With more than a few cracks starting to open up across his government, PM Rishi Sunak really could have done without an education broadside hitting him this week. It came in the form of Asleep at the Wheel – An Examination of Gender and Safeguarding in Schools, a scathing report released yesterday by the Policy Exchange think tank. The document states that issues of safeguarding principles are being “routinely disregarded in many secondary schools” when it comes to gender identity.
The research by Policy Exchange, which sent Freedom of Information (FoI) requests to more than 300 secondary schools in England, suggested for instance that some do not maintain single-sex toilets or changing rooms.
It said: “While many schools believe they are acting in a child’s best interests, there is no circumstance in which safeguarding norms should be compromised. Nonetheless, this is happening across the country.”
“This government has failed children by allowing partisan beliefs to become entrenched within the education system. Meanwhile, the opposition has failed to pull them up on it.”
The report has been published at a time when leading government figures are concerned about what is being seen as Education Secretary Gillian Keegan’s ‘soft’ approach to transgender issues in the education system. Earlier this month, another review and report into sex education in schools by the New Social Covenant Unit, headed by Conservative MP Miriam Cates, warned that sex education that is “age-inappropriate, extreme, sexualising and inaccurate” being taught in schools. Some 50 Tory MPs signed a letter coordinated by Cates calling for an independent inquiry into the delivery of sex education content to young children.
At a subsequent prime minister’s questions, Cates warned: “Across the country, children are being subjected to lessons that are age-inappropriate, extreme, sexualising and inaccurate, often using resources from unregulated organisations that are actively campaigning to undermine parents.
“This is not a victory for equality – it is a catastrophe for childhood,” she said.
On a visit to Oxfordshire yesterday, where he was planning to set out the UK’s energy security strategy, Rishi Sunak was probably a little less than pleased that it was the Asleep at the Wheel report that journalists wanted to talk about.
Speaking to Sky News Political reporter Faye Brown, Mr Sunak had to admit that he was “very concerned” about both reports.
“For me, the safety and wellbeing of our children is of paramount importance,” he said.
“And I’ve also been clear that parents must be able to know what is being taught to their kids in school especially on these sensitive areas.”
Mr Sunak said the government is already reviewing its relationships and sex education guidance “to make sure it is age-appropriate for children”.
“But what I’m also going to say today is that for the summer term we are going to make sure we publish guidance for schools so that they know how to respond when children are asking about their gender,” he added.
The admission that he is bringing forward the government review of RSHE statutory guidance is indicative of a government in an increasing state of panic over this issue. Legislators have long been aware that the delivery of sex education in schools has the potential to be politically explosive at any time but, immersed as society is at present in tumultuous and contradictory debates about gender and sexual identity, it was a debate no-one in government was wanting to have.
On the surface, few people these days seem to be arguing that sex education in some form shouldn’t be taught in schools; if so it’s then largely just a matter of what should be presented to children, and at what ages. There’s an understandable division between those parents who believe that such matters should be taught substantively at home, and those who feel that society is in such a state of moral disarray that the state needs to intervene and make children aware of sexual behaviours and ethics in a classroom setting.
The roots of state interference in the education process go back a long way, in fact the British education system grew out of a desire by legislators to use social engineering and social control to ensure the safe working of the constitutional system. Far from freeing minds and encouraging human potential the 1870 Elementary Education Bill – which introduced the country to the notion of a state-controlled education system – came into force out of a fear that chaos would prevail over culture unless the populace was brought under the disciplines of schooling. By the time of the Education Act of 1902, Britain was in the grip of an authoritarian National State Education System that dictated almost every act of childhood, and much of parenthood too. The only allowances permitted to the rigid system of obedience, timetables and bells were primarily those dictated by faith – as at that this time the word of God still ranked a little higher than the edicts of the state.
What we are seeing today is a concerted attempt to strip away the last remnants of those exceptions, and to impose a universal and uniform moral and social code on both schools and – by extension – the general populace. Under the hypocritical guise of ‘inclusivity’, our education system is being stripped of its diversity and flexibility, in pursuit of an authoritarian and uniform ideology that the general public has no say in, and may well not subscribe to.
It is this uncertainty of public opinion that has legislators worried. Stories of unsuitable and extreme sex education materials entering our schools, often at a very young level, are becoming increasingly commonplace and its very reasonable to assume that the majority of parents are probably not comfortable with such intrusions. If most legislators are also reluctant to push these boundaries, then one has to ask who it that’s running the agenda? There are also profound questions for legislators to ask about how a small number of motivated individuals has aciually managed to take hold of and control both the UK political and educational agendas?
That’s certainly the concern of leading educationalists. Speaking to the Guardian last week, James Bowen, director of policy for the National Association of Head Teachers, expressed his deep concern that politicians were making decisions based on a noticeable lack of evidence.
“The overwhelming majority of schools are doing nothing more than following the government’s own statutory guidance when it comes to relationships and sex education,” said Mr Bowen.
“It is worth remembering that the current curriculum was subject to extensive consultation before it was introduced. We have seen no evidence to suggest there is a widespread problem with pupils being presented with age-inappropriate materials, and if this were the situation, we would expect it to have been picked up on a case-by-case basis.
“There is a real concern that this is a politically motivated review, rather than one based on the reality of what is happening in the vast majority of schools up and down the country.”
Geoff Barton, the General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (and a former headteacher) also waded in: “The vast majority of schools are incredibly cautious and sensible about the teaching of RSE and we disagree with the sweeping generalisation and inflammatory rhetoric from Miriam Cates in the Commons.
“Schools are doing their best to teach children and young people about things like being safe and respectful relationships in a sensitive and age-appropriate manner, but they are constantly subjected to unhelpful potshots from various individuals and groups,” said Mr Barton.
At the same time that Prime Minister Sunak and his team are getting twitchy about sex education in state schools, other members of his cabinet team are busily interfering in the independence of faith schools – where of course matters of sexual and moral ethics are more often than not treated with a degree of difference from their state counterparts.
Within weeks we’re due to get yet another report – this time from Michael Gove’s Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities – on new regulations and restrictions being proposed for (mainly unregistered) faith schools.
Those close to the report have sought to assuage concerns and inflammatory headlines by leaking comments that the report will be ‘predominantly positive’ about the role of faith schools, and the ‘broader value of religion’ in a democratic society. It’s hard to see, however, how you can claim that religion is a force for the social good, whilst at the same time introducing new restrictions on its presence and function within the educational system.
One only has to look back to David Cameron’s disastrous foray into this area in 2015 to recognise that politicians interfere with faith schools at their peril. Cameron sought to use the “Trojan Horse” Islamic school affair to give Ofsted inspectors the right to descend on any institution where children under 19 were being taught faith matters for more than six hours a week. The proposal infuriated Islamic groups, but the real backlash came from within the Christian faith community, who recognised a ‘Trojan Horse’ of a very different kind.
Whether he has intended it or not, Rishi Sunak is finding himself being walked rapidly into the same minefield – which may prove incredibly awkward and compromising for a man who has stated from the outset that his own faith beliefs will be central to his tenure in office.
As ever, the Catholic educational community will keep its head down and hope the old hope that backroom deals can be made to keep both legislators and liberal lobbyists away from Catholic schools, and the government funding flowing.
Frankly, in this volatile social environment, and with our continued reliance on government cash, it may not be possible to keep their tanks off our lawn for very much longer.
Joseph Kelly is a Catholic writer and political theologian