Goodbye Section 28, hello confusion

23rd June 2000 at 01:00
The requirements on teachers who take sex education are still complex despite the McCabe report, reports Neil Munro

THE McCABE report on sex education finally got the Scottish Executive off the Section 28 hook last week. Its face-saving proposal to include the value of marriage in statutory sex education guidance was accepted by ministers, who had previously ruled out both legislative references to marriage and statutory guidance.

The repeal of Section 2A of the 1986 Local Government Act, its proper title, cleared its final hurdle on Wednesday when MSPs passed the Ethical Standards in Public Life etc (Scotland) Bill, ending one of the most explosive episodes in recent Scottish political and educational life. A last-ditch Tory move to assert "the primacy of marriage" in the Bill as well as in the guidance was defeated.

The position now, however, is even more complex. Instead of one piece of legislation affecting sex education in schools, there will be two. The repeal of Section 2A means teachers will no longer be bound by the ban on the "promotion" of homosexuality as a "pretended family relationship".

But schools and education authorities will be obliged to "have regard to" any sex education guidance issued by ministers, using new powers in the education Bill. This will include a statutory requirement to consult parents on sex education.

In addition, following the acceptance of the McCabe report, a circular explaining the ethical standards legislation will be issued to authorities requiring them to ensure that sex education establishes what McCabe defines as "an awareness of the importance of stable family life and relationships, including the responsibilities of parenthood and marriage". The Executive's initial suggestion was that "stable family life" would cover the variety of modern-day relationships.

Wendy Alexander, the Minister for Communities, who is most closely identified with repeal, had opposed any legislative references to marriage arguing that it would create a "moral hierarchy of relationships". Sam Galbraith, the Children and Education Minister, had equally strongly insisted there would be "no statutory curriculum guidelines".

Educaion ministers still stick to this latter view, suggesting that it is the broad-brush "guidance" which will have statutory backing rather than the "guidelines" which specify in more detail what is really taught in the classroom.

The working group, chaired by Mike McCabe, director of education in South Ayrshire, made five central recommendations which ministers said they would accept before Section 2A is repealed:

adoption of the report's five principles and eight aims for sex education (which include the references to parenthood and marriage)

a summary of available curricular advice and materials should be issued to schools

the Scottish Executive should offer advice on effective consultation with parents

there should be a leaflet for parents describing the nature of sex education, stressing that it is part of health education and has links to personal, social, religious and moral education

seminars should be organised for key local authority officials to help them comply with the statutory guidance (currently 60 per cent of local authorities do not provide sex education guidelines for their schools and 50 per cent have no health education guidelines).

There are also more general

recommendations specifically addressed to the Executive, local authorities, headteachers, school staff and parents.

The report confirms its initial finding in April that the safeguards proposed by the Executive, including clearer advice, the statutory guidance, consultation with parents and the curricular review, were "sufficiently complete, wide-ranging and robust."

The group has now concluded, having carried out its curricular review, that "existing curriculum guidelines, advice and support information were adequate and required no revision," although they should be complemented by additional material. The report expresses confidence that teachers would continue to show "sensitivity and sound judgment" .

The inclusion of marriage in the statutory guidance has won over John Oates, a former secondary head and now field officer with the Catholic Education Commission, who had recorded his dissent in the group's April report.

Leader, page 16

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