What’s so progressive about sex education?

The idea that the sex-ed curriculum is pure and neutral, in contrast to faith schools’ alleged bigotry, is nonsense.

Nathalie Rothschild

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‘Every single one of you is the result of a good shag.’ Those were the opening words of my biology teacher as he introduced my class to its very first sex-education lesson. They were memorable words – indeed, they are all I can recall of the few, awkward and pretty useless lessons that our poor teacher was forced to deliver as part of the science curriculum.

As sex education will soon become compulsory for all schools in England, English kids will also have the chance to taunt and embarrass their teachers, just as me and my classmates did in our school in Sweden. Yet judging from the outrage caused by the UK government’s decision to allow faith schools a measure of freedom to tailor sex education according to their beliefs, for many people teaching kids about sex is a very serious business indeed.

When it emerged yesterday that the government is allowing an amendment to be made to the Children, Schools and Families Bill – which will basically allow faith schools to tell their students what their particular religion says about sex and relationships – the schools secretary Ed Balls was widely accused of making a u-turn on sex education, watering it down, and giving faith schools an opt-out. He is, many commentators argued, indulging religious people’s bigotry at taxpayers’ expense.

There’s an obvious pun to be made here about Balls and the muddle he has apparently made of sex education. But firstly, let us get to what is really messed up about Balls’ critics. They seem to believe that the government’s sex-education curriculum is some kind of pure and neutral piece of knowledge – simple factual education and nothing more – which faith schools will corrupt if they have the chance to tweak it in any way.

In fact, the government’s sex-education plans have been highly moralistic and politicised from the outset, aiming not just to enhance young people’s awareness of biology and certain physical acts (which most young people are aware of anyway), but also to impart moral lessons about relationships and human sexuality. We should bear in mind that the new compulsory subject is called Sex and Relationship Education (SRE).

As a new government guide on how to teach about sex outlines, teachers must, amongst other things, stress to children aged 11 or over the importance of marriage and the challenges of parenthood. The guide encourages teachers to dispel ‘myths’ around sex that are propounded by images seen on the internet and on television or which are sent between mobile phones – what has been termed ‘sexting’.

Currently, English schoolchildren are taught about sex in Personal, Social And Health Education (PSHE) classes and parents have the right to withdraw their children from any sex education lessons up to the age of 19. From September next year, the law will change to make it compulsory for all 15- to 16-year-olds to learn about sex in their final GCSE year. That is an attack, not only on faith schools’ ability to determine, within reason, their own curricula, but also on parental authority itself, on parents’ ability to decide that there are some social, faith-impacting issues, beyond maths, English, history and so on, that they would rather their children did not learn about.

The new bill also requires all schools for the first time to teach about sexual relationships in a ‘fair and balanced’ way and in a manner which ‘respects diversity’. The amendment which Balls is pushing through this week does not exempt faith schools from teaching SRE – it only means that they will not be prevented from also teaching what their particular religion says about things such as contraception, sex outside marriage, abortion and homosexuality.

For Balls’ supposedly pro-tolerance, liberal critics, however, this means that faith-school students will be taught about sex and relationships in the wrong way. Allowing the airing of different views on issues such as homosexuality and abortion is tantamount to a crime against human rights and could provoke more bigotry and homophobia, they say.

In a letter to the Guardian, Andrew Copson, chief executive of the British Humanist Association, complained that the amendment allows ‘faith schools to opt out of teaching SRE accurately, in ways that are balanced, promote equality and respect for diversity, and reflect different views. This is what we are protesting against.’

The atheists doth protest too much. For while the new subject of SRE certainly chimes with politically correct values and ideas around ‘respect’, ‘tolerance’ and ‘diversity’ – the New Labour buzzwords that have themselves become a new dogma – it does not represent any epitome of progressiveness. Far from it. SRE compels teachers to transmit to their students some very conservative ideas about abstinence, the sanctity of marriage, and the corruptive powers of the media. Add these ideas to the government’s ‘public health’ posters, which cover sixth-form common rooms and nightclubs across the nation, warning young people of the dangers of sexually transmitted infections, date rape and abusive boyfriends, and SRE is likely to reinforce the idea that outside of traditionally-accepted parameters, like marriage or some other government-approved institution, human relationships mostly f**k you up.

As for Balls being attacked for threatening the teaching of ‘respect for diversity’, the reason he amended the bill in the first place was apparently to avoid discriminating against faith schools. The fallout around Balls’ bill amendment shows that policymakers and campaign groups who have championed the diversity agenda have been tying themselves into knots. This agenda is ostensibly about respecting difference and, in the sphere of education, presenting balanced views. And of course this should mean that faith groups have to be respected, too… but since faith groups have views that will allegedly offend other minority groups, like homosexuals, they inevitably harm the balance. That would be to take diversity a step too far.

As the critics of the SRE amendment have proven, for the proponents of so-called diversity, including everyone from Balls to the British Humanist Association, the tolerance threshold tends to be pretty low. When it comes to respecting the views of groups and individuals whom the diversity-proponents find offensive, the fluffy language of respect no longer applies. This fallout has been a useful reminder that the primary idea behind the diversity agenda is not openness or tolerance, but tolerance only for those who respect tolerance, as defined by the diversity police.

Nathalie Rothschild is commissioning editor of spiked.

Previously on spiked

Frank Furedi asked why it’s ‘brainwashing’ when faith schools teach values but ‘raising awareness’ when the state teaches the pieties of environmentalism. Elsewhere, he criticised the public advocacy of masturbation, and explained to Jennie Bristow why pedagogy is in peril. Ellie Lee asked where the school-girl mothers were And Josie Appleton urged the government to put the Sex Offences Act to bed. Or read more at spiked issue Education

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