RSE needs clarity, not the DfE’s cowardly fudging
In trying to keep guidance up to date while not offending parents, the government has come up with a document that is not fit for purpose and hangs heads out to dry
The new statutory relationships, sex and health education curriculum that schools will have to teach from September looks great – at first glance, anyway.
Pick away at it, however, and there are fudges, contradictions and concessions all over the place. It’s basically a big steaming pile of trouble for headteachers, teachers and schools. The government has hung them out to dry with guidance so vague it puts the responsibility on schools to define it and thus, presumably, take the blame for any fall-out.
It’s a situation Sarah Hewitt-Clarkson, head of Anderton Park Primary School in Birmingham, is all too familiar with. Her school was at the heart of protests about the teaching of LGBT relationships last year and Hewitt-Clarkson had to go to court to secure an injunction to stop protestors disrupting her school. To say that that support from the Department for Education was not forthcoming would be understatement. And when it did come, it was too little, too late.
That a primary head had to take legal action to ensure the safety of her staff and pupils and was forced to endure six and a half hours of cross-examination for carrying out her statutory equality duties is unacceptable. No head should ever have to go through that.
Not only did she get scant support from a cowardly DfE, the information it provided to the public as frequently asked questions about compulsory relationships education further fuelled the protests. And adding insult to injury, the FAQs were even at odds with its own guidance. Hewitt-Clarkson has now drawn up her own set of FAQs informed by her experience to help heads navigate this tricky territory.
At the heart of the problem with the new curriculum is a DfE that needed to bring sex and relationships education into the 21st century but did not want to upset parents, especially those from religious groups. Because of that, they are putting schools in an untenable position and threatening the very parental and community relationships on which schools are built and depend.
Now, legally, all schools must teach about relationships education and parents have no right to withdraw their children from this. Secondary schools will be expected to teach about LGBT relationships, but for primary schools, the situation is less clear. Pupils, government says, have to know that other families may look “different from their own” and schools have to adhere to the Equality Act, but earlier in the guidance it states that LGBT should be taught when schools feel it is age appropriate to do so. What on earth are primary heads supposed to do then? It’s not at all evident and it’s buck-passing extraordinaire.
In secondary, parents will still have the right to withdraw their child from sex education until up to three terms before their child turns 16. At that point, the child can choose to receive sex education and the school must deliver this in one of the three terms before they turn 16 – the age of consent. Good luck with sorting that one out.
Schools are required to consult with parents when developing and reviewing their policies. Consultation will not give parents a veto on content, but schools are required to listen to parents’ views and then make a “reasonable” decision on how they wish to proceed. Whose “reasonable”? My reasonable will not be the same as your reasonable – it certainly won’t be the same as Mrs Smith’s down the road. Over to schools to take the flak again.
None of this is fair. It is unfair to parents who think they are getting a say and it is unfair on schools, which are going to have to shoulder the responsibility that should lie firmly with government. It is a dereliction of ministerial duty. The craven DfE should think again.
This article originally appeared in the 14 February 2020 issue under the headline “The DfE’s cowardly RSE stance is as vague as it is disgraceful”