faith."

While the policy paper states parents’ rights to withdraw their children from sex education will be upheld, the same paper discloses that a “blanket right” to opt-out is “no longer consistent with English case law".

The matter has sparked rumours that parents’ rights will be reviewed. The Government also states it is in the process of seeking input from external groups as to how the curriculum will be drafted.

Speaking to PinkNews, LGBT charity Stonewall said it will be “working with the Government to ensure [LGBT issues] are reflected in updated guidance for schools.

Stonewall Chief Executive Ruth Hunt, said: “This is a huge step forward and a fantastic opportunity to improve inclusion and acceptance in education.

“Currently over half of secondary school students say they never have any discussion of LGBT relationships in their lessons, and over half of lesbian, gay, bi and trans young people are bullied in our schools because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

"That is unacceptable. By mandating all schools to provide good quality, age-appropriate relationships and sex education the Government has paved the way to change that situation.”

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