PARENTS in Wales should brace themselves: the Welsh Government is one step away from transferring the right of parents to decide their child’s best interests about sex and religious education to the State. Legal reforms aim to hand over the decision about what is appropriate to the maturity and development of children to the government and schools – to the exclusion of parents, and without their consent.
A Bill aiming to widen the mandatory curriculum for all schools, including faith schools, is imminently due to become law in Wales, having passed all debate stages. Religious Education has been re-framed as ‘Religion, Values and Ethics’ (RVE) for secular and atheistic philosophical perspectives to be taught on par with mainstream religious education, and a Relationships and Sex Education Code (‘RSE Code’) has been introduced to broaden sex education themes and content.
Significantly, the Bill removes the previous statutory right of parents to opt their children out of these classes if they consider it appropriate to do so.
Wales’s example follows recent changes in England. The Department for Education’s statutory guidance for Relationships Education and Sex Education (‘RSE’) requires all schools in England to integrate new relationships and sexual content into entire curriculums, as well as within PSHE (Personal, Social, Health and Economic) lessons, by the summer term.
English RSE also significantly alters parental rights of opt-out. The parental primacy to withdraw children from secondary sex education classes has been diluted so that the school can have the final say, and now parents cannot opt out primary children from ‘relationships education’ at all. Considering that some RSE resources being used in schools include gender non-conformity story books and graphic nudity images for primary children, and advice about abortion provision and transgender identity for secondary children, the watered-down parental opt-out is unsettling to many parents who believe the school setting may not be the best place to discuss these topics.
Continuing on the trajectory of UK curriculum reform, it is also likely that the Welsh law will act as the final pretext the Scottish parliament needs to move forward with plans to remove the current discretion given to faith schools when teaching sex education.
With such huge policy shifts, it’s surprising that the public were not given an adequate opportunity to voice their views. The Welsh education consultation leading up to the draft legislation did not ask for public opinions on curriculum and parental opt-outs – instead, the questions asked respondents to comment on how clear the new guidance was to read. Opinions on style, not content, were sought.
The English consultation was similarly inadequate – it did not invite public views on the nature of the opt-out as a significant removal of rights. Also, while the consultation revealed that three in five respondents thought that primary school content was inappropriate and two-thirds of respondents thought that the content was inappropriate for secondary schools, the DfE did not incorporate these concerns or alter the guidance.
The changes should concern parents who believe that they should have the primary authority to make decisions about their child’s education and best interests, especially in relation to mature or sexual content.
They also erode the UK’s long history of recognising and upholding parental rights in education, both through common law and written law. Particularly when it comes to sensitive topics, the primary role of parents has always been respected as they are best placed to determine what is age-appropriate for the background, culture, and developmental maturity of their children.
International human rights law echoes a similar tune. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and European Convention on Human Rights place a high importance on parental rights, with the latter asserting that countries are required to respect the rights of parents to ensure that teaching is in conformity with their convictions. These documents were written with the family assuming primary responsibility for the well-bring and educational decisions about children.
It is becoming increasingly apparent that the governments in England and Wales are legislating deliberately to neglect parental rights – principles long upheld both domestic and internationally. The reforms also show the speed at which education policy is shifting.
For those who believe in the primacy of the family unit, now is the time to stand up to defend parental rights.