This week, the new framework for the teaching of relationships and sex education (RSE) will become legal.
Much has been written about the guidance, and it’s not surprising. Relationships are at the core of what it means to be human. How we frame those relationships – in family and friendship, within communities and between nations – needs careful thought. For Christians, as for other people of faith, our identity as humans exists in relationship with God. We believe that the dignity and worth of every individual exists because they are made unique and precious in the image and likeness of the Creator.
We seek to live in loving human relationships which reflect something of God’s love for the world, and to form patterns of life in family and society in which each may be fully alive as God intended. The challenge is to live in ways which are rooted deep in Scripture and the tradition of the Christian faith, and which contribute to the common good of the plural society of which we are part today.
The point of the new RSE guidance is to update the existing legislation, which is nearly 20-years-old. When that guidance was written, fewer than ten per cent of households were connected to the internet, and connection speeds were snail-like.
There were no smartphones and no social media. Now, despite positive steps in regulating the internet, even primary school aged children live in a world of rapid online interactions that those with a duty of care will never be able fully to moderate or even to understand. More and more young people are exposed to pornography, to practices such sexting and shaming, and inhabit an online world which has real-life consequences for mental health and the development of positive relationships. Most parents would agree we cannot let this be the quantum of their role modelling, but do not themselves feel fully equipped to offer alternatives. Here is where the RSE guidance comes in.
This new legislation has been formed over two years by the government. The Church of England, as the biggest single education provider in the country, has been among the parties engaged in the consultation. We have been robust where necessary, and we feel both that the consultation has been genuine, and that the government deserves to be congratulated for the finished product.
First and foremost, the new guidance is about promoting healthy resilient relationships set in the context of character and virtue development. The focus is on respecting others, including the beliefs and practices of people with a specific faith commitment, as well as those from the many different types of families that make up our cultural context. It makes explicit a shared duty of care between parents and schools, and that what takes place in the classroom builds on what has been taught in the home.
In the course of the consultation, we raised concerns about the problematisation of religion and faith; the final guidance asserts that all schools – not only those of a faith character – must teach about faith perspectives on these questions.
At the outset of the consultation, I said that this guidance would need to be carefully targeted and age-appropriate. It is pleasing to see a focus for primary school children on families of different types and healthy relationships, within the context of a set of shared values. Primary aged children will not – as has been suggested – be expected to learn about intimate sexual relationships, which rightly comes at the secondary stage.
The new guidance maintains the need for schools to consult their parental community in developing the curriculum, with parents ultimately having the right to excuse their children from sex education if they wish. Our hope is that they will not do so, but this must nonetheless remain an option in order to honour legitimately-held positions of concern.
While there should be no room for any form of discrimination, the mark of a genuinely plural society is respect for differing, sincerely-held views, whether about marriage or about other patterns of relationship which are societal norms today.
Schools will now have the option to adopt the new RSE guidance from the start of the next academic year, before it becomes a statutory requirement from September 2020.
I hope and pray that as they do so, schools, families and carers will work together to recognise the complementary contributions of each in enabling children to navigate safely growing up in the digital age, and ensuring they develop the skills they need to flourish in healthy relationships throughout their lives.
Bishop of Ely, Stephen Conway, is the the Church of England’s lead Bishop for education