THE Scottish Executive has issued a draft circular to directors of education on the conduct of sex education lessons - before the working group set up to carry out a review has reported.
The Executive insists the draft merely offers general guidance in anticipation of the Ethical Standards in Public Life Bill becoming law. The working party had a more detailed remit.
The Bill plans to repeal Section 2A of the Local Government Act which prohibits the "promotion" of homosexuality by local authorities. Instead councils will be under a duty to ensure that they "have regard to" the value of stable family life in a child's development and that school lessons are appropriate to a child's age and understanding.
The working group, chaired by Mike McCabe, director of education in South Ayrshire, has been charged with considering whether the package of safeguards set out by Sam Galbraith, Children and Education Minister, in a letter to school boards in January is "sufficiently wide-ranging and robust". It will also review existing curriculum guidelines and sex education materials.
Mr Galbraith has promised that the group's proposals will be available to MSPs before a final vote is taken on the standards Bill. But the Scottish School Board Association wants full consultation and agreement on any revised guidelines before it will support the Government.
The draft circular is another attempt at making the Executive's proposals watertight, although it is couched in the ambiguous, broad-brush terms that so far have failed to satisfy its critics.
Sex education hould "help pupils to form relationships in a responsible and healthy manner", the circular states. Although pupils should also be encouraged to appreciate the value of stable family life, it adds: "Teachers must respect and avoid causing hurt or offence to those who come from backgrounds that do not reflect this value." The views of others should be respected but the moral implications of "certain types of behaviour" should be recognised.
Another ingredient in Mr Galbraith's "package of safeguards" is the right to withdraw a child from sex education classes. The circular spells out that parents must be consulted in advance about lessons and materials and cultural or religious views should be sensitively handled. If parents ultimately insist on withdrawing children, schools must make "alternative positive educational provision".
Jack Waddell, who represents school boards on the review group, fears withdrawal of pupils from lessons could set a precedent for other subjects. If the right was taken up in any numbers it could pose timetabling problems.
The absence of any reference to marriage in the Scottish guidance has also infuriated the churches and others opposed to the Government's proposals. These were characterised as "anything goes so long as it's stable" by Anne Allen, convener of the Church of Scotland's committee on social responsibility, in evidence to MSPs this week.
A survey of school boards found that only 90 of 777 which replied favoured repeal of Section 2A, while 358 were opposed.
The big debate
ScotlandPlus, pages 2-3