16 June 2023

Parents deserve a say in what their children learn in sex education


Clare Page wasn’t interested in politics until her daughter’s school in south London started telling pupils to be ‘sex positive’ and suspicious of ‘heteronormativity’. 

When Page asked to see the materials the school was showing to 15-year-olds, she was told they were confidential. That led to a campaign to make ‘all state-funded school resource…published, citable and open for public or regulatory scrutiny’.

For parents who share Page’s concern about what their children learn in school, this week’s ruling against her will be a hammer blow.

A tribunal found that the commercial interest of the charity producing this material superseded the public’s right to see it. Although, in Page’s own words, the court and the Information Commissioner believe she as a parent had a right to see such material, that right does not extend to the public at large.

Many parents will disagree profoundly with this week’s ruling. More broadly, polling we have conducted at Civitas makes it clear that Page is far from alone in her concerns. Barely a quarter of parents in a recent poll thought schools had got the balance right between spending time on traditional subjects and promoting social issues, particularly on sex, gender and race.

Jo-Anne Nadler is another campaigning parent who has taken her son’s school to task and forced a climbdown. In her recent book, Show, Tell and Leave Nothing to the Imagination, published by Civitas, Nadler found that almost a quarter of teenagers were now taught about bondage in graphic lessons, dispelling the myth that graphic sex ed is somehow restricted to a tiny minority of schools who should probably know better. A third of older teenagers said they were taught about gender ideology while at school. 

Ministers will soon come forward with proposals for a new wave of ‘sex ed’ lessons in schools, updating guidance on what should and shouldn’t be taught in Relationships, Sex and Health Education (RSHE) lessons. These lessons are a slither of the school day but easily the most contentious. ‘Sex ed’ has come a long way since cucumbers and embarrassed biology teachers. 

The coming row over RSHE will pit ‘progressives’ against ‘traditionalists’, but in reality it is parents who should be the final arbiters. They increasingly feel overlooked and powerless.

Parents overwhelmingly want new, unrestricted legal rights to see all RSHE materials and just as importantly the right to withdraw their children from these lessons if they don’t like what they see. As it stands, parents just about retain a right to remove from the ‘sex’ bit of RSHE, but their powers stop there. There’s no right to remove children from the relationships bit, leaving a loophole that cuts parents out of the debate. 

The right to withdraw will become a battleground in drawing up new style RSHE and advice on gender in schools. Government advice is often written in a way that leaves a lot to the school to decide. The counter-balance is giving parents rights, something they say they want.

There will be plenty of groups encouraging the government and its advisors to do away with parental rights. Ministers should stand firm and go much further in providing the right of parents to see what is going on and to withdraw their kids if they don’t like it. This will mean closing a loophole where the right to withdraw their children is limited to material covering sex.

The key point here is that really contentious stuff is not just about sex per se. Many schools now employ outside bodies to talk to children about changing gender, or so-called ‘sex positivity’. Graphic worksheets were recently exposed by a group of MPs, and to his credit the Prime Minister responded quickly, promising a review of RSHE in schools. As it stands anyone can set up a group to talk to children and simply walk into their local school promoting ideas that were unthinkable a generation ago. Parents think that some form of registration is needed, something ministers drawing up plans for new RSHE lessons should seriously consider.

With Nadler finding that 10% older teenagers saying they want to change their gender or have already done so, parents must not be left in the dark. The Government should provide reassurance to parents, who tell pollsters they want to be told if their child changes gender when they turn up at school.

There will be pressure on ministers to pull back on parents’ rights, but the Government should be running in the opposite direction. New rights for parents are needed with legal powers to see lesson plans, to remove their children, and the confidence that outside groups have had some external vetting. The world has moved on since the last time ministers looked at RSHE in any detail, every school has parental WhatsApp groups and it’s easier than ever for those parents to mobilise.

In an era of ‘culture wars’ the chances of a lasting, widely agreed political settlement on sex and gender are slim. But if we are to address these questions, it is surely parents who should be given the veto, not courts or warring factions in Westminster.

Click here to subscribe to our daily briefing – the best pieces from CapX and across the web.

CapX depends on the generosity of its readers. If you value what we do, please consider making a donation.

Frank Young is Editorial Director at the Civitas thinktank.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.