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Pulpit prejudice has no place in schools

Picture this. A substantially secular society with few churchgoers but with a cracking hangover from the days of the iron control of both Calvinism and Roman Catholicism. This is Scotland in 2005. Against such a background, the topic of sex education still has the capacity to throw switches and arouse the most fervent responses from quarters with vested interests. This is borne out in The TES Scotland two weeks ago. Sex education, rightly, found its way into the leader and, elsewhere in that edition, other articles clearly demonstrated the delicacy with which this matter needs to be handled.

Apparently, the Scottish Executive is still being pressurised by Roman Catholic and Protestant representatives over the implementation of its sexual health strategy. Michael McGrath, director of the Scottish Catholic Education Service, talks about promoting genuine abstinence and hamming up the positive values associated with this. Very interesting. Could someone please explain to me what non-genuine abstinence might be?

The Church of Scotland is apparently worried about the lack of suitable training teachers are receiving to deliver sex education lessons. A laudable enough stance, but I have to admit to straightening a wry smile.

It brought to mind painful memories in the shape of best forgotten hell, fire and damnation sermons which I had the misfortune to be exposed to in a past life. The Kirk may be anxious about how teachers deliver the sex education curriculum, but maybe it should be using any clout it has got to influence the way many of its ministers make pronouncements on sexual matters from their pulpits.

Too much bigotry remains, as is demonstrated by the endlessly wearisome debate about the rights and wrongs of homosexuality. As long as churches proclaim it to be an abomination in the sight of God, schools, ever a microcosm of society, will receive the fallout from such offensive claptrap. This is dangerous because prejudices breed all too easily in such a context.

The evidence for the existence of such rampant homophobia is manifold. In December, for example, during a Scottish Parliament Christmas service, Cardinal Keith O' Brien described gay people as "captives of sexual aberration". This deeply wounding comment underlines the narrow fundamentalism which is an absolute blight on Scottish society and proof, as if any is required, that churches should keep their noses out of schools.

Thank goodness then for the 82 per cent of young teachers - part of a recent survey of 700 teachers carried out by The TES in England - who said that they would be happy to tell a pupil that it was all right to be lesbian or gay. Little wonder that the gay rights group Stonewall welcomed this response as "encouraging".

Yet what the churches say and do within their protected ramparts would arguably be entirely their own business - after all, it is apparently a free country - if their outrageous words from the dark ages never saw the light of day. Regrettably, this is not so. The church still claims its pound of flesh when it comes to putting its oar into education policy. In some, shall we say less than enlightened, areas of Scotland the church still creates quite a degree of discomfort for religious education teachers.

I am always fascinated, in a cautious kind of way, by people who assume that religious education teachers are but God's messengers in another guise. Again, this misguided attitude is conceived out of the belief that somehow Scottish children should have the fundamentalist take on the world shoved down their throats. I would contend that, in the interests of their holistic development as well adjusted emotionally intelligent beings, such an approach is the last thing they need.

In the interests of democracy, I am quite prepared to let the churches have their say. But they should not besmirch sex education by peddling their rigidities.

Marj Adams teaches religious studies, philosophy and psychology at Forres Academy.

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