Finding a morality for today

David Henderson finds concern growing over erosion in family values, at the Catholic primary heads' conference in Dunblane.

A young girl's matter-of-fact comment that "her daddy was my daddy last year" characterises the backdrop to the Catholic Education Commission's revised guidelines on relationships and moral education that are now being dispatched to denominational schools.

They were released last week to Roman Catholic primary headteachers at their annual conference in Dunblane amidst continuing concerns about family breakdown, increasing youth sexual experimentation and struggling relationships. Both the Church and the Scottish Executive have sanctioned the curricular guidelines that cover primary to upper secondary.

Josie Mackay, headteacher of St John Bosco Primary in Erskine, who introduced the document that has taken over two years to finalise, said:

"Children are growing up in a different world to the one most of us grew up in and are facing much greater temptations. Some of our parents are also very young and need guidance." But Ian Murray, Bishop of Argyll and the Isles, queried how the guidelines would impact on the different type of families and on children who have "no experience of the parish".

Mrs Mackay replied: "There is no ideal family: children draw their own family. We say people marry when they love each other and when you marry you make a promise to love, honour and stay with that person for the rest of your lives.

"Then we have to say sometimes this doesn't always work and perhaps you're in a family where that marriage has broken. It doesn't mean that at the time the promise was made, it wasn't made truthfully. We don't want to devalue anyone's family but we do want to give them the Church ideal which is that children should be born within marriage. We are teaching that sexual intercourse is for committed adults."

Mrs Mackay said the guidelines would emphasise that bringing up children was not easy and placed stresses on parents. She accepted it was common for parents to swap partners, leading to the young girl's remark about changing fathers. The Church had to teach what was right, yet not devalue the unit the child lived in.

"That's why teachers need to be skilled and need the support of parishes," she said.

The conference heard all staff involved in teaching about relationships and moral education should go through specialist in-service training on the guidelines to understand the "clear and concise Church teaching on moral issues".

Father Joe Chambers, who chaired the Church's working group, admitted:

"This was possibly the most difficult task we have ever undertaken in the Catholic Education Commission."

The commission points out that the guidelines were being redrafted before the last row about sex education advice in schools, prompted by the Section 2A wrangle that led to recent legislative changes. Parents must now be consulted.

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