Sex education is not a matter for ministers

Who should teach children about sex? The education secretary, Damian Hinds, must be desperate for attention. This week of all weeks, he has taken the government into battle with Christian, Jewish and Muslim groups, probably half the Conservative party and 100,000 petitioners to parliament. Hinds wants instruction in LGBT “sensitivity and inclusiveness” to be “integral throughout the programme of study”, including in primary schools. He wants to reform and expand “relationships education” through all schools, and to end a parent’s right to withdraw a child from sex education once he or she reaches 15. The Guardian reports.

These changes gave rise to a Commons debate on Monday, stimulated in part by a coalition of parents, churches and minority groups, almost all declaring a “fundamental right to decide what their children learn” about sex and relationships. Many were deeply offended at this right now being denied. It was, said a Tory MP, a “shift of power from the individual to the state”. It was not government’s job to dictate parental, communal and religious mores.

In principle I am with Hinds. What are now called life skills should lie at the core of a liberal education. Even if controversial, they should be tackled. Knowing how to handle the real world of work and play, money and credit, the law, mental and physical health, self-presentation, online security and human relationships should be “the curriculum”. This must embrace getting on with other people of all sorts, learning how to disagree without anger, text without cruelty, and love without harm. Children are bombarded with pressures against which they need help.

I have been a governor in various schools, none of which taught these skills. Once a child has learned to read and write, the curricular dinosaurs still lumbering around Britain’s classrooms – maths, science, modern languages – should be classed as “optional extras”. They are subjects learned and forgotten, drilled into children only to be measured by the state and then discarded. They are not essential to anyone’s start in life.

Everyone thinks they know how to teach. They don’t. It is very hard. A teacher friend tells me he never taught his pupils anything as tough or embarrassing as sex. The worst part was having to show a dire BBC video. Children learn the facts of life either from other children or from a responsible adult. I would prefer an adult. But in the race between the classroom and the playground, the playground usually wins. Sex educationis for trained counsellors in small groups.

Independent schools can make up their own minds on how much and how far to teach about sex. When parents can afford it, they can break free of Hinds’ department. They can trust their schools to handle subjects that Hinds does not trust to his. Why should such freedom be purchasable? Hinds and his predecessors have encouraged “faith schools”, in my view recklessly. How can they do that, and then censor the faith?

On Monday, petitioners against these reforms claimed that sexuality and the “physical, psychological and spiritual implications” of LGBT should not be part of a mandatory curriculum. They are right only on the word mandatory, but there they are spot on. If ever there was a topic for ministers to leave to professionals, it is this. Leave a difficult job to those for whom it is a vocation, not a headline opportunity.

Read the full article Sex education is not a matter for ministers

Who do you agree with? Please tell us your thoughts in comments or via Twitter ~ Tamsin

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