The Government’s announcement of changes to sex and relationships education has generated a mini storm of controversy. The changes are broad and many are non-contentious – for example, teaching children about the importance of maintaining their mental health. But controversy surrounds three issues: that primary school children will be taught about relationships, which some worry means exposing children to adult themes too early; that in updating and expanding teaching on sex and relationships, politicians will be making moral judgements on issues some believe should be left to parents; and that the Government will be making it harder for parents to withdraw their children from such lessons, raising concerns about parental freedom. Conservative columnists Charles Moore and Peter Hitchens both raised concerns about these changes in last weekend’s media. But what do voters think about all this?
On all these issues, evidence is patchy but there’s enough of it to draw some tentative conclusions. The first of these, mostly informed by the qualitative research on education I’ve conducted down the years, is that parents of children of all ages are obsessed with bullying; they fear their children might be bullied in the playground or online; and they rate their children’s school on how quickly and effectively they deal with problems as they arise. (There is some quantitative research on this issue too, backing up the same conclusions.) Parents – and indeed most of the public – are also desperate to be inclusive, respectful and polite, and for their children to be so, too. This all means they are highly sympathetic to suggestions that children should be actively taught that every child should be treated with kindness and respect, regardless of their background and beliefs.
The second conclusion is that most parents are generally extremely liberal about what schools teach in secondary schools – and that includes the clear teaching that different lifestyles are perfectly acceptable. A reasonably extensive YouGov poll from November showed that, by massive majorities, the public believe in teaching about things like safe sex, building safe and healthy relationships, STDs and consent. (There is surprisingly little difference across age groups on these issues.) Furthermore, by a large margin (69-18), the public also supports teaching, in the words of the questionnaire, “that homosexuality is ok”. By a smaller, but still clear, margin (51-29), the public supports teaching, again in the words of the questionnaire, “that transgenderism is ok”.
The third conclusion is that, while most people are either very liberal because they’re self-consciously so, or because their lack of interest in the issue makes them so, significant minorities worry about aspects of sex and relationships education. The two biggest sceptical groups are Conservatives and a minority of culturally conservative parents (mostly of primary school-age children). The YouGov poll referenced above showed, by 40-37, with the rest saying “don’t know”, Conservative supporters believe that it should not be taught in schools “that transgenderism is ok”; unsurprisingly, over 65’s are also narrowly opposed. (Incidentally, a recent ComRes poll, also from November, asked whether people thought “it should be compulsory for schools to teach children about LGBTQ relationships”, people were divided, with 43 per cent saying yes and 39 per cent saying no.) At this point, it’s worth pointing out that these Conservatives are not saying that it should be taught that “transgenderism is not ok”.
On the issue of primary school teaching, we saw that a group of parents of primary school age children recently protested against the teaching of LGBT rights in their school – arguing it was all too early to begin such education (the school in question has abandoned the project). Having conducted qualitative research on education issues in recent times, I’ve seen this come up regularly amongst conservative and religious parents; there are extremely passionate, vocal minorities of people that will not accept highly liberal or progressive (in the American sense of the terms) sex and relationships education in primary schools – and many of these are nervous about this being taught in secondary schools, too. (By the way, I can’t find any research on the issue of parents withdrawing their children from sex education lessons, but my guess is that most people would be opposed to this practice.)
What should the Government learn from all this? Probably the following: (a) that it will carry almost all of the public with it if sex and relationships education are framed mostly through the prism of anti-bullying, respect and consent, and the specifics of safe sex; (b) that it must tread extremely carefully on any and all relationships education in primary schools – but particularly if it strays away from the straightforward anti-bullying line; (c) that it is going to be extremely difficult to avoid a battle with many of its own supporters on transgender issues (they should probably look at what happened to the GOP on this issue and prepare for the same sorts of conversations); and (d) that, regardless of their guidelines, culturally conservative parents are going to continue to remove their children from lessons they don’t agree with; the Government should be prepared either to prosecute or back down – with backing down being the only realistic option.