The House of Lords voted to approve , on 24 April, the landmark law on Relationships and Sex Education (RSE) that will fundamentally change how schoolchildren, from the age of four, are taught sex education in England.
The law, which was already passed in the House of Commons, will come into force in September 2020. However, many schools will begin to teach RSE lessons conforming to the new regulations and guidance as soon as September 2019.
Barnabas Fund would like to thank the House of Lords for debating so conscientiously the concerns about the law that were raised by members of the public, including many of our own supporters. We also thank the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee for their thoroughness and even-handedness in taking into account the unprecedented level of correspondence that they received that led to their recommendation for a debate.
Barnabas is also very grateful to all our supporters who joined us in “fighting the good fight” and made the House of Lords debate possible by their prompt letter-writing to the Scrutiny Committee.
Peers urge for transparency and parental consultation in House of Lords debate
During the House of Lords debate that preceded the unanimous vote, several peers made strong points about the importance of schools closely consulting with parents on the RSE curriculum and maintaining a high level of transparency about the content, timing and scope of lessons.
The Bishop of Durham drew attention to the importance of carefully assessing what is appropriate to teach children at “vulnerable ages”. He pointedly asked, “Why cannot parents’ decision regarding what is appropriate for their children be respected?”
Parents given stronger voice to influence RSE curriculum under new rules
It is disappointing, although far from unexpected, that the new RSE law has been passed. But, surprisingly, parents could actually have even more say in what is taught to children, how it is taught and when it is taught under the new regulations.
The way parental input is framed in the guidance gives parents, rather than legislators, a stronger voice in schools’ RSE implementation than they previously had.
Under previous Sex and Relationship Education Guidance (2000) governing bodies and head teachers were encouraged to consult with parents. However, under the new RSE law this is not optional – schools must consult parents in developing and reviewing their RSE policies.
Parents to have direct input in schools’ RSE policy
The role of parents as primary authorities in their child’s education is given fundamental recognition in the guidance and parents are invited to give direct input to the RSE curriculum that schools are planning.
Individual schools, especially head teachers, are being given considerable autonomy to determine their own RSE curriculum, as well as how it is implemented, timetabled and the types of content used in lessons. But the new regulations also make it clear that all this must be decided in consultation with parents and with sensitivity to local communities.
Parents must engage with consultation channels and make their voices heard
For parents to influence RSE teaching it is vital that they engage in consultation processes with local schools and proactively seek assurance on issues that concern them about RSE teaching for their child.
Sometimes parents’ input to schools’ policy has been lacking, partly due to beliefs that they have no power to influence policy directly. Schools can also fail to communicate effectively with parents.
Schools will have an obligation to share timetables, teaching materials and RSE curriculum policies with parents at an early stage and take into account parents’ feedback. However, school RSE policymakers may be relying on parents being passive and not engaging with this process.
The curriculum should be conservatively age appropriate
New RSE rules mean that parents can steer decisions towards the selection of age appropriate and developmentally appropriate materials and content.
Children may be at a range of developmental stages in a given age group and the guidance says schools should consider what is appropriate or inappropriate for the whole class.
Parents can be proactive in ensuring that the most conservative approach is taken for teaching in relation to child development.
RSE teaching should be sensitive to faith and belief
RSE lessons must be taught sensitively. The guidance is clear in stating that “the religious background of all pupils must be taken into account when planning teaching, so that sensitive topics that need to be taught are appropriately handled.”
Schools have to follow inclusivity guidance and comply with the Equality Act (2010), under which religion or belief are protected characteristics.
The guidance states that lesson content should take into account the background and beliefs of pupils and parents, while also providing pupils with the knowledge they need about equality law.
Schools must consult with parents in developing and reviewing their policy to ensure that it is sensitive to the faith background of pupils and parents and also reflects the wider community the school serves.
Faith perspectives can be central to a RSE curriculum if schools choose
The guidance supports schools teaching about faith perspectives. Schools with a particular religious character will be free to teach distinctive faith perspectives on relationships, provided balanced representation of alternative views is also given.
This gives parents substantial power to urge that their values and worldviews be fully integrated in the RSE curriculum and that alternative views are presented neutrally and not “promoted” or given preferential emphasis.
With this in view, there is tremendous scope for faith organisations and communities to design and contribute learning materials that reflect faith perspectives and values for RSE lessons.
A time for action not apathy
Parents must now engage with schools on setting policy for the RSE curriculum, making their views known in all aspects of its design and implementation. As we saw at Parkfield School in Birmingham, teachers will then be free to use the mandate given to them under the new rules to pursue their individual strategies.
So, it will be particularly important for parents to act individually and collectively to press for their community perspectives to be respected and incorporated into teaching.
While aspects of the proposed RSE are troubling to many parents from a moral point of view, legally the RSE law empowers parental authority to strongly influence the content and delivery of lessons.
If parents, and communities, are clear about telling schools their preferences they will be able to make a real difference to RSE teaching. Their input could mean that some of the serious concerns many have raised about RSE could be lessened or avoided.
Barnabas Fund is preparing detailed materials to inform and guide parents on how they can effectively influence school policies on RSE.