When two people’s human rights conflict, how do we, as a society, decide on how to reach a compromise, especially when it is a question of parents’ rights vs their children’s?
Take the controversy surrounding the Welsh government’s proposals to reform religious and sex education, set out in January. The changes would affect students from the ages of five to 16 at all maintained schools, those funded and controlled by the local education authority — from September 2022. They include the renaming of both subjects to RVE (‘Religion, Values and Ethics’) and RSE (‘Relationships and Sexuality Education’). No chance of confusion there, then.
More radically, both subjects will be made compulsory. At the moment in Wales, as in the rest of the UK, parents have a right to withdraw their children from these lessons if they consider their religious or philosophical views are incompatible with what the school is teaching.
The reforms have been spearheaded by Kirsty Williams, the Welsh minister for education, and are designed to align religious and sex education with the purposes behind the new curriculum as a whole, which include enabling students to lead fulfilling lives and contribute to society.
While the new titles might seem like a bit of a mouthful, there is a clear aim behind them. RVE will teach about a range of different religions, as well as ‘beliefs or worldviews analogous to religions’, in particular, humanism. RSE will be taught in a way that is appropriate to the children’s age and emotional development, on the basis of ‘current practice’. Mrs Williams has argued in the Welsh Assembly that ‘all children have the right to receive education that will keep them safe from harm, that will protect them and will give them the skills and the knowledge that they need to become healthy, confident individuals’. Essentially, the Welsh government is putting itself in the position of defender of the rights of the child. But where does this leave parents?
In a world in which misinformation about every aspect of sex is as rife as STIs, it is vital that all teenagers learn about the facts, the law and basic standards of humanity
Predictably, the proposals have been opposed by some conservative Christian and Muslim parents, who do not want their children to be taught about sex at all. To take an extreme example, the website of the campaign group Stop RSE (stoprse.com) contains slogans alleging that making RSE compulsory will lead to, among other things, the ‘erosion of parental rights’, the imposition of ‘sexual and gender ideologies’ and the ‘sexualisation of children’.
There is a large element of scaremongering in such campaigns. It is likely that only a very small proportion of the electorate would agree with their views — and even fewer once the proposals were explained to them (in any case, the changes have yet to be finalised). However, the idea that mandatory sex education violates parents’ rights must be taken seriously.
From the other end of the spectrum, both Wales Humanists and the National Secular Society support the right of parents to withdraw their children in theory, but have criticised the proposals because of an apparent loophole. This is the proviso that maintained faith schools will be allowed to continue to teach religious and sex education ‘in line with the tenets of their religion’. The humanists and secularists argue that this will prejudice parents who do not subscribe to a faith school’s religion, but who are forced to send their children there for want of alternatives.
In an opinion for the Welsh government, the legal scholar Professor Sir Malcolm Evans has criticised its proposal to make religious education mandatory. In his view, this would make it very difficult for schools to meet the requirement, well-established in human rights law, that ‘knowledge included in the curriculum is conveyed in an objective, critical, and pluralistic manner’, so as to avoid ‘indoctrination that might be considered as not respecting parents’ religious and philosophical convictions’. However, the Welsh government claims that its new RVE syllabus will do just that — and therefore keep within the law.
What emerges most clearly from the controversy is that, for both the new religious and the new sex education syllabuses, the devil will be in the detail. An indication of the way things are going will be the reformed RSE syllabus due to be introduced in England in September. It is no surprise that, on withdrawal, the DfE has fudged the issue. Parents are allowed to withdraw their child from the sex part of RSE until three terms before the child’s 16th birthday, at which point it is up to him or her to decide whether to attend. The right to withdraw from religious education will be left unchanged.
There is a strong case for the Welsh government’s proposal to make sex education compulsory for all pupils. In a world in which misinformation about every aspect of sex is as rife as STIs, it is vital that all teenagers learn about the facts, the law and basic standards of humanity from an objective perspective. Parents are not always the best guides, whether through dogma or simply lack of knowledge. It is harder to argue that ‘religion, values and ethics’ should be compulsory, in view of the high value set on the individual’s freedom of conscience in the British and European traditions. Harder… but not necessarily impossible. Not if indoctrination is avoided, and all mainstream beliefs are taught objectively and with equal space on the syllabus.
The Welsh government has set itself the challenge of persuading its citizens, and in all likelihood the court, that its new religious and sex education lessons will be best for children and society, without infringing the rights of parents. And don’t forget that children have the right to freedom of conscience as well. Their parents may be entitled to guide them, but not necessarily to prevent them from knowing about the existence of different views. The outcome of this debate will say much about the moral health of British society, and what we really mean by tolerance.