A disagreement has broken out between equalities, education and children's groups and Government Secretary of State Ed Balls over the Children, Schools and Families Bill amendments concerning Personal, Social, Health and Economic Education (PSHE).
The issue is about mandatory programmes of Sex and Relationships Education (SRE) study in schools from September 2011. The Children's Rights Alliance for England, the Accord Coalition of religious and non-religious groups working for inclusive schooling, the Christian think-tank Ekklesia and the British Humanist Association are among those concerned that the government appears to have watered down the Children, Schools and Families Bill after pressure from the Catholic Education Service (CES) and others.
Today (19 February 2010) parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights’ (JCHR) has issued its scrutiny of the Bill. The JCHR supports the Bill in making Sex and Relationships Education a mandatory subject in all schools, describing the introduction of SRE for all pupils as a "human rights enhancing measure".
In particular, the committee welcomes the fact that state-funded faith schools will have to follow the same principle of promoting equality as all other state-funded schools. However, the Government has now tabled an amendment to its own Bill, which effectively reverses that position.
Campaigners say that the wording of the amendment means that instead of offering "the essential knowledge component of SRE... within the context of relationships and the school's values", as Mr Balls states, the amended Bill will now allow certain schools to impose their own restrictions at the expense of a broad approach.
Speaking on behalf of the Accord coalition, the group's chair, Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain, said: "It is astonishing that the government plans to deny young people of their right to accurate, balanced PSHE and Sex and Relationships Education (SRE), and allow publicly funded schools to teach the subject from one religious viewpoint only."
Carolyne Willow, National coordinator of the Children's Rights Alliance for England, commented: "This amendment was completely unnecessary as there is already provision in the Bill for PSHE to take into account different perspectives, including religious beliefs. It is absolutely vital that sex and relationships education funded by the state occurs within the context of commitment to equality and respect for diversity; anything less is discriminatory."
However, the government minister responsible, Ed Balls, last night tried to rubbish these concerns, claiming that they were "nonsense" and "misrepresented" the impact of his amendment. As well as sending out a Department for Children Schools and Families (DCSF) press release, he also tweeted his response and briefed the media to try to abate criticism.
Mr Balls says the amendment merely "clarifies" the Bill and DCSF gives an example of how it might work in one particular school, St Thomas More, a mixed secondary in Bedford.
However critics say that the wording of the amendment flatly contradicts the minister's reassurances and assertions that the mandatory SRE content will not take second place to the particular preferences of faith schools - which may well not be shared by the pupils and parents in those schools.
Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain responded: “Ed Balls’ claims about the impact of his amendment are untrue - either he and his department have misunderstood their own amendment or they are misrepresenting it."
He added: “The drafting of the amendment is clear: the religious character of faith schools will trump all of the other principles by which PSHE should be taught, even if this means condoning homophobia or giving pupils inaccurate information. If Ed Balls agrees that this would be unacceptable then it is up to him to withdraw the amendment.”
Andrew Copson, CEO of the British Humanist Association (BHA) said last night: "The Government’s amendment effectively gives licence to faith schools to teach SRE in ways that are homophobic, gender discriminatory and otherwise violate principles of human rights."
Mr Balls says that all schools "must be absolutely clear about the importance of civil partnerships", but critics point out that those lobbying for the amendment the government has introduced do not share this view. There are also allegations of lack of effective action on the bullying of homosexuals, which research has indicated is higher in religious foundation schools than in other schools.
Simon Barrow, co-director of the religion and society think-tank Ekklesia, commented. "It seems as if the government is rather unfeasibly trying to have it both ways here. When the crunch comes, its amendment on PSHE to the Children, Schools and Families Bill is liable to subject the broad principles and contents of Sex and Relationships Education (SRE) to the whims of individual schools. It is hard to see how Mr Balls can deny this, factually. And while DCSF quotes one example of positive practice - which would already have been covered by the unamended Bill - it is not saying explicitly that this will be followed in all religious foundation schools. Indeed, it must know that it will not. Otherwise, why introduce an amendment, under pressure for sectional interests, which far from clarifying the original intent of the Bill, actually creates a large loophole in it?"
He added: "No-one is arguing that PHSE in publicly funded schools should not take into account cultural and religious sensibilities. The issue is whether particular narrow views should be allowed to trump all other considerations of fairness and equal treatment - and whether, for instance, pupils in Catholic schools will be taught that homosexuality is "gravely disordered" without being invited to consider different arguments and proposals, including the views of Christians and others who strongly disagree with this."
"Sex and relationships is a hotly contested ethical area. This is why it is important that pupils in schools funded by the taxpayer should be given a full, rounded, factually-based picture, rather than a dogmatic or one-sided one. It is of course the job of particular faith communities, secular groups, family units and others within civil society to address the issues from their own distinctive perspectives. But single views should not be imposed at the expense of others within the publicly-funded school system, which has a responsibility to ensure a free flow of information, debate, dialogue and understanding."
Ekklesia has asked the Secretary of State why he thinks it is that homophobic bullying is 10 per cent higher in faith schools, according to Stonewall research, and what he intends to do about this.