Statutory Relationships and Sex Education: What should we make of school protests? By Dr Max Biddulph
In the first major policy shift in the field for almost twenty years, in England and Wales the Department for Education (DfE) is introducing compulsory Relationships Education for primary pupils and Relationships and Sex Education (RSE) for secondary pupils from September 2020.
In the detailing of their intention, the DfE (2019) states that:-
“Through these subjects, we want to support all young people to be happy, healthy and safe – we want to equip them for adult life and to make a positive contribution to society”.
The last time Sex and Relationships Education was given an overhaul was in the early 2000s, so this is a long overdue revision given the shifts in societal values and impact that technology is having on many dimensions of daily life. In explaining the process of consultation, the DfE go on to say that:
“A thorough engagement process, involving a public call for evidence and discussions with over 90 organisations, as well as the public consultation on the draft regulations and guidance, has informed the key decisions on these subjects. The consultation received over 11,000 responses from teachers, schools, expert organisations, young people and parents – these responses have helped finalise the statutory guidance as well as the regulations that have been laid in Parliament”.
Interestingly, despite the fact that the new proposals contained in the legislation received support from the majority of MPs in its passage through parliament in April 2019, this curriculum change is proving controversial in some quarters as evidenced by the high volume of correspondence sent to parliamentarians and the protests outside school gates in Birmingham and Nottingham during 2019.
So although this scenario is predictable as historically researchers have conceptualised the field of RSE as a “contested area”, what should we make of this latest turn of events?
Firstly, it’s helpful to scrutinise the objections that underpin the protests which seem to centre on three key issues namely: the feeling that ‘control’ over what is taught has been taken away from parents, fears that RSE will sexualise ‘innocent children and young people’ and objections to the inclusion of LGBT content.
A second characteristic of the school protest phenomenon seems to be that there is a strong presence of individuals from certain faith groups e.g. Muslim community, and that although some parents and children can be found amongst those protesting, there are a significant number of ‘activists’ for whom faith is strongly aligned with identity.
The situation is further complicated by the fact that in the Nottingham protest, there was a counter protest of parents supporting the inclusion of LGBT content. Given the presence of persons of different ethnicities and faith over an issue that has sexualities at its core, I think it is important to examine at a deeper what is in process here.
The expression of identity through “what I am not?” Conservative Islam versus white secular liberalism? The assertion of deeply held values when they seem to under attack? Homophobia and transphobia?
As a former teacher of Sex and Relationships Education myself, I am supportive of statutory RSE as I see it’s potential to empower and don’t see it as contaminating knowledge, rather as a vehicle for learning protective behaviours.
I am speaking from a fairly privileged position of having researched in the field and delivered considerable amounts of professional development on the subject. I state this not because I want to patronise people with the opposing view but to point out that I have developed a nuanced over view and I think this is key to understanding the current impasse.
Writing in The Guardian (6.8.19), Colin Diamond, Professor of Educational Leadership in the University of Birmingham, raises questions about the way that the government has gone about the introduction of this curriculum change pointing out that ‘the DfE was unwilling to discuss how the guidance would play out in complex multi-faith, multi-ethnic schools and communities.
This was a dereliction of duty by ministers’. Historically the agents of dialogue and engagement with faith schools and communities were professionals in former LEAs or sexual health charities such as fpa, who developed considerable expertise and good practice in this area. Sadly both mechanisms are now gone, the former being replaced by academyisation and the latter a victim of austerity.
Diamond goes on to observe that ‘the protests are wrong and have been almost universally condemned for the use of homophobic slogans and harassment outside schools.
Yet some of the language used to describe the situation has also not been helpful. Those who ask questions about the teaching of LGBT awareness in primary schools are not all “homophobic”, or behaving as “bigots” or “extremists” – just some of the labels being thrown around. And neither is this solely a “Muslim issue”. The protests reflect wider concerns from some Christians and Jews too.
Digging deeper, we find communities who feel they have been backed into a corner and judged as not compatible with 21st century British values. Some mainstream Muslim school leaders in Birmingham (also) feel marginalised’.
So, the battle lines are drawn and in October 2019, the government issued new advice to local authorities on dealing with protests outside schools over LGBT-inclusive teaching.
There is a lot at stake here including the wider project of pastoral care in education. RSE is part of the wider reform of PSHE and includes an important new initiative to support the mental well-being of children and young people.
Perhaps this is the avenue to find the common ground to begin a dialogue and Diamond helpfully steers us to UNICEFs ‘Rights of the Child’. This is an important moment in the story of RSE that is proving painful and damaging for people on all sides.
I hope some dialogue and reconciliation can begin soon.
Dr Max Biddulph
National Association for Pastoral Care in Education (NAPCE)