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Northern Irish Churches criticise ‘cultural imposition’ of sex-education curricula in schools

16 June 2023


The Northern Ireland Secretary, Chris Heaton-Harris, on Tuesday

The Northern Ireland Secretary, Chris Heaton-Harris, on Tuesday

CHURCHES in Northern Ireland have criticised Westminster for imposing new sex-education requirements on Northern Irish secondary schools.

Last week, the Northern Ireland Secretary, Chris Heaton-Harris, announced new compulsory elements of sex education in the curriculum, including “age-appropriate, comprehensive and scientifically accurate education on sexual and reproductive health and rights”, which must cover the “prevention of early pregnancy and access to abortion”.

The teaching on abortion and contraception should be done in a “factual way that does not advocate, nor oppose, a particular view on the moral and ethical considerations”, the Northern Ireland Office said.

But Churches and Christian groups have attacked the announcement as a “cultural imposition” of liberal English values on Northern Ireland.

The Government in Westminster is legislating directly for Northern Ireland because there remains no local elected government in Stormont, amid the continuing dispute over Brexit.

Dr Andrew Brown, who chairs a council representing the Church of Ireland, the Presbyterian Church, and the Methodist Church on education issues, said that all laws affecting Northern Ireland should be made only “by ministers who have been locally elected by its citizens — an electorate which includes parents, teachers, carers, and guardians”.

Dr Brown said that schools in the province already were required to develop their own relationships- and sex-education (RSE) policies based on the ethos of the school, subject to consultation with parents.

Mr Heaton-Harris said that he was obliged by law, however, to implement the recommendations of the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination of Women (CEDAW) in a 2018 report.

CEDAW said that RSE was “underdeveloped or non-existent” in Northern Irish secondary schools because each institution was permitted to develop its own curriculum according to its values.

But Christian figures in Northern Ireland have strongly disputed this, and rejected the claim that Westminster needed to intervene.

“The value judgements made in the 2018 CEDAW report that RSE is ‘underdeveloped or non-existent’ were unfair and unfounded, and run against the evidence reported by the Education and Training Inspectorate,” Dr Brown said.

Rebecca Stevenson, a policy officer at the Evangelical lobby group CARE NI, said that she was saddened by “yet more Westminster overreach. . . Education is a devolved area, and there are important cultural and religious considerations that make the existing settlement preferable.”

Christian parents must have a right to withdraw their children from the new curriculum, and Christian teachers should also be given rights of conscientious objecttion to teaching on abortion or contraception, she said.

“We question the UK Government’s view that teaching can be done in an entirely neutral way. Its approach seems designed to achieve a cultural imposition — the entrenchment of a particular world-view and set of ideas, favoured by Whitehall metropolitan elites.

“The people of Northern Ireland deserve more respect for their own traditions, culture, and religious beliefs, and should be left to make their own decisions on sensitive issues.”

The Moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, Dr John Kirkpatrick, has warned that a boycott by Christian teachers and parents was highly likely.

“I think many of them would feel very uncomfortable about pointing young people to abortion services,” he told Premier Christian Radio last week. “I think they would most likely feel our conscience would not let them do that.

“When government starts to impose morality in this fashion, they’ve overstepped the mark. That’s not what government’s established for.”

At the Summer General Meeting of the Catholic Irish Bishops’ Conference, in Maynooth, on Wednesday, concern was voiced at the curriculum changes.

The Bishops said: “Having already imposed some of the most radical abortion laws in the world on the people of Northern Ireland, without their consent, the Secretary of State now seems determined to impose an ideologically biased view of abortion on all schools, irrespective of parental rights or school ethos. . . There is no such thing as a value-free or ethically neutral approach to the question of when life begins and when we have a duty to protect and care for all human life.”

They continued: “Today our Catholic Schools Trustees Service will be writing to those who carried out the recent NIHRC [Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission] ‘Investigation’ to express the Trustees’ serious concerns about the accuracy and fairness of the Report. Neither party took the trouble to engage with teachers in the classroom. At best, a limited paper-based exercise was undertaken which failed to recognise that in the reality of classroom teaching, teachers and schools are endeavouring to provide professional, ethically balanced, scientifically honest, and pastorally responsible age-appropriate Relationships and Sexuality formation in our schools.”

The Bishops concluded, “We call on young people themselves to challenge the view that they are passive, uninformed and unable to engage confidently and maturely in open debate about all the issues raised in this important part of the school curriculum.”

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