For many on the right of politics, the right to chose exactly what and where their children learn is a basic freedom and one they are reluctant to delegate to the state. It’s therefore been surprising to see that support for those who oppose compulsory relationship and sex education (RSE) has come from as many Labour politicians as Conservative.
The protests that Labour MPs have supported in Birmingham should not be confused with any genuine concern a parent may have about the government’s RSE programme. Those who have chosen to picket school gates have been shown not to have children, let alone children at that school. Their goal is simple: ensure that any mention of the very existence of lesbian, gay, bisexual, or trans people is silenced.
What’s most disappointing is that this manufactured hostility has stopped parents with questions about the roll-out having them answered. It’s an understandable concern that young people might be exposed to sexual content or discussions too early.
In reality, the simple facts are clear: there will be no teaching of sex education at primary school at all, and parents are already able to opt their child out of sex education in secondary school. It’s striking that those who oppose the new law choose to deliberately mislead parents that what we’re discussing is sex education – it isn’t.
Indeed, not only do parents have a choice whether their child takes part in sex education, but they also have options through their chosen school about what relationships education looks like.
The Department for Education has made clear that pupils should be taught about the society in which they are growing up. They have also made clear that RSE should take into account the religious or faith background of pupils. What it wants to avoid, however, is children growing up in the dark.
Pupils must foster respect for others and for difference, and they must be skilled to develop healthy relationships. Growing up can already seem like assembling a badly designed flatpack wardrobe – and that’s without someone taking away some of the pieces.
The thorniest issue for protestors is teaching about LGBT relationships. Many good jokes have been made about the ineffectuality of LGBT lessons to turn anyone into a lesbian or a gay. I’m certainly aware that despite years of geography lessons I’ve not turned into an oxbow lake. All these lessons will do is teach children that some people have two mums and some people have two dads – that is it.
Indeed, it’s fairly likely a number of pupils at most schools will have same-sex parents, and those who don’t are unlikely to be shocked by the revelation that John has two mums!
Looking at all of this from a Conservative standpoint takes us back to the question: does RSE really need to be compulsory? And the answer is simple: yes. The government has found the right balance between freedom and responsibility in the way it has passed this into law.
We trust most parents to bring up their children as balanced individuals equipped for the modern world. The vast majority of pupils whose parents do so aren’t the ones this policy will help most. The pupils who are being condemned to a childhood of ignorance will be the next generation on the picket line outside of a school spewing hatred and intolerance. If children are taught, while they’re young, that same-sex parents exist, they are much more likely to grow up as accepting and inclusive individuals, rather than as bullies in the school playground who think that there’s something wrong with being gay.
Indeed, educating children about these relationships can also help young LGBT people who, from an early age, are questioning their sexuality. Instead of letting them grow up feeling “wrong”, they will instead know that they are normal, accepted, and loved for who they are, which is why these classes can also help to bring down the heartbreaking rate of LGBT youth suicide.
All of this doesn’t mean, however, that we Conservatives believe that parenting must be outsourced to the state. It’s been made clear in the guidance produced by the Department for Education that schools must consult with parents to develop a written policy for RSE.
The legislation and accompanying guidance set out the core principles of the education that must be delivered, but when it comes to the detail of families, relationships, marriage, the internet, and all of the things we want our young people to be confident about, the parents already remain king.
In 2012, Nadine Dorries MP made an even more compelling argument for RSE. She recalled that as someone who grew up throughout the sixties and seventies, sexual abuse was not uncommon. Sex was not discussed, it wasn’t shown in films, on television, or depicted in magazines. It was never mentioned at home and there were no sex education lessons in school. She argued that this culture of silence and shame created a perfect environment for predators.
It’s such a shame that this helpful legislation has become blurred by distortion of the facts. If we are to prevent another generation from taking on the hangups of the past, we must employ the most effective tool for eradicating ignorance and bigotry: education. That is the key to a future free of the hatred currently on display outside school gates.