Sex education. The very words strike a note of gloom. Long, long ago, back in the 1950s when schoolgirl pregnancies were a rarity, and anyone who gave children contraceptives and urged them to enjoy “safe sex” would have been arrested, things looked different.
In those days, there was a feeling that, with the advent of television and greater prosperity, with young people enjoying more freedom than had been the case in centuries past, and with a general sense of social change in the air, it might be useful to ensure that the young were well informed about the facts of human reproduction. In this way, greater freedom would not spell social chaos; with knowledge and with suitable moral guidance, the young could enjoy wholesome relationships and understand why it was important to remain chaste.
The accepted wisdom was that sexual experimentation among young people arose out of ignorance: girls did not know how babies happened, and were too shy or embarrassed to discuss such things with their parents. Now things would change; health officials drew up plans. All were agreed on one thing: information about sexual and reproductive matters would come with clear moral guidance and, indeed, the whole scheme was seen primarily in that context.
But things did not work out as planned. Other voices took over as commercial and ideological forces got involved. Golly, how different things are in 2010. We have now had massive schemes of propaganda on sexual issues pushed at the young for decades. Schools arrange talks and brochures, demonstrations and films about contraception and abortion, making official links with abortion providers and with clinics which give youngsters contraceptives without parental knowledge or consent. Posters urge youngsters to consider whether or not they are lesbian or homosexual, and how to feel good about it if they decide they are.
The result? The teenage pregnancy rate has soared, and the problem of sexually-transmitted diseases among the young is now so huge that supermarkets and youth clubs have joined health centres and schools in giving information about how to obtain medical help for these potentially lethal illnesses.
Fewer and fewer young people are marrying. Of those who do, many divorce – especially if they have been living together beforehand. Many people in their twenties, attempting marriage, have had multiple sexual partners. Many girls bring to marriage a background of more than one abortion, with its consequent physical and psychological damage. Almost half of all births are now out of wedlock. Children born to unmarried couples have only a slim chance of remaining in contact with both parents by the time they reach puberty as most such relationships break up before then.
And into this grisly scene the government is bringing – yes, you’ve guessed it – more sex education. Under legislation now in Parliament (Children Schools and Families Bill), sex and relationships education will be a compulsory part of the statutory National Curriculum. Parents will continue to have the right to withdraw their children from these classes, but only up to the age of 15. After that they must attend classes which include information on “how and where to obtain information about health and sex advice” — to wit, your local family planning/abortion clinic. This is to ensure they get at least 12 months of amoral, utilitarian sex education before finishing compulsory schooling.
However, there is no opt-out at any stage for schools. Faith schools — which constitute a third of all schools in Britain — will have to teach a curriculum that starts with talking to five-year-olds about bodily changes, teaches “different relationships” (of which marriage is only one) from the age of seven, and everything else from the age of 11 — including same-sex relationships, contraception and abortion.
Since the government announced its latest plan in November, the excellent Family Education Trust has produced a a devastating critique in its detailed report, Too Much,Too Soon. Increasingly, informed and professional voices are raised about the sexualising of the young and there is discussion about the links between this and the rising tide of teenage drunkenness, violence, and suicide. Ironically, the government itself has just released a report warning Britons about the sexualisation of children — as if it had nothing to do with its own awful agenda.
In response to outrage from many parents and family groups the minister in charge of this draconian bill, Ed Balls, the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families (yes, this government department really does seem to believe that it is in charge of children and families as well as schools) has insisted that faith schools will still be able to teach the sex content within “the tenets of their faith”. Last week an amendment to this effect was passed in the Commons — the result of a deal with religious authorities, notably the Catholic Education Service of England and Wales (CES), which seems to regard it as a positive coup.
But there are many sceptics. Jewish columnist Melanie Phillips has taken a liberal rabbi to task for defending the compromise, which she calls “demonstrably absurd”. The Telegraph’s Catholic blogger Damian Thompson has called for the CES to be wound up, and The Catholic Herald says that it demonstrates the need for Catholics to “take drastic action to confront moral relativism in our schools”.
On the other hand the National Secular Society, in tune with much of the press, has portrayed the amendment as a massive concession, saying that the government has “once more bowed to pressure from the Catholic church, betraying the children in faith schools who have a right to objective and balanced sex education.”
This, despite Mr Balls’ repeated insistence that there is to be “no watering down” of the government’s scheme. “There’s no opt-out for any faith school from teaching the full, broad, balanced curriculum on sex education,” he says. “Catholic schools can say to their pupils that, as a religion, we believe contraception is wrong, but what they can’t do is say they are not going to teach about contraception.”
Meanwhile the CES is emphatic that the character of education in Catholic schools will remain clear: “The teaching of all aspects of the curriculum in Catholic schools reflects their religious ethos. In the same way, the SRE in Catholic schools will be rooted in the Catholic Church’s teaching of the profound respect for the dignity of all human persons,” it says. This is unconvincing, to say the least. Already – and this is shameful – some Catholic schools promote access to abortion information and use standard leaflets to ensure that children are given material about contraception.
With a general election coming up this year, this ought to be a major issue. What next? Thank goodness for one clear voice – the Cardinal Archbishop of Edinburgh, Cardinal Keith Patrick O’Brien, has hit out at the government’s “systematic and unrelenting attack on family values”. He points to the “soaring toll” of abortions, and to the government’s record on forcing all adoption agencies to accept allocating children to homosexual couples, as examples of government anti-family attitudes.
Ordinary Christians – and people of all faiths and none who are concerned about the tragic brokenness of modern British society – look to religious leaders for a voice. Can we hear more voices like that of Cardinal O’Brien, please? And can we ask what a Catholic Education Service is for, if it is not to promote Catholic beliefs and values in education?
Sooner or later, there will be a turnaround in the official policies on sex education. The sheer social chaos that has resulted – and will worsen rapidly in the next few years – from the policies of recent decades will ensure this. We need to speed up the process, and we need people of faith to help in that. At present, the future looks bleak.
Joanna Bogle writes from London.