A Christian View of Relationships and Sex Education
Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali sets out what is happening in the Department of Education’s plans for Relationships and Sex Education – and what parents and schools should do.
The United Kingdom’s Education Act of 1996, the European Convention on Human Rights and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child all recognise that parents have the primary responsibility for the education of their children. This is also the teaching of the Bible and, therefore, of the Church.
The Churches were the first providers of universal education and continue to be major players in this area. The state is a relative, but welcome, newcomer to this task. Its role, however, is strictly ancillary to that of the parents and, especially, in the areas of personal and social development of children, it should not arrogate to itself the fundamental responsibility of the parents and the family generally.
“Marriage is a particular and intimate kind of relationship which is ordered to certain ends.”
The Human Rights Act of 1998 requires schools to respect the rights of parents to ensure that their children are taught in conformity with the religious and philosophical convictions of the parents. In addition, schools must take account of the particular religious background of the pupils.
This does not mean some generic understanding of a religion but specifically what the parents and the child believe. Where schools have a faith foundation, education must be provided in accordance with the teachings of the faith concerned
New Relationships and Sex Education Requirements
All of this is relevant to the advent of new requirements on the teaching of Relationships and Sex Education in schools, mandatory from the autumn of this year. Because of restrictions brought about by the Covid- 19 emergency, however, if schools are not ready for full implementation, they may now postpone the teaching of Relationships Education and Relationships and Sex Education to the summer term of 2021, at the latest. Any further postponement would require parliamentary approval. Schools can use this time to consult with parents, as they are required to do, before they write their policies for delivery. This gives parents and churches an opportunity to engage with the issues and to adopt strategies of appropriate response to the new requirements. The guidance states that a good understanding of local faith communities is important for the effective teaching of Relationships Education and Relationships and Sex Education. Clergy and other leaders in the churches thus have an opportunity to make a constructive contribution to any consultation on school policy.
What Can be Welcomed
It should be said that there are elements in the statutory guidance to welcome. The concern that children should be protected from predators on the internet and shouldbe able to distinguish the real world from the fantasy often found in social media are examples that come to mind. Where pornography is concerned, it should be made clear that the need is not only to separate fact from fantasy but that pornography exploits women and men for commercial gain and that the relationships it portrays are unnatural and abusive. It is most important that pupils should see the harm that pornography causes and not be led to modelling their own behaviour on behaviour seen in pornographic material.
What the Statutory Guidance says about Relationships
Although the statutory guidance gives an important place to marriage, it places it as only one among other ‘committed, stable relationships’ and does not, of course, discuss the proper persons who can be involved in marriage. In faith-based schools this lacuna should be filled in with appropriate material and teaching. It seems reasonable, however, to agree that children should be taught what is the law of the land, for example, about marriage between persons of the same sex and the possibility of at least a legal change of gender. A number of important caveats, however, need to be entered immediately: teaching about legal and social facts must be clearly distinguished from promoting various lifestyles or behaviour. Any such teaching must be age-appropriate and take account of the child’s development. It should also be carried out in awareness of children’s religious background which emerges from the required consultation with parents. If the school has a faith foundation, the particular faith position should also be stated. Teachers can tell children about their own views, provided this is not seen as ‘promoting’ their own or any other views. All teaching must be ‘objective, critical and plural’. This last means that the Bible and the Church’s teaching, as well as Christian opinion, can be set out alongside other views not only in faith schools but, more generally, wherever it is possible to do so.
Personhood, Relationships and Marriage
Schools, and particularly faith-based schools, cannot be satisfied with just minimalist teaching about the Law and the social situation as it is. They must also go on to teach about an appropriate understanding of personhood and how this is formed through relationships with our parents and siblings, family and friends, and, very importantly, teachers and fellow pupils.
