THE Scottish Executive last week held the line against pressure from Opposition leaders to make national policy on sex education legally enforceable.
During a Tory-led debate on repeal of the Section 28 legislation which deals with the promotion of homosexuality in schools, the party claimed that guidelines promised by the Government did not offer sufficient safeguards.
Spokespersons admitted, however, that legal advice they had obtained indicated that as the law now stands teachers could be open to prosecution.
Sam Galbraith, Children and Education Minister, has set up a broad-based working party to review curriculum advice and material on sex education, and pledged that repeal of Section 28 would not come into force until this is completed.
It was announced last week that the review group is to be chaired by Mike McCabe, director of education in South Ayrshire.
Opening the debate, Annabel Goldie, the Tories' deputy leader, called for children to be statutorily protected. She sidestepped an intervention from Nicol Stephen, Deputy Enterprise and Lifelong Learning Minister, who asked if she would extend this approach to other areas of the curriculum.
Replying for the Executive, Wendy Alexander, Minister for Communities, said:
"We do not believe that separate laws are required to govern the teaching of every sensitive topic in order to protect our children. The Scottish curriculum works."
Ms Alexander, who has been wrongly credited with announcing the intention to repeal Section 28 last October (in fact, it was Jackie Baillie, her deputy, in September), added: "Scottish parents can take action to stop inappropriate instruction of whatever kind, be it politics in the classroom, the promotion of promiscuity of any kind or the use of inappropriate heterosexual or homosexual material."
Section 28, she said, was "legalised intolerance".
Michael Matheson, the SNP's deputy justice spokesman, gave the party's official support to repeal. But Mr Matheson said it would "keep an open mind on whether it is desirable, necessary or practical to give guidelines a formal status".
He added, however: "Guidelines should reflect the need to trust our teachers."
His remarks led Mr Galbraith to observe later that the concept of "statutory guidelines" was an oxymoron. He hoped the SNP would not be "the first party t be seen to go down the English road of a statutory curriculum".
Nora Radcliffe, equal opportunities spokesperson for the Liberal Democrats, declared it was "extraordinary to suggest that the people who are responsible for running our schools do not have the basic common sense and decency to decide what material is suitable for use in our schools. Teachers are trained professionals whose effectiveness is undermined by discriminatory legislation."
Mary Mulligan, who chairs the Parliament's education committee, said it would ensure the Executive delivered the package of safeguards set out in Mr Galbraith's letter to heads and school board chairs last month.
Nicola Sturgeon, the SNP's education spokesperson, welcomed Mr Galbraith's package. But she felt local authorities might still be required to abide by sex education guidelines to ensure children are protected and teachers supported.
Brian Monteith, the Tories' education spokesman, made it clear the party would only be prepared to contemplate repeal of Section 28 if parents were put in charge of schools as governors are south of the border.
It would be prepared to amend the legislation, however, to ensure pupils were protected from homophobic bullying.
Parents should be allowed by law to withdraw children from sex education lessons, which would also be a safeguard for teachers, Mr Monteith said. School boards should be able to veto any material from education authorities.
MSPs voted for repeal by 88 votes to 18, but this is far from their final say on the matter. The Ethical Standards in Public Life Bill, which is the vehicle for abolishing Section 28, has still to come before the Parliament.
REVIEW GROUP GOES FOR SPREAD OF OPINION
The membership of the McCabe working group on sex education is:
John O'Keane, head of Cardinal Newman High, Bellshill.
Anne Pearson, head of Park primary, Alloa.
Gill Mackay, senior teacher at Dunard primary, Glasgow, and past president of the Educational Institute of Scotland in the city.
Jack Waddell, vice-chairman of Williamwood High school board, East Renfrewshire.
Kim Connolly, a director of the Scottish Parent Teacher Council.
John Laidlaw, convener of the Church of Scotland education committee.
John Oates of the Catholic Education Commission and former head of St Modan's High, Stirling.
Rowena Arshad, director of the centre for education in racial equality in Scotland.