Emily Bourne, Education Team Assistant, comments on the current status of Relationships and Sex Education in the different regions of the UK and what this means for parental rights.
In England, since September 2021, Relationships Education has been compulsory in all primary schools and Relationships and Sex Education (RSE) has been compulsory in all secondary schools. But what are the rules in other areas of the UK? And how can parents best raise their concerns with schools if they live elsewhere?
You can now download our letter template to get in touch with your headteacher about any concerns you might have about what your child is being taught in RSE – wherever you live in the UK. Simply use the section relevant to you and personalise it as necessary.
If you’re not yet familiar with the regulations in England, Christian Concern has put together a short video which explains what parents, teachers and governors need to know about this issue.
The law clearly states that schools must consult parents when developing and reviewing their RSE policy and that the religious background of all pupils must be considered so that topics of this nature can be appropriately handled. Also, guidance issued by the Department for Education in September 2020 prohibits the promotion of partisan political views in the teaching of any subject and states that schools should exercise “extreme caution” when working with external agencies that produce materials suggesting that non-conformity to gender stereotypes should be seen as synonymous with having a different gender identity.
Ultimately, parents have the right to request that their child be withdrawn from some or all of sex education delivered as part of statutory RSE. Moreover, nothing in the RSE regulations takes away from the obligations of schools and Local Authorities to respect the rights of parents to raise their children in accordance with their own religious or philosophical beliefs. This right, guaranteed by the Human Rights Act, requires that school’s teach material in a way which is objective, critical and pluralistic.
Political neutrality is required by Education Act 1996 (sections 406 and 407). However, since the late 1990s, education has been a devolved issue. This means the governments of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland can introduce their own laws on a wide range of issues, including education. As a result, the way that RSE is approached, and therefore the rights that parents have when it comes to what their children are taught in schools, varies significantly depending on where you live in UK.
Wales: Teachers given more say than parents?
In the Summer of last year, the Welsh Government consulted on plans for Relationships and Sexuality Education (also RSE) Code and Guidance which recommended that each school should have a written policy on this issue. The Code (but not the guidance) was voted through by the Welsh Parliament in December 2021 and is now in the process of being phased in. All schools are required to adhere to the code which states that curriculum content in RSE must develop awareness and understanding of different identities, relationships, gender and sexuality which includes LGBTQ+ lives.
Currently in Wales, the law says that parents do not have the right to withdraw their children from RSE lessons. This must be challenged for undermining the principle that parents are the primary educators of their children. Unlike in England, it is only recommended that schools consider the makeup of their student body, including the age range of pupils and whether it is necessary for pupils with particular protected characteristics (which includes religion under 2010 Equality Act) to be given additional support. We have seen many parents in Wales raise their concerns and litigation challenging the content, and implementation of the new code is already in the process of being initiated. However, even though the previous right to withdraw is now denied to parents in Wales, challenges can successfully be made to protect children.
Scotland: Discussed across many areas of the curriculum
In Scotland, like in Wales, the law on Relationships, Sexual Health and Parenthood Education (RSHP) takes a more passive approach. It says schools should take the 2010 Equality Act into consideration and ensure that resources are age appropriate and be informed by evidence, but this is not mandatory. Whilst schools must be sensitive to cases in which a parent wishes to withdraw their child from RHSP, after the age of 12 a child can overrule their parents and attend the classes if they wish to do so.
Increasingly there is a move towards an integrative approach which is where aspects of RSHP are included and discussed across many areas of the curriculum. In these situations, it is not possible for a child to be withdrawn from those lessons.
We have supported children such as Kaysey Francis-Austin who, at the age of 10, exposed the normalisation of LGBT relationships across all subject areas including maths, art and history. Although Kaysey’s case took place in England, it provides a realistic example of how teaching on these issues is no longer limited simply to science and PSHE lessons. This makes it harder to prevent children from being exposed to harmful ideologies within the RSHP and RSE curriculums in Scotland which raises questions about the extent to which parents can exercise their rights in practice.
Northern Ireland: Respectful of school ethos
In Northern Ireland, all non-fee-paying schools are required to teach RSE but they have the ability to develop their own policy on how they will address this within the curriculum based on the personal circumstances and cultural background of their pupils, including the religion in their family home. Teachers must satisfy themselves that the resources they plan to use are age-appropriate, reflect the ethos of the school, factually accurate and make clear distinctions between fact and opinion. Whilst there is no legislative provision permitting parental withdrawal, schools can grant these requests on an individual basis. The guidance states that, ultimately, the school must respect the wishes of the parent or carer.
What can parents do?
It is clear that parents across the UK have various reasons to be concerned about the teaching of RSE in schools.
Wherever you are in the UK, if you have concerns about what your children are being taught, it is important to engage with the school on this issue. You can use our downloadable template to write to the Headteacher, or another relevant staff member, to ask to see the materials that are being used and to ask how they used during lessons. Where possible, try speaking to other parents who have similar concerns. The more letters, or formal complaints a school receives, the more seriously they must take the concerns raised.
Many problematic policies have already been introduced which it may now be difficult to reverse. But if we choose not to act now, we send a signal to society that it is acceptable for our children to be taught it this way. Our children deserve better.