Marriage is a particular and intimate kind of relationship which is ordered to certain ends. It is founded on a consensual contract between a couple for mutual care and companionship (as the song puts it, ”will you still need me, will you still feed me when I am sixty four?”) and for the procreation and nurture of children (it is notorious how long human offspring take to grow up!). It involves a deeply personal relationship of life long commitment through thick and thin, prosperity and adversity, health and sickness. It is among the most important of human experiences of unity and intimacy. This is why, of course, the New Testament speaks of Christian marriage as a sacrament (mysterion) of the relationship between Christ, the Bridegroom and the Church, his Bride (Eph 5:32) - just as the husband and wife are one flesh (Gen 2:24, Mark 10:2-9 and parallels) so is the Church united to Christ its head. We cannot expect non-faith schools to teach about marriage in such a comprehensive way but they must teach about all the goods of marriage, especially as evidenced in empirical studies, for example, by the Centre for Social Justice, the Marriage Foundation and the Coalition for Marriage. Church schools, however, can be expected to teach about the full spectrum of Church teaching in this most important area of our lives.
Equality, Respect and Moral Equivalence
Teaching about respect for persons, whoever they are and whatever their back- ground, is central, of course, to helping children to become good citizens. Equality is about the equality of persons in dignity and liberty. Schools should make sure thatregard for such equality is well understood by their pupils. This is not about the equality of every kind of view about human identity and of lifestyle and behaviour. Whilst diversity in these areas can be discussed, in appropriate ways, this is not a licence for assuming that there is moral equivalence between say traditional marriage and the numerous ways of sexual self-expression there seem to be around today or between respect for the person, at every stage of life, and radical views about abortion on demand or assisted killing. Nor can there be equivalence between, for example, the option of abortion for an unwanted child and the possibility of adoption, or between abstention and precaution and the untram- melled promiscuity which leads to epidemics of sexually transmitted diseases.
The Right to be Consulted
Parents have a right to be consulted about what their children are to be taught and to see materials that are to be used in such teaching. Any agreement with providers should specify the legal requirement for consulting parents and showing them the materials to be used in classrooms. External agencies, including local churches, can play a valuable role in assisting teachers to enhance what is taught in the classroom but recent guidance from the Department of Education warns schools to be extremely careful about using such agencies and the resources they offer. In the last twenty years or so, campaigning groups in the areas of human sexuality, gender identity and other issues have been able to enter schools and campaign for their particular enthusiasm, without much regard for the views of parents and without much in the way of objectivity, self criticism and plurality of approaches.
Parent power remains a largely untapped source for making sure that schools are not carried away by the enthusiasm of a member of the staff, of the Board of Governors or of a visiting member of a campaigning organisation. Parents should have the expectation that their children are taught in line with their beliefs, they have the right to be consulted about teaching materials and methods and they also have the specific right to withdraw their children from sex education. Primary schools are only required to teach about relationships but if they choose to teach about sex as well, the right of parents to withdraw their children is absolute. For secondary age children it is more qualified, but parents can still request withdrawal which must be agreed unless there are exceptional circumstances. Pupils within a year of their sixteenth birthday can, however, request sex education, even if the parents have previously withdrawn them from it. If such a request is made, the pupil must be provided with a term of sex education.
The disadvantages of withdrawal include stigmatisation of the child among peers, picking up distorted information from them and not having a suitable alternative during sex education classes. For these reasons, it is important that parents should consult with the school to see how and whether sex education can be delivered and what alternatives there are, before taking the crucial decision to withdraw. Parents can exercise considerable influence on what their children are taught. They should make themselves aware of their rights and responsibilities by reading the guidance issued by the Department of Education and by accessing information on websites like Parent Power, Christian Concern and the Christian Institute.
We live in challenging times and there are dangers all around but there are opportunities also. For the sake of our children, we need to be well informed about what help is available and to be wise in accessing assistance and discerning in its use.
Bishop Nazir-Ali is the retired Anglican Bishop of Rochester, and Chairman of the Oxford Centre for Training, Research, Advocacy and Dialogue.