Sex and the interfering minister

4th February 2005 at 00:00
he law on sex education and counselling for minors may be clear enough. But the dilemmas it creates for teachers, and for ministers north and south of the border, are likely to increase, given moves to combine education and welfare services and the pressure on ministers to be accountable for what goes on in schools. The passionate exchanges on the Scottish Executive's sexual health strategy and the views of teachers in England about abortion (page nine) serve to illustrate these dilemmas. They have been heightened, at least south of the border, by the appointment of Ruth Kelly, a committed Catholic, as Education Secretary. So far as we know, Peter Peacock, her opposite number here, has no such passions.

Strictly speaking, ministers can say that headteachers (or school governing bodies in England) decide what children should be taught and that parents can conscientiously object and withdraw their children. But consider the parallel with school discipline where heads and governors are also supposed to have operational responsibility. Yet the realities of political life are such that ministers cannot keep their hands off the issue.

It is therefore extremely unlikely that any new Labour minister, whatever their religious persuasion, would be able to resist similar challenges over school sex policies - especially since schools are expected to do more now than simply teach. They are also becoming sources of clinical advice and treatment for pupils seeking contraception or abortion. This may be the job of medical staff rather than teachers, but schools are implicated in the controversial questions that then arise. This is particularly so over the medical confidentiality afforded to minors which, if nothing else, conflicts with schools' need to work with parents as partners.

The understandable unease this produces is reflected in the belief of most teachers that an under-age girl's parents should be told if she seeks an abortion. Supportive parents are clearly the ideal. But situations in which not telling the parents can seem the lesser of evils are not difficult to imagine. The law is based not so much on practical arguments as on the primacy of the child's right to confidentiality over the parent's right to know. And the law is the responsibility of ministers, not teachers.

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