Education Secretary Ed Balls pulled a remarkable trick last week to manipulate public and parental opinion. From 30 April to 24 July this year, the Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency (QCDA) carried out a consultation on Personal, Social, Health and Economic Education (PSHE) which includes Sex and Relationship Education (SRE).
Out of 6,433 responses, only 32% agreed with Mr Balls' proposal to make PSHE a statutory part of the national curriculum. 68% rejected his plans. Only 21% wanted parents to lose their right to withdraw their child from SRE. 79% wanted to retain it.
The QCDA's report on its findings suggested that the results may have been skewed by 'organised campaign groups'. However, among the 19% of respondents identified as campaigners, 57% agreed the PSHE should be statutory – almost twice as many as among all respondents. So it seems reasonable to assume that the campaigners were largely allies of Ed Balls.
Nevertheless, the overall views expressed in the QCDA's public consultation were not to his liking. A series of QCDA conferences on these issues suited him better: in contrast with the public survey, 90% of conference attendees wanted to make PSHE statutory and only 34% of those who attended agreed with parental rights of withdrawal. (Please note the huge gap between those involved in state education and parents.)
So in October, Mr Balls commissioned yet another poll, this time from Populus. After being told that the government planned to make PSHE statutory from September 2011, 80% of Populus's respondents agreed that every child should attend these lessons. Yet despite this large proportion, Populus found only 20% of parents and 26% of the general population thought parents should never be allowed to withdraw their child from SRE!
Almost certainly, the confusion arose because 48% of the parents and 57% of the general population questioned by Populus didn't even know that parents currently enjoy the right to withdraw their child from sex education lessons. So how reliable are their opinions? That said, 81% in favour was a handy percentage for Ed Balls to quote last Friday when he announced his intention to make PSHE statutory and remove parental rights of withdrawal from sex education once their child reaches 15.
How does this effect local government? When, as will surely happen, your PSHE advisers and headteachers claim that parents want compulsory PSHE and more sex education, but don't want the right of withdrawal, show them the door, preferably for ever! Local people know local schools and should know what goes on there. Ed Balls can say what he likes. There is no groundswell of public opinion for compulsory PSHE or sex education. For some children, their schools are already threatening places. Can it be right that children come home from primary school worried about drugs, sex and suicide, as someone with direct experience asked us last week? Or are those in charge doing more harm than good?