The Jewish Chronicle
Sex education guidelines pose new LGBT challenge to Charedi schools
CHIEF RABBI Ephraim Mirvis has welcomed the government’s new relationships and sex education policy (RSE), saying there was “no contradiction” between preparing children for life in modern Britain and Torah values.
But Charedi education activists have reacted differently over the potential impact on their own schools.
Charedi leaders are already in dispute with Ofsted over demands for schools to teach LGBT awareness as part of British values.
The Department for Education’s new RSE proposals, which will become a compulsory part of the curriculum next year, say pupils should understand that “some people are LGBT”.
Schools will have discretion at what age to introduce RSE subjects and be able to take account of pupils’ religious background.
But the DfE’s guidance, issued this week after a public consultation, offers no exemption on religious grounds from teaching about LGBT issues.
When asked about this in Parliament on Monday, Education Secretary Damian Hinds was clear.“These issues should be taken on in an age-appropriate way but, by the time a person reaches the end of their schooling, they should have covered them,” he said. “We trust teachers and headteachers to make the decision about when to do that but not whether to do it.”
Relationships and health education will be compulsory for primary schools but sex education will not be. For relationships, young children will begin with family and friends.
For sex education, parents will retain the right to ask for their children to be withdrawn from classes up to the age of 15. After that age, pupils themselves will be able to ask.
But DfE documents state there is “no right of withdrawal” from relationships or health education.
A spokesman for the Charedi education group Chinuch UK said it welcomed the DfE’s “positive response” to engaging with the group. “The right for parents to withdraw from some parts of the curriculum, together with the flexibility that schools have been given in drawing up their relationships syllabus, allow for parents of all religions and none to opt out of issues that they prefer to give over themselves to their children at appropriate ages,” Chinuch UK said.
In a briefing to schools, Chinuch UK said secondary schools would be able to include LGBT as part of sex education rather than relationships education.
The distinction is significant because pupils can be withdrawn from sex education but not relationships education.
Sex education could also be provided by a third party rather than the school itself, Chinuch UK told schools.
Shimon Cohen, speaking on behalf of another Charedi group, the Torah Education Committee, was was encouraged by the government’s commitment that some topics need not be taught at primary level and that, “at secondary level, a right to withdraw remains, with headteachers empowered to discern how these issues are addressed.”
But it remained “wary” that responsibility for policing the government guidelines would remain with Ofsted. “Much remains to be done,” he said.
However, Shraga Stern, a Stamford Hill-based campaigner who has been at the forefront of efforts to exempt Strictly Orthodox schools from having to teach about LGBT issues, was dismayed by the government’s approach.
“This is a very sad outcome in terms of religious tolerance in this country,” he said. “The Orthodox community will now have to consider what further steps it could take to protect age-old parental rights.”
Rabbi David Meyer, executive director of the Jewish Leadership Council’s Partnerships for Jewish Schools, said it “strongly supports the importance of teaching every child tolerance and respect and especially with regard to all the protective characteristics, including LGBT.”
But, he added, there would also be “unease in some schools within our community regarding the requirements at secondary level”. However, what was considered age-appropriate “should in our view be determined by the governing bodies and school leadership teams, in consultation with parents — and not legislated by government”.
A spokesman for the Chief Rabbi said the government had “made clear that these RSE regulations are adaptable according to the age and religious background of the pupils. This is an approach which provides an appropriate accommodation for all of our schools and which is welcome.”
Edwin Shuker, vice-president of the Board of Deputies welcomed the focus on “child safety and safeguarding for all of the protected characteristics as outlined under the Equalities Act 2010”, but noted the guidance would “continue to pose challenges to Strictly Orthodox secondary schools”.
Protected characteristics include same-sex orientation and gender reassignment.
The government’s proposals were backed by the Reform and Liberal movements and by KeshetUK, which advocates on behalf of LGBT+ Jews.
Dalia Fleming, KeshetUK executive director, said, “By recommending the explicit mention of LGBT+ people at both primary and secondary level, this new government guidance will help keep young Jewish people safe, as well as preparing them for the world of modern Britain where LGBT+ people are a normal part of everyday life.”
This guidance will help keep young people safe’