'No action' may be Section 28 answer

4th February 2000 at 00:00
The row over gay rights in schools may be ended by doing nothing new, report David Henderson and Neil Munro

THE WORKING GROUP set up by Sam Galbraith, the Children and Education Minister, to take the heat out of the Section 28 furore on gay rights may recommend no change to the present guidelines on sex education in schools, the Scottish Executive insists.

"It may not feel the need to establish a detailed proscription or prescription," one source said. "The review group could say nothing new is needed."

The group, which will include church and parent representatives, is seen by the Executive as a mechanism to plug any gaps - it is not being established because there are problems with teachers' handling of sex education. It could advocate no more than additional teaching materials.

Ministers maintain teachers are professional enough not to stray into controversial areas, such as the promotion of homosexuality. "No teacher is going to promote homosexuality as a lifestyle any more than they're going to promote pregnancy or drug abuse," an adviser said.

He was repeating the expression of trust in teachers by Donald Dewar, the First Minister, who said two weeks ago the existing guidelines which cover health education, sex education and personal and social education, were "sound in tone and comprehensive in cover". Mr Galbraith's preferred line is: "Trust me, I'm a dad."

The administration believes that sex education is already planned in consultation with parents and others and that there are already sufficient safeguards. While ministers are being careful to respond to concerns, they emphasise Section 28 has never been tested in the courts and "no one knows what it means".

Even after Section 28 was introduced, officials say, there was nothing to prevent consideration of homosexuality in the proper context. No one had a clear idea of what the "promotion" of homosexuality as an acceptable family relationship actually meant, they say.

Mr Galbraith announced the setting up of the working group last week in a letter to the chairs of school boards and all headteachers. In a carefully orchestrated series of moves, he said the group's conclusions would be given to MSPs before the final vote on abolition of section 28 is taken. In addition te repeal will not be brought into force until the group's work is finished, which includes consultation on any changes or new classroom material it proposes.

The Minister sent out his letter on the eve of a key executive meeting of the Scottish School Board Association. After a marathon three-hour discussion in New Lanark, the association agreed to consult its member boards "in the light of the statement made by the Education Minister."

It also detached itself from Media House, the Glasgow public relations company which is fronting a "keep the clause" campaign to retain section 28 on behalf of Brian Souter, the Christian fundamentalist who runs the Stagecoach transport conglomerate.

Despite appearing under a campaign banner at an Edinburgh press conference a few weeks ago and failing to disassociate itself from apocalyptic fears about the proselytising of gay lifestyles in schools, David Hutchison, the SSBA president, now insists: "We were never part of the campaign and it was a mistake on the part of the organisers of that press conference to give the impression we were. We've learned a lot in the past few weeks about how to deal with the press and how the press deals with us."

But, while the SSBA will now consult its members, its executive decided to maintain its stance on section 28 until that process is complete. Mr Hutchison said their position had always been that the legislation should not be repealed until safeguards were put in its place.

Although ministers have moved to placate fears, the offer of revised guidelines is unlikely to be enough for some. A message read out in all Roman Catholic churches last Sunday focussed not just on fears about the "promotion" of homosexuality in schools but on worries that schools risked "giving young people the impression that a homosexual lifestyle is an equally valid moral alternative choice to marriage".

Brian Monteith, the Tories' education spokesman, repeated his party's call for an inquiry into the whole field of sex education and for the repeal of section 28 to be dropped pending the outcome. Any new guidelines should be "enforceable by law," he said.

ScotlandPlus, pages 2-3: who speaks for parents?

Friday, pages 30-31

Forces gather, page 11

Leader, page 18

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