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'Defending parents' rights in the sex ed debate is a straw man'

Campaign groups stir up animosity in response to SRE regulation by falsely presenting it as threatening to the majority of parents

Parents versus schools

When Katie Hopkins tweeted “The British government wants to force-feed their trans narrative down the throats of four- and five-year-olds in the UK”, she went on to erroneously claim that the government was forcing children in nappies to learn about “trans relationships”. One pressure group was quick to retweet her comments with the hashtag #parentpower.

Meanwhile, on Monday, Parliament debated a petition signed by more than 100,000 individuals asserting parents’ "fundamental rights" in the face of moves to introduce new statutory guidance on sex and relationships education (SRE). Yet portraying SRE as a bitter battle between parents and schools is a complete mischaracterisation.

Beyond a vocal and influential lobby, many will see this week’s government guidance on SRE as a long overdue response to mounting evidence regarding the challenges young people face. Indeed, many parents looking at the world their children are growing up in will be delighted to hear that teachers will now receive enhanced training and support to help their children navigate a complex environment.

That is not to say that this is a subject devoid of controversy. The Department for Education’s public call for evidence on SRE received over 23,000 responses and over 40,000 people responded to the subsequent consultation. In fact, the volume of responses was so great that the DfE had to hire research firm Ipsos Mori to analyse the responses with the aid of automated technology. However, the idea that parents should resist the regulations in order to "protect" their children from "dangerous messages" completely misidentifies the greatest threats to young people.  

In fact, if Stop RSE – a campaign group that organised a protest seeking to “protect childhood innocence” on Monday – really wants to protect childhood, they should be far more concerned about the fact that as many as one in five young people are estimated to be involved in sexting. Children do not grow up in a vacuum, and not talking about something does not mean it will not happen – it just means it happens with an extra layer of ignorance and risk.

Most parents will be relieved to know that the new guidance requires schools to ensure pupils are “equipped to manage common difficulties encountered online”. Indeed, in light of damning research on young people’s satisfaction with appearance and life, most parents are unlikely to think that experienced and trained teachers providing sensitive and age-appropriate education is the greatest threat to their children. Schools and parents should be working together to keep their children safe, and this week’s guidance will help ensure this happens for every child.

Some might argue that it is parents who are best placed to provide guidance, but this raises many questions. Firstly, which parents? Are all parents equipped with the relevant skills and knowledge? Some of the issues in this area are highly complex and working out how to cover the relevant content is not easy. Plenty of parents will not have a clear understanding of the complex legalities of issues like sexting, including who is committing a criminal act and how the police might respond; or the differences between gender, sexuality and sex.

Secondly, how much do parents really know about what happens in the playground? Schools have their finger on the pulse of what is going on in pupils’ peer groups and are therefore in a good position to respond. There is absolutely nothing to stop parents from doing their bit, in their own way, in the private sphere of the home.

On Monday, I debated the new guidance on BBC Radio 5 Live with Antonia Tully from the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children. She emphasised her desire to ensure parents can withdraw their children not just from sex education but also relationships education. This includes requirements for primary schools to teach children such apparently inflammatory notions as:

“Others’ families, either in school or in the wider world, sometimes look different from their family, but…they should respect those differences and know that other children’s families are also characterised by love and care.”

Withdrawing children from these lessons will never change the reality of the school and wider community. If a child’s peers still come from families that "look different" to their own, nothing a parent does to withdraw their child from lessons will change that. Instead, pupils are simply left less well equipped to respond and interact respectfully.

Finally, Stop RSE, Parent Power and Antonia Tully often frame their arguments in opposition to a straw man. During our tête-à-tête on 5 Live, Antonia argued that “parents are the best protectors of their children”, that “parents are going to be side-lined” and “in second place”. Yet the new guidance explicitly states that “parents and carers are the prime educators for children on many of these matters. Schools complement and reinforce this role”. The document goes on to insist that schools should “ensure that, when they consult with parents, they provide examples of the resources that they plan to use as this can be reassuring for parents and enables them to continue the conversations started in class at home”.

Perhaps it is because of this explicit recognition that more mainstream organisations have responded far more positively. The government’s consultation response, for example, quotes the Catholic Education Service, which has stated that “the content of the government’s draft guidance is compatible with a Catholic approach to RSE”.

Ultimately, some special interest groups might try to stir up animosity in response to the regulation by presenting it as threatening to the centrality of parents. However, the guidance, in fact, reinforces the government’s commitment to parental primacy, while promising a helping hand.

Given this, it should be clear that rather than being an attack on parents’ primacy, the new guidance is an acknowledgement that parents should not have to stand alone.

Loic Menzies is chief executive of LKMco, an education thinktank

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