SCOTLAND'S top two politicians have united in a determined bid
to cool the increasingly overheated debate on Section 28 and gay rights.
But, although the Scottish Executive has confirmed that new guidelines for teachers will be in place before the repeal of the legislation on the "promotion" of homosexuality in schools, parliamentary exchanges between Donald Dewar, the First Minister, and Alex Salmond, the SNP leader, last week suggested there is official satisfaction with the existing guidance.
Mr Dewar said he had looked at the guidelines on sex education personally. He had found them "sound in tone and comprehensive in cover". But he assured Mr Salmond they would be re-examined and agreed with him that there must be full consultation.
The Executive plans to write to directors of education "at an appropriate point in the legislative process" outlining the intention behind the repeal of Section 28 and its implications for schools. There would be an overview of the current guidance and the promise of a fresh look at what resources might be required.
The Conservatives are not satisfied, however, and David McLetchie, the party's leader, has written to Mr Salmond urging a complete review of sex education and a delay in scrapping Section 28 while this is carried out.
The timing and strength of reassurances from ministers will be critical in determining the outcome of the meeting in New Lanark today (Friday) of the executive of the Scottish School Board Association. The association has come in for heavy criticism for backing the "Keep the Clause" campaign fronted by the Glasgow-based lobbyists Media House and bankrolled by Brian Souter, millionaire owner of the Stagecoach group.
The SSBA's executive will face a motion to pull out of the campaign and accept repeal of Section 28 - but only if revised guidelines are in place first. There were indications this week that senior SSBA figures would accept a face-saving compromise in a first step towards repairing its relationship with teachers.
The new line began to emerge earlier in the week from Alan Smith, the association's treasurer, who has been its voice in the significant absence from the fray of David Hutchison, the SSBA's president, who appears uncomfortable with its involvement.
Mr Smith claimed the SSBA had made "significant progress" in persuading the Executive not to abolish Section 28 without adequate assurances. But there would have to be "statutory safeguards," he told BBC's Newsnight Scotland programme.
Mr Dewar told MSPs last week, however: "It is a misconception that the suggestion of revising the guidelines has somehow come up under the pressures of the debate of the last week or two. It was announced a long time ago and has been a commitment for some time."
Mr Salmond said: "What is at stake is not the promotion of homosexuality in schools but the trusting of teachers so that they be allowed to discuss sensitive issues in an atmosphere of tolerance and mutual respect".
Mr Dewar said there was "common ground" that nobody wished t promote homosexuality in schools, which was also the view of the gay community. It was a question of "how in our schools we treat a sensitive area with sensitivity and make sure that children who are troubled get the proper support and counselling."
Jim Whannel, head of Caldercuilt primary in Glasgow and spokesman for the West of Scotland Lesbian and Gay Forum, agreed there would be value in clarifying the existing guidelines "to ensure schools do not impart discriminatory ideas to children".
Mr Whannel hoped, however, that any clarification would proceed on the traditional basis of issuing guidelines to schools "not a legal strait jacket". He added: "This is good educational practice. Section 28, which denigrates one group in the community, is about bad educational practice."
Further support for the repeal of Section 28 has come from the Association of Directors of Education and the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities. The directors said it is "inappropriate that teachers should have their judgment inhibited by this discriminatory legislation".
Cosla supported the call to have "confidence in our teachers that they are capable of teaching on issues such as homosexuality in a sensitive and even-handed way".
* WHAT THE GUIDELINES ADVISE
Existing guidance on sex education, which does not specify homosexuality, is embedded within health education as well as personal and social education.
1. The 5-14 programme on environmental studies contains guidelines on "healthy and safe living". This assumes that, by the end
of S2, pupils will have explored "the nature of personal relationships and their effects on health and well-being, the nature and effects of personal growth and development, the influence of behaviour and lifestyles on health and well-being".
Among key issues are developing sexuality and sexual responsibility and "complex feelings and emotions of young people" (under the "looking after oneself" theme).
2. Consultation is already taking place on health education 5-14, the intention being to remove it from environmental studies and place it within personal and social education. The draft outline makes clear the importance of consulting pupils and involving parents, "creating a climate between staff and pupils that will encourage honest discussion and a feeling of trust".
3. The Health Education for Living Project (HELP) is a curricular framework for teachers covering all aspects of health education, including sex education. It sets out suggested content for lessons and points teachers to resources and materials and to the relevant national guidelines.
4. Personal Relationships and Developing Sexuality, described as "a staff development tool covering sex education". It stresses that young people should be allowed to explore issues about sexual behaviour and sexual messages and to "develop skills and strategies to help them make decisions about their own behaviour and relationships.
It is the last two documents that would be reviewed following repeal of Section 28.