In the light of the increasingly heated row over the teaching of sex and relationship education in schools, Dr Siema Iqbal argues that schools have no right to impose lifestyles and beliefs on children because that is the parent’s job.
Who should teach children about sex? The answer should be us, the parents. As parents we are the primary educators and decision-makers for our children and we teach them about family values and relationships, in some circumstances based around our religious beliefs.
However, our role as parents is being undermined by those in authority and policy makers who appear to be eroding the rights of parents to teach children their values. This undermining is hinged on the concept that as parents we are unable and not competent to speak to or make decisions about our children on certain topics.
In 2017, Sir Edward Leigh MP described the new Sex and Relationship Education (SRE) curriculum as “a state takeover bid for parenting.”
Currently Sex and Relationship Education (SRE) is not statutory yet most schools do teach it, but it sits outside of the National Curriculum. Schools are advised to consult parents prior to teaching their children and any school policies should reflect the communities they serve. Schools reflect what is happening in society and the moral compass of society is an evolving and changing model.
A number of lobby groups have taken advantage of this and one area where this is more evident is in SRE where organisations such as Humanist UK, National Secular Society and Stonewall are being overly relied upon for guidance on how sex education should be taught.
At present as parents we currently have the right to withdraw our children from SRE lessons from primary school up to 19 years of age. Concerns raised by parents who object to SRE lessons are commonly about issues such as promiscuity, same sex relationships or gender choice being discussed prematurely with their children.
Children respect and trust their teachers but when teachers impose values which are not aligned to the values within the children’s homes it can lead to conflict and confusion for children. Other parental worries include the use of inappropriate and sexual images for teaching SRE.
Everyone is entitled to choose to live their lives how they wish to and no one should interfere, bully, attack or insult anyone because of their choices, even if these choices do not align with personal religious beliefs or family values. I will be the first to stand up against any bigotry.
However, in the same way it is wrong to interfere, bully, attack or insult anyone if they choose to question what is being taught to their children.
Parkfield School controversy
in the last month we have seen parents protest outside Parkfield Community School in Alum Rock, Birmingham, in a predominantly Muslim area. A week ago, hundreds of parents kept their children home from the same school amid anxieties about its “No Outsiders” programme. They felt the scheme was “not age appropriate” and “not what we send children to school for.”
Despite peaceful protests and parents exercising their right to stop their children attending the lessons they have been referred to as a “mob” by the media and demonised as “bigots” for their actions. To imply these parents do not understand “British values” or are not preparing their children for modern life, deeming them “unfit parents” or “extremist” is unfounded scaremongering.
It is unclear if the lessons at the primary school have now been stopped but perhaps if the parents had been properly consulted there would have been no need for this escalation or a breakdown between the parents and the school. Surely the school working with the parents would have been a better example for the children of how not to treat people as “outsiders”?
Implying parents who question what is taught to their children in SRE are homophobic is a recurring untrue slander thrown at parents, particularly Muslim parents in an attempt to silence dissent. Teaching children about respecting different lifestyle choices in an age appropriate way is not the same as the state imposing lifestyle choices on children, through the education system which contradict the values parents teach at home and telling children to affirm that these lifestyles are ok.
Although the media has given a lot of attention to the Muslim parents in Birmingham, concerns have not just arisen from the Muslim community. The Jewish community – in particular the Charedi community – is also challenging Ofsted led by Mr Shraga Stern, over the changes to Sex and Relationship Education.
Jewish schools have made it clear that they will not promote issues contrary to orthodox Jewish belief and have legally challenged the Department for Education (DfE). They feel the new regulations seek to limit and breach parental rights as per the ECHR and 2010 Equality Act to have children educated in accordance with parent’s religious beliefs and have ignored the findings of the government’s consultation in 2018 where a majority of responses felt that the material both at primary and secondary level was age inappropriate.
Whilst concerns should be taken seriously it is also important for parents to be clear about what resources are being used to teach SRE in schools and not jump to conclusions. As parents we have a right to see and discuss school SRE resources to ensure they are age appropriate and to enable discussions at home with children before it is taught in school if we so wish.
The new revised curriculum becomes compulsory in schools from September 2020 with limited rights of the parents to withdraw their children.
In Primary Schools a new subject, Relationships Education (RE) will be introduced as a separate subject to Sex and Relationship Education (SRE) and will be compulsory. In this subject primary school children will be taught to respect different types of families and relationships, allowing schools the flexibility to teach about sexual identities, including same-sex relationships and trans-gender identities.
But why do primary school children need to know this at such a young age? Where is the evidence to suggest that they do? Surely teaching children about differences can be taught without exposing children to the details of being “different”. The same people that shouted from the rooftops about hijabs sexualising children appear to be silent and seem not to have issues with material like this being shown to young children. Does this not cause premature sexualisation of children?
In Secondary school SRE (Sex and Relationship Education) will be changed around to RSE (Relationship and Sex Education) to calm fears, claiming the focus is on relationships but essentially will be SRE but taught as a compulsory subject. These lessons will include female genital mutilation (FGM), sexting, online grooming, domestic violence and forced marriage as well as gay and transgender relationships.
Parents will have the right to withdraw their child from the sex education aspect of RSE by requesting in writing to the head teacher who will decide, however parents can only withdraw until their child is 15 years old and then the child will be asked whether they wish to opt in.
It is relatively more appropriate for children to learn about topics such as online dangers, domestic violence, sex (safe sex), gay and transgender relationships in secondary schools. But does gender fluidity really need to be taught to all children? Research has shown that some cases can be driven by earlier psychological vulnerabilities and social problems and many who experience some form of gender identity challenge, later come to endorse the gender they were raised.
This demonstrates the situation is much more complex and requires an individualised approach so why confuse a majority instead of working with the minority who need the support?
Schools should also be encouraging dialogue between children and parents and if there are issues or problems, they should be working with families to work through them. They should not be placing a wedge between parents and children by teaching children they will help them do something their parents would be unhappy with.
As a parent I am the primary educator for my children and refuse to be made to feel bad for standing up for my rights as a parent and wanting to teach my children family values based on my religious beliefs. By doing so this does not make me a bigot, align me with the far-right or mean I should have the fight against Islamophobia thrown back in my face.
What it means is I respect your right to live your life and will stand by your side against all hate but it does not mean I have to accept that way of life for myself or my children.
Respect and acceptance are two different things. Live your life however you want but do not impose it onto others. I didn’t realise the fight against Islamophobia came with conditions? Instead of incorrectly calling me a bigot why do you not stand with me and fight for my rights as a parent? Or for me to exercise my religious beliefs?
Some parents may not wish to discuss issues such as sex and relationships at home and may opt their children out of the lessons at school too. This does not however give the state consent to fill that vacuum. Instead schools need to do more to consult with parents and communities and bring them in on discussions and work together on topics such as SRE.
As parents we wash, dress, feed and ferry the children to schools, religious institutions, clubs etc but outsource the emotional upbringing of our children to others. Whilst it is not unrealistic to expect schools to teach morals, manners discipline and values, completely outsourcing this teaching will mean they are taught values which will be based upon a school curriculum influenced by society whose beliefs may not align with yours.
Teaching of family values has to begin at home. Parents need speak to their own children about issues including sex and stop being afraid of doing so either due to cultural barriers, a poor relationship with the children or fear of state policies. We need to practically implement the faith values we wish to teach at home rather than just talking about them.
Otherwise who will normalise our values to our children? It certainly shouldn’t be schools as they erode parental rights under the guise of equality.
Dr Siema Iqbal is a GP in Manchester. You can follow her on Twitter here.