Church of England steps into Britain's sex education battle

Friday, 29 November 2019 16:47 GMT

ARCHIVE PHOTO: Pupils prepare at the start of a GCSE mathematics exam at the Harris Academy South Norwood in south east London, March 2, 2012 REUTERS/Luke MacGregor

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New government guidelines that require sex, health and relationship education in schools to comply with the Equality Act come into effect from September 2020

By Hugo Greenhalgh

LONDON, Nov 29 (Openly) - Guidelines to teach same-sex relationships to the 1 million children at Church of England (CofE) schools were dismissed by activists on Friday as "underwhelming" as the church stepped into the ongoing debate over age-appropriate sex education.

The church's eight-point charter, to which CofE schools and others can sign up, said it sought to balance a respect for the country's "diverse community" with the sensitivities of the "faiths and beliefs of those in the wider school community".

However, LGBT+ campaigners were scathing in their evaluation of the proposals from the 485-year-old institution.

"It's a classic bit of Church of England fudge," said Canon Jeremy Pemberton, who was stripped of his church duties following his 2014 marriage to his long-term male partner.

"They are desperate to be seen as right on and good and lovely, but they're not really, are they?" he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, citing the institution's ban on same-sex weddings in CofE churches.

"You can't really have your cake and eat it, and that's what they want to do," Pemberton added.

The church said the charter set out "some principles for living well together, accommodating difference and diversity within churches, especially in relation to LGBTI+ people, which provide helpful context and principles for schools".

Across England, more than 200 secondary schools for children aged between 11 and 16 are Church of England affiliated in addition to a quarter of all primary schools, which cater for younger pupils.

Titled "A Charter for Faith Sensitive and Inclusive Relationships Education, Relationships and Sex Education (RSE) and Health Education (RSHE)", the guidance stated that any teaching would "not discriminate against any of the protected characteristics in the Equality Act".

The act, which went into law in 2010, outlaws discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and protects those considering or undergoing gender reassignment.

The charter covers the fact that every school will soon have to uphold the protected characteristics of the Equality Act, a CofE spokesman said.

"(This) means respecting those of a different sexual orientation and those transitioning or who have undergone gender reassignment, as well as upholding the beliefs and customs of different faith groups," he added.

Sex education in Britain has proved contentious in recent months.

Earlier this week, a High Court judge extended an exclusion zone around a Birmingham school where demonstrators had been protesting for several months over lessons that incorporated same-sex relationships and transgender issues.

New government guidelines that require sex, health and relationship education in schools to comply with the Equality Act come into effect from September 2020.

According to Department for Education guidelines published earlier this year, sex education, relationships and health teaching should be "age appropriate in approach and content", adding that schools are "free to determine how they do this".

Veteran LGBT+ campaigner Peter Tatchell said the latest advice from the CofE was "better and more inclusive than anything previously advocated by the Church of England".

However, he raised the question of how taking into account the faith of other pupils might influence prospective teaching plans.

"This… could potentially allow schools to compromise on LGBT+ lessons in the name of deferring to the views of religious parents," he said. "That is worrying."

(Reporting by Hugo Greenhalgh @hugo_greenhalgh; Editing by Ros Russell. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit

Openly is an initiative of the Thomson Reuters Foundation dedicated to impartial coverage of LGBT+ issues from around the world.

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