RSE in schools: what young people need is more protection, not more sex education

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A new relationships and sex education (RSE) curriculum takes effect in English schools from this month, teaching children and teenagers "the facts and the law about sex, sexuality, sexual health and gender identity in an age-appropriate and inclusive way".

Under the curriculum, LGBT content is to be "fully integrated" into RSE lessons, while at secondary school, the teaching will introduce "knowledge about intimate relationships and sex". 

The curriculum is compulsory and the rights of parents to withdraw their children will be restricted.  While parents will be allowed to withdraw their child from sex education up to the age of 15, there is no right to withdraw them from relationships education lessons. 

Charlie Colchester, the founder of the Let Kids Be Kids Coalition (LKBKC), is deeply concerned about the curriculum, especially where it concerns parental rights. 

The LKBKC is seeking a judicial review against the Department for Education to challenge the legality of regulations around the implementation of RSE. 

Charlie speaks to Christian Today about why he believes RSE is problematic, and the change he hopes to bring through a judicial review. 

CT: LKBKC is a new coalition. What prompted its formation?

Charlie: We were hoping that some of the major denominations and religious groups would realise there were some significant problems with RSE and step up to the plate, but that didn't happen and so we formed this multi-faith coalition with various Christians, Muslims, Jews, Sikhs - people from all the major faith groups in the country.

Together, we've made preparations to take the Department for Education to court in a judicial review. Nobody else has launched a legal challenge against RSE but we've come to this point because, to be honest, the more we've looked into this new curriculum, the more concerned we've become.

CT: What is it specifically about the RSE curriculum that has rung the alarm bells for you?

Charlie: There are a few salient issues. When Parliament enacted in 2017 to reorganise the RSE curriculum, they made two major stipulations, the first being that whatever materials are produced would be age-appropriate for the children involved, and secondly, that they would have due regard for the faith of the children and their parents.

There was no mention of what has become one of the single most important issues of the entire campaign - the rights of parents to withdraw their children. Under the regulations that have now been published, the Department for Education is stipulating that in the new relationships education curriculum, parents will no longer have the right of withdrawal for their children.

Of itself, relationships education sounds like relationships education, but when you actually look at the materials that are being put into the relationships education, it is sex education by a different name. They are putting materials into the relationships education which used to be under the banner of sex education, where there is still a right of withdrawal.

With the relationships education, there is no right of withdrawal and that is both unacceptable and quite frankly, in our contention, illegal. It is one of the fundamental points that we are challenging in law, and why we are looking for a judicial review.

CT: Why are you seeking a judicial review?

Charlie: Rights in law are of enormous importance. The right of withdrawal of parents, and of parents to be the primary educators of their children, has been enshrined in law for decades, and it's been part and parcel of the landscape of educational legislation.

The idea of just suddenly removing the right of withdrawal is actually very significant and it needs a parliamentary mandate. There should be a debate and a decision in Parliament to do this, but that's not what the Government have done here. They've just done it by dint of regulations within the Department for Education.

Our judicial review is to challenge the legality of that move, because they're basically trying to remove the parental right of withdrawal without having a parliamentary mandate to do so.

CT: It looks increasingly for parents as if their views are being undermined and religious beliefs are being increasingly sidelined as the state dictates what values children learn.

Charlie: That is exactly the problem, but we do not have a tradition in this country of state-dominated education. In fact, it is one of the glories of our civilisation that we have had a non-statist education.

When it comes to matters of sexuality, we all know that current society is sex obsessed. We have never had a society where there has been so much sex, not only in the form of pornography on the internet, but all kinds of unbelievable films and coverage. Things that would never have been conscienced before are now part and parcel of everyday life in our society.

So the idea that there is even more of a need for sex education at a younger and younger age is patently nonsense. What we need is more protection and careful partnership between the educational authorities and the parents.

What is so strange is that in 2011, a Conservative Prime Minister, David Cameron, had a massive campaign about the oversexualisation of children. Nine years later we have a Conservative government, through its education department, apparently declaring open season for the sexualisation of children without parents now having any capacity to put their foot down and say we're not prepared to have this.

CT: The Government said in its guidance that schools must consult with parents. Can parents use this to leverage any kind of effective influence over what is being taught?

Charlie: Yes they can and they are. There are good schools and good headteachers, and good people involved in teaching these things who are as concerned as we are, but the bigger problem now is that what is being taught is no longer going to be comprehensive. The hand of control is now moving from parents into the teaching fraternity.

What we need is a straightforward system that allows parents to put their foot down and give them the ultimate sanction if they are not happy with something. That right is now being removed because the DfE wants to make all of this sexual teaching available right across the board.

Where the concern arises is that there are so many teachers and parents - and even pupils - getting in touch with us to say that the system is not working. What we're hearing from so many is that they're raising their concerns with RSE teachers and headteachers, and their concerns are being poo-pooed.

Our fellow claimants on this judicial review are a Muslim teacher and headteacher, and the mothers of children at state primary and secondary schools, all of whom set out very detailed concerns around the new curriculum. It has proved problematic even before the legislation has come into action.

CT: The Government has told schools they can delay the implementation of RSE. Is that a small window of opportunity for concerned parents?

Charlie: It is certainly a little bit better but we want the DfE to go further and put a moratorium on the whole curriculum. They need to rethink it entirely. We want them to guarantee that parents in English schools, where the curriculum is coming into force, will have and retain the right of withdrawal over their children in education.

CT: RSE will teach about sex, sexual health, sexuality and gender identity. Some parents don't believe it is the place of schools to be teaching about that.

Charlie: As the guidance says, it should be age appropriate and there are certain ages where it might be necessary to teach about these things but not 7-year-olds, which is what the DfE is suggesting.

It's totally nonsensical to be talking to very young children about such complicated and difficult areas as masturbation. What is going on that we think 7-year-old children need to be taught about that? That's not relationships education, that's sex education pure and simple, and totally inappropriate for their age.

CT: Is this curriculum going to make the job of parents harder if children are learning one thing at home and then going into school and being taught something completely different?

Charlie: That is certainly the situation that will apply, and whereas in the past they would have been able to say to the schools that they weren't happy with the classes and take their children out, now they can't do that. So it's going to muddle children and we have to seriously ask: for what conceivable benefit is this happening?

Why is it necessary for very young children to be subjected to so much of this stuff? Why do very young children need to be taught about whether or not they genuinely are a male or female? They are only just beginning to work out which way is up. To suddenly be subjected to these colossal questions when they are so young is very difficult for them.

CT: You received a letter of support from Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali, which must be very encouraging. But has any sitting bishop given you their support?

Charlie: It is a very pertinent question and I must say, as an Anglican myself, I have been profoundly disappointed at the Board of Education of the Church of England's response to this, and the bishops specifically. I am hoping that in due course, the challenge from our court case will prompt them to re-think whether they ought to be capitulating in the face of the propagandists and idealogues.

We don't in any way name any group because the LKBK Coalition is entirely for parental rights; it is for moderate materials; and it is for responsible teaching. We make a special point of never naming any specific group as being responsible for this, but there are people who seem to be more interested in propaganda and ideological ideas than genuinely looking after the wellbeing of children.

When we start looking at what's actually being proposed, it's on the very edge of, if not itself, child abuse and if the DfE don't give a satisfactory answer, we're prepared to take this further, if necessary to the Court of Appeal.