The Scottish Government will be publishing its new guidelines on Relationships, Sexual Health and Parenthood Education (RSHPE) for young people in Scottish schools within the next few days.
The Scottish Government describes RSHPE as “an integral part of the health and wellbeing area of the schools curriculum in Scotland”, which aims to ensure that “children and young people gain knowledge appropriate to their age and stage of education…to enable them to build positive relationships as they grow older…present[ing] facts in an objective, balanced and sensitive manner.”
The Free Church of Scotland has pre-empted the accouncement by calling for parents to be allowed to withdraw their children from RSHPE if same-sex marriage is discussed, labelling such lessons as “controversial teaching” that is diametrically opposed to the religious views of many Christians. The church argues that such a provision would be consistent with the rights of atheists and humanists to withdraw their children from religious education.
In proposing the opt-out, Rev James Maciver has presented a view of RSHPE as “lessons designed to promote same-sex marriage as a morally acceptable marriage form” in which “the teaching of same-sex relationship…tied to an ideological agenda” is a significant part. It is on this basis that the Church is championing an opt-out.
The government has reviewed how relationships, parenthood and sexual health are taught given the changes to legislation allowing for same-sex marriage and will shortly be unveiling the exact nature of the new guidance.
The draft guidance, published in advance of the public consultation, was rather ambiguous on the issue of an opt-out. It did state that, “in the event of a parent or carer concluding that he or she wishes to withdraw their child from sexual health education lessons…..[their views will be] respected across the public sector”, but did not define adequately what is meant by “respect”, or indeed what the rights of parents and carers will be in non public sector schools, such as faith schools.
Many groups have welcomed revised guidance, not least LGBT Youth Scotland. Many have asked that the guidance becomes more unequivocal, making particular mention of same-sex relationships in order to ensure RSHPE is inclusive and adequate to meet the needs of all pupils. Mhairi McMillan, LGBT Youth Scotland’s policy director, told KaleidoScot: “We look forward to the publication of the relationships, parenthood and sexual health education guidance. It is extremely important though that we do not conflate the new legislation on same-sex marriage coming into force with the positive inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender young people in schools.
“Evidence (Life in Scotland for LGBT Young People, LGBT Youth Scotland, 2012) clearly shows that by not talking positively about the lives of LGBT people in School we create environments where homophobic, biphobic and transphobic bullying can and do flourish and LGBT young people then leave education as a result (14.3% of LGBT young people left education as a result of bullying). Relationships, Parenthood and sexual health education must cover a number of themes, which give young people the skills and confidence to make informed and healthy choices, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity. Same-sex marriage may be discussed in this setting, as it may in various classes throughout the school day; ultimately a child’s right to education is why removal from all classes where same-sex marriage may be mentioned is not something we think is beneficial or realistic.”
Also responding to the government’s consultation, Healthy Respect made clear some time ago their concerns in relation to the kind of opt-out the church is proposing. “Why is RSHP a special case in terms of parents being allowed to withdraw their child? It says a lot about the prevailing culture in some ways that this guidance is even required in Scotland. There is no equivalent guidance for other areas of the Curriculum for Excellence. RSHP should be treated the same as any other part of the curriculum. If parents wish to withdraw their child they need to be made aware of their child’s rights under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which, as is pointed out, will become more enshrined in Scotland under the Children & Young Persons Bill. So why still this anachronistic ‘right’ to withdraw a child from RSHP?”
These concerns in relation to the primacy of the child’s right have also been echoed by NHS Dumfries and Galloway.
Gary McLelland, Education Policy Officer for Humanist Society Scotland, also referred to the need to challenge prejudice and homophobic bullying in schools and explained that education on same-sex relationships has a vital role to play in this.
Speaking to KaleidoScot, McLelland said: “The bullying and intimidation that LGBTI pupils are facing at schools across Scotland is a national scandal, acknowledged by many politicians.
“All evidence shows that high quality up-to-date sex and relationships education helps to reduce unwanted pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections and reduce sexually harmful behaviour. Research from Zero Tolerance shows that 49.5% of respondents to their research (aged 14-19) said ‘there is not enough information available for young people on sex and relationships’.
“It’s essential that all young people have access to this unbiased information, enabling them to make informed and healthy choices. It’s unfortunate that the Free Church of Scotland, wishes to deny young people this fundamental freedom.”
These calls for changes in the relevant guidance and for a more effective means of delivering RSHPE education arrive at a time not only when the government is considering the best way forward, but also as schools are being criticised for failures in sex education and polls point to alarming views on teenagers’ sexual attitudes.
The Free Church, in advocating the parental right to withdraw children from lessons on the basis of a questionable “ideological agenda”, may consider its opt-out would protect pupils from “controversial teaching”; however, it is arguably overlooking the rights of children to be receive and benefit from consistent and quality RSHPE, with an emphasis on well-being and relationships, which is professionally monitored and accountable.
It is unclear what the government will decide in relation to an opt-out. What is clear is that, should the opt-out be implemented, the Scottish government will have prioritised the rights of parents and carers over the fundamental rights of children.