Parents' rights to withdraw children from compulsory sex education classes 'unlawful', say ministers

Rachael Pells
Sex and relationships education campaigner Laura Bates said current guidelines allowing parents to withdraw their children were 'disappointing': Getty

Parents' rights to withdraw their children from compulsory sex education classes in school is to be reviewed, as it is no longer consistent with the law.

According to a Government policy paper, ministers are to consult on whether pupils above a certain age should instead be allowed to choose for themselves whether or not to take part.

Education Secretary Justine Greening’s recent announcement that sex and relationships education (SRE) is to be made compulsory in all schools in England has been met with praise by campaigners, who said the news was “long overdue”.

In accordance with new Government proposals, children from as young as four are to be given age-appropriate lessons on safe and healthy relationships in school.

Secondary school pupils will also be given lessons on sex as well as the dangers of the internet including pornography and sexting.

Under current guidance, parents are able to withdraw their children from sex education classes, but following Wednesday’s announcement, only parents of primary school children will not be granted the right to opt them out of the new relationships classes.

“The amendments will continue to allow parents a right to withdraw children from sex education, and schools will be required to publish a clear statement of their policy and what will be taught, so that parents can make informed decisions,” a Department for Education statement said.

Campaigners have questioned the current opt-out system, however, and the Government's own policy paper claims providing parents with a “blanket right” to remove their child is “no longer consistent” with English case law.

Officials say the right is also not consistent with the European Convention on Human Rights or United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Speaking to The Independent, SRE campaigner and founder of Everyday Sexism, Laura Bates, said the current rules allowing parents to withdraw their children from SRE classes was “disappointing”.

“Every child has the right to have this information presented to them,” she said, “just the same way every child has the fundamental human right to learn about everything else they do in school.”

“I think there’s an unnecessary anxiety around sex education – some parents have this terror their children are being exposed to inappropriate material or ideology that they wouldn’t otherwise find.

“But the reality is it’s just like any other subject - it’s giving children age appropriate information about their rights and the law. It’s not brainwashing, it’s not about exposing young people to things they aren’t already confronting. We know that 60 per cent of young people are already seeing pornography by the time that they are 14 years old.

She added: “The thought of ‘Oh, I don’t want my child exposed to these things’ is an understandable, knee-jerk reaction, but the reality is they are bombarded with these influences already, and we have a choice: Do we stick our heads in the sand or do we give them to tools they need to deal with it?”

A policy statement released with Ms Greening's announcement said: "The Secretary of State will consult further in order to clarify the age at which a young person may have the right to make their own decisions.

"The outcome will be set out in regulations which will be subject to consultation and debate.

"Providing a parent with a blanket right to withdraw their child from sex education is no longer consistent with English caselaw," it added.

Diana Johnson, a Labour MP who has previously questioned the government’s existing policy on sex education and pupil choice, welcomed the chance for a review.

She told Schools Week the existing legal right of a parent to withdraw a young person from sex education no matter what their age is “quite frankly now outdated”.

“I hope that the government will now ensure that all young people are able to access good quality age-appropriate relationship and sex education for at least one year during their secondary education,” she added, “as the last Labour government had proposed over eight years ago.”

The Department for Education said it would be working with experts and charity groups over the proposed content of the new SRE curriculum and will consult on a draft law later this year.

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