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Inspiring choice

How can Christians influence relationships and sex education? asks Peter Mitchell

The Department for Education is introducing compulsory Relationships Education for primary pupils and Relationships and Sex Education (RSE) for secondary pupils across all schools in England from September 2020.

Unlike opt-out provisions available to parents who do not want their children to attend Religious Education lessons, the new Relationships Education curriculum will be compulsory for all children in primary and secondary school in England and Relationships and Sex Education will now have a diluted opt-out. 

The DfE says it wants to support all young people to be happy, healthy and safe, and equip them for adult life and to make a positive contribution to society”. But for many families, these subjects have been a cause for concern, due to the prescriptive and presumptive nature of the proposed curriculum. The curriculum proposes to teach, among other things, about the nature of family, the definition of love, about the purpose of sex, or the lack thereof, contributing significantly to young people’s understanding of what it means to be human and a person in community.

The concern for many is that these topics can be rooted deeply into a community’s religious and cultural make-up, but the curriculum fails to offer sufficient space or choice for those families and communities who stand in distinction from mainstream secular liberal views. 

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What does it mean to be human and how do we relate to each other and the world around us, are some of the most profound and fundamental questions every society and culture has ever asked. Each society and culture has explored and answered those questions differently. There is currently inadequate provision in the new proposals for people’s deeply divergent views, resulting in the absence of educational diversity based on locality and the uniqueness of all children and families, including religious families and children.

These provisions are available in Religious Education, where in the example of the Statutory Advisory Committees on Religious Education (SACRE), groups of school leaders, community leaders, religion and belief representatives, and parents can decide together, ahead of time, what is age-appropriate and, crucially, what is appropriate to the religious background of the pupils concerned. 

In addition, full parental opt-outs as well as the provision of different types of school with, to varying degrees, clear differences in their religious education teaching has helped families navigate the challenges and opportunities in educating children in England. All these mechanisms are helpful approaches that could be applied to these new subjects. 

The final guidance has now been published but we will continue to monitor developments as well as encourage the government to consider how the mechanisms used within the context of Religious Education could be used to address the tensions that currently exist in Relationships Education and Relationships and Sex Education.

What can we learn from Love For Life in Northern Ireland? Dr Olwyn Mark, the organisation’s head of research and strategic partnerships, talks about its work 

Freedom of choice is a liberal ideal in education. In the context of Relationships and Sex Education (RSE), it is often understood in terms of informing young people’s choices by providing them with accurate and age-appropriate information – information that will enable them to make autonomous choices in their relational and sexual lives. This freedom is constrained only by social norms around behaviour, but the aspiration towards sexual freedom for young people strongly reflects that which is coveted in wider culture.

At Love for Life, we affirm every child and young person in their freedom and capacity to make moral decisions; we recognise, however, that these decisions do not happen in a moral vacuum. Instead, young people are constantly being shaped by the sexual values, norms and expectation of their surrounding culture. In addition, in encouraging children and young people to reason about the good of relationships and sexual behaviour, it is important to note that we first need to provide them with moral resources and starting points from which to do so.

In our presentations and workshops across Northern Ireland, we nurture a spirit of moral enquiry, encouraging young people to consider how the values and virtues that we present contribute to individual and societal wellbeing and flourishing. In living out our Christian values, our programmes create educational opportunities in which the highest level of constructive engagement is fostered, cultivating a spirit of tolerance and respect.

As the project has developed over the past 16 years, we have gained an established reputation for delivering curriculum-based programmes in primary and post-primary schools that articulate an integrated, holistic and value-rich approach to RSE. This means that we are committed to providing not only the knowledge that we believe children and young people need to inform their relational and sexual choices, but the skills to enact them, and the values that give them meaning.

Good RSE will allow young people the opportunity to wrestle with important moral questions as they reflect on their own values and beliefs, helping them to recognise and consider carefully the possible implications of the choices that they may make. Our aspiration for the thousands of young people who we work with every year is that, when it comes to their sexual choices, they will not just emerge unharmed’ from any sexual encounter – i.e. that it will be deemed consensual and without unintended pregnancy or the transmission of a sexually transmitted infection. Instead, our hope is that every young person will give serious consideration to the context, and type of relationship, that gives meaning and purpose to sexual choices.

Wider culture fails to engage with a relational language to speak about the context for sex, and a Christian approach to RSE can provide young people with that language. As they explore the appropriate context for sex, young people need moral guidance concerning the ideal context in which to say yes’.

We believe that the vision that we present concerning relational and sexual choices is one that is possible, purposeful and life-giving – a delaying sex-centred vision which includes presenting the reasons why someone would choose not to have sex, and why someone would choose to keep sexual intimacy for marriage. In the pursuit of moral truth, we affirm that this moral knowledge cannot be derived objectively from experience, instinct or reason.

We find again and again that young people often simply need the reassurance that saying is no’ is still a valid and good choice, even if they have already made the choice to be sexually active. So, as we celebrate the freedom that young people have to choose – as well as the responsibility that comes with this freedom – ultimately our aim is not merely to inform choice but to inspire choice in RSE programmes across Northern Ireland.

About the author

Peter joined the Evangelical Alliance in 2018 as the Education Policy Officer and engages with national education policy and work with our members involved in education. Prior to this he had worked in the US for a Christian public policy institute (The Center for Public Justice) in policy areas including education, religious freedom and poverty and opportunity. He has been involved in politics as a local councillor in England and in public policy in both the US and the UK; having worked both on the policy side of education (particularly around education funding and curriculum design) and also having served as a school governor at both primary and secondary schools in the North East of England. He's married to a former primary school teacher and he and his bride have four children.

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