DONALD DEWAR has sidestepped a suggestion that clause 12 of the education Bill could hold the answer to resolving his problems with Section 2A of the 1986 Local Government Act, the equivalent of the English Section 28 which bans promotion of homosexuality by schools.
The SNP, anxious not to be seen to be toeing the Government line in the run-up to the Ayr by-election but still supporting repeal of Section 2A, looks set to seize on a proposal first put forward by Judith Gillespie, development manager of the Scottish Parent Teacher Council.
Clause 12 requires education authorities to "have regard" to guidance issued by ministers on raising standards. Mrs Gillespie said this principle of central direction, having been established, could now be extended to put "legislative clout" behind guidelines on sex education.
Mr Dewar told MSPs that the education Bill dealt with raising standards but Section 2A was "a very different field". While he welcomed further debate, he found it difficult to envisage "a statutory anchor which avoided statutory guidelines".
The First Minister was defending the Executive's compromise, which won reluctant support from Labour and Liberal Democrat backbenchers, to insert a new section into the Ethical Standards in Public Life Bill. This will require local authorities to "have regard to"the value of stable family life in a child's development and the need to ensure the content of lessons is "appropriate" to each child's age and understanding.
Mr Dewar said the new provision was "inclusive, tolerant, non-judgmental". He added: "We are taking a positive child-centred approach and reinforcing the basic principle that all concerned should be acting in the best interests of the child."
It was this latter formulation that was said to have won round doubting MSPs who wanted the repeal of Section 2A "simpliciter" with nothing put in its place.
Brian Monteith, the Tories' education spokesman, said his party remained committed to "the simplest solution which is to give parents and school boards clear legal rights". Mr Monteith added: "Then Section 2A could be abolished and we could continue with non-statutory guidelines. We are actually more libertarian than the SNP on this issue. We champion diversity in Scottish education."
The Educational Institute of Scotland, in a rare move, has come out in support of the Executive. "Professional responsibility and discretion, balanced with identification of the needs of every pupil, are central to the way in which Scottish schools work and teachers teach," Ronnie Smith, the union's general secretary, said. Children in Scotland also gave its support.