As Section 28 is abolished, governors are going to find themselves caught in the
crossfire of a battle over children's morals, warns Lawrence Pollock
GOVERNORS normally worry about test scores or exclusion rates, but a far tougher issue is poised to hit their agendas - and steel helmets might come in handy.
The proposed abolition of Section 28, which banned the "promotion" of homosexuality by councils, could spark a fierce debate in governing bodies.
In England, ministers want to replace Section 28 with new statutory guidance on sex and relationship education.
The draft guidance is already out. Governors, who are responsible for schools' sex education policies, will have to design them in the context of this.
Meanwhile secularists and religious leaders wrangle over the place of moral teaching in the curriculum. The recently-
installed archbishop of Birmingham, the Right Reverend Vincent Nichols, last month criticised the Government for failing to hold up that marriage as an "ideal".
But Melody Dougan, of the National Association of Governors and Managers, who sits on the Sex Education Forum advisory group, is concerned that sex education only starts at puberty, when learning about effective relationships needs to begin earlier.
She says: "Staff and governors want a strong steer. Some have suffered from adverse publicity that can be very painful. I'm not certain the guidance gives them clear enough support. Schools that are bold enough to try it (earlier sex education) may be discouraged."
The draft guidance, issued earlier this year for consultation, sets sex education within a moral framework which stresses the importance of marriage and stable relationships. It makes clear that children should be protected from "inappropriate" materials. This includes material from National Health Service bodies. Local education authorities are excluded from a role in setting school policies. The guidance will be incorporated in the new Learning and Skills Bill, now before Parliament, so schools will be legally obliged to follow it.
Anne Weyman, chief executive of the Family Planning Association, fears the new statutory guidance will not provide sufficiently clear and unambiguous guidance to teachers and governors. She says: "We were very unhappy. We felt the debate about Section 28 hijacked the guidance. It should have had nothing to do with section 28."
There are pitfalls for any school in this area. A major problem is that any sex education policy with "street cred" risks the wrath of Middle England and the tabloids.
Last year, for instance, Hayesfield comprehensive school in Bath hit the headlines after it made the morning-after pill available to girls - eve though this was just one part of an extensive and thoughtful sex education policy.
Faith schools can have particular problems settting policy. One Catholic school now refuses to talk to the media because of attacks in the Catholic press, after it accepted an award from the Family Planning Association for its sex education policy. Critics had objected to its links with an organisation that gives information on abortion.
Even within non-faith local education authority schools there may be tricky issues especially as beliefs among governors will be more diverse than in faith schools.
Adrian Jackson-Robbins, chair of Roundwood Park comprehensive in Harpenden, Herts, faces this dilemma. As a practising Christian, he recognises the gap between his own deeply-held views and the mainstream view among staff, governors and pupils.
"The extent to which I bring my own views - springing out of a personal faith - to bear is a matter of some judgment. I endorse entirely the Government's emphasis that marriage is the building block," he said.
A policy at primary school level is still optional but there could be challenges here as well, as children reach puberty earlier and pick up on adult themes from external sources such as
television soaps and magazines.
Mary Crouch, chair of governors at St Bernadette's Catholic primary school in St Albans, acknowledges that a sex education policy was only drafted for the first time when a new head came six years ago. This is now up for reconsideration.
"It is not unusual to have girls aged 10 to 11 menstruating so we have started from that point. The biological bit of our policy is based very firmly, I will not say on marriage, but on a firm lasting relationship.
"The board sets marriage as an 'ideal' and foundation governors - but not those appointed from elsewhere - are expected to live up to this. We say that it is God's plan for the world that children are born inside marriage but we would also say we are all human beings and we cannot always get on together."
But she adds: "We ran into trouble recently trying to explain the historical origins of the word 'bastard'."
Dealing with sexual orientation, post-Section 28, also had to be addressed.
"There are children who are more aware than some of the staff. My own young grandchildren are already asking questions."
The Government is, of course, just as concerned about the practicalities of cutting teenage pregnancies as improving pupils' morals.
However these two concerns may demand conflicting policies. If ministers conclude that their moral framework is not producing the right practical result, governors will no doubt be sent back to the drawing board again.