With reports that school children are being given highly inappropriate lessons on sex, gender and relationships, the Prime Minister has ordered an urgent review. Tim Wyatt speaks to the Christian campaigners who are sounding the alarm
Talking about sex with teenagers has always been contentious. But in recent times, the debate among politicians, activists, teachers and parents about how and what to teach pupils about sex, gender, relationships and identity in schools has become ferocious.
Accusations that woke radicals and aggressive lobby groups have infiltrated sex education classes to push their agenda have been aired in parliament. The Christian Conservative MP Miriam Cates has spearheaded a campaign to highlight what she believes are unscientific and controversial ideologies on sexuality and gender being taught as fact to children in state schools. Graphic lessons on oral sex, how to choke your partner safely, and the existence of 72 different genders are among the examples of dangerous lessons appearing in relationships and sex education (RSE) classes up and down the country, she alleges. In response, Rishi Sunak said he would bring forward an urgent review into sex education in schools, to ensure they are not teaching “inappropriate or contested content”.
More recently, a related row has broken out across the Irish Sea. Last month the UK government announced it would impose new compulsory elements to secondary school RSE in Northern Ireland, including teaching teenagers about contraception and access to abortion. This would be done in a “factual way that does not advocate, nor oppose, a particular view on the moral and ethical considerations”, but it has not prevented a backlash. Westminster has legislated directly because there is currently no government in Stormont (due to a row over Brexit) but many Northern Ireland Christians have decried the move as an imposition of metropolitan cultural values from English liberals.
Previously, schools in Northern Ireland could modify their own RSE curriculum depending on their own ethos and values. Lobby group CARE NI insisted Christian parents must be allowed to withdraw their children from the new classes and that Christian teachers should also be allowed to conscientiously object from teaching about abortion and related issues. The moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, Dr John Kirkpatrick, has warned that a boycott by Christian teachers and parents was highly likely. “When government starts to impose morality in this fashion, they’ve overstepped the mark,” he said.
What is being taught?
There is no national curriculum for RSE. Instead, schools are required to devise their own curriculums, in consultation with parents and taking into account the school’s ethos. As of 2020, primary and secondary schools must teach relationships education and in secondary schools, sex education as well. Some primary schools also choose to teach a limited form of sex education.
Parents do have the right to withdraw their children from sex education until the child is within three terms of their 16th birthday, when they can decide themselves to receive the teaching if they choose. However, there is no automatic right of withdrawal for relationships education, and the boundaries between what is taught in the two classes is often blurry.
Because there is no national RSE curriculum, resources and lesson plans are produced by a wide range of third parties, including charities, activist groups and large education companies, said Lizzie Harewood, executive officer of the Association of Christian Teachers. In addition, hardly any teachers have received formal training on RSE and are often simply given a pack of resources and left to figure it out themselves.
This means that the quality and content of sex education can vary widely between schools. “Not all providers are as bad as some, but a lot of them are buying into some of these problematic ideologies and presenting them as fact,” said Harewood.
Christians have kept quiet and allowed the world to educate our children in a way that’s been really harmful
Nick Batt, families, youth and children’s minister at Christ Church Bromley, said he knew teachers who taught RSE with no training or qualifications at all, simply using whatever resources the school had bought in from outside providers. “It really does vary, how much freedom they have to stick with it very, very closely or to expand on it. It doesn’t really seem like anybody’s checking what they’re doing.”
As well as the wild west of actual RSE lessons, some Christians worry that the whole school environment has been captured by a worldview believers cannot entirely share. Batt visits local schools weekly and said it was impossible to avoid pride flags, staff members wearing rainbow lanyards, library displays about banned LGBT books, and classroom walls from maths to modern foreign languages filled with displays on LGBT people. “That is the air our children and teenagers are swimming in. That’s what’s going on all the time,” he said.
Cates’ campaign relies on research by the New Social Covenant thinktank, which was established in 2021 by Cates and Danny Kruger, a fellow evangelical Tory backbencher. It points to resources by mainstream providers which aim to teach “sex positivity” and “being non-judgemental and accepting about sexual practices that are considered to deviate from the norm”. They also report on radical left-wing researchers visiting schools and involving children as young as twelve in drawing explicit images of masturbation and erect penises.
Even in primary schools, resources promoting gender transition or same-sex relationships were commonplace, according to some. Batt recalled coming across a new version of Cinderella which ends with the Fairy Godmother telling the heroine that she shall go to the ball…because she is actually not a girl but a trans boy after all: “That’s simply nuts. It seems to me incredibly confusing and really unhelpful, and put forward in quite a duplicitous manner.”
Julie Maxwell, a paediatrician and deputy director of the Christian RSE charity Lovewise, said material and perspectives which may concern Christian parents were not confined to formal sex education lessons. Some LGBT activists openly aimed to embed their ideology across the curriculum. This might see computer science lessons on binary coding also address non-binary gender identity or discussing the experience of gay mathematicians such as Alan Turing during maths, she said.
Others, however, have poured cold water on the alarmists. Cates’ claim that children are being taught about 72 genders comes from a tabloid news story about one school on the Isle of Man. Similarly, her suggestion that pupils are being taught how to choke their sexual partners is lacking in evidence, beyond a blog written by an individual sex education activist.
What should I do?
Harewood said it was not as simple as choosing to either stomach whatever RSE your local school offers or remove your children entirely. “I think that every Christian family needs to make that decision prayerfully, carefully and, where they can, in a way that influences not only their own children, but also wider communities,” she said. Christian parents can redress poor schooling at home, she suggested, instead of withdrawing children – which would mean no engagement with the school leadership on their curriculum and no opportunity to influence what non-Christian pupils are being taught.
Maxwell did opt her own children out of RSE lessons, explaining that while it did come at some social cost it was valuable to demonstrate that following Jesus sometimes meant being different to the world. But she also worked with her school and, ultimately, the local education authority, to identify exactly what was being taught in sex education lessons. “So I haven’t just hopefully helped my child, I’ve been able to potentially help other children, too.”
And Batt offered a third way – why not consider starting a Christian school? In times past, Christians had established thousands of schools and, while it would be difficult and expensive, he urged churches to dream big. Christians should also consider becoming school governors and befriending the young people in their congregations to ensure they are not letting other ideologies and worldviews fill the vacuum, he added.
Harewood noted there had indeed been an explosion of new Christian schools in recent years, but she was worried about the potential impact of Christian children, parents, and especially teachers, moving out of the state sector and effectively abandoning the majority of British children.
What kind of war?
As for the culture war on RSE that is brewing within – or, as some would argue, being whipped up by – Conservatives inside and out of parliament, there are mixed views. Harewood said the question of what our children were being taught was not a right or left-wing one. “There’s explicit provision for teaching to be pluralistic, to be not politically partisan, to be age-appropriate,” she said – the laws we have are good, they just need to be better implemented.
Maxwell lamented British Christians’ squeamishness on the issue, which she said had led to missed opportunities to teach sex and relationships God’s way. “We’ve kept quiet and allowed the world to educate our children in a way that’s been really quite harmful.”
But Batt said he was not interested in getting angry at others, and instead preferred to remember that the Bible describes such things as a spiritual rather than cultural battle. “I don’t really want to fight with people – I want to build. I want to do what humans were put here to do…glorifying God by cultivating,” he said.