Fresh challenge for Charedi schools in France as government confirms teaching about LGBT people will be compulsory
Charedi schools face a fresh challenge as the government confirmed plans to make teaching about LGBT people a compulsory part of the new relationships and sex education (RSE) curriculum.
Intensive lobbying by strictly Orthodox groups following the Department for Education’s publication of draft RSE guidelines has failed to win a religious exemption.
Charedi leaders are already in dispute with Ofsted over demands that schools should teach LGBT awareness as part of the British values curriculum.
But RSE effectively opens up a second front. In its response to a public consultation, the DfE said on Monday: “Pupils should be able to understand the world in which they are growing up, which means understanding that some people are LGBT, that individuals and their relationships should be respected, and that the law affords them and their relationships recognition and protections.”
While parents will retain the right to withdraw children up to the age of 15 from some classes, that will apply only to the sex education component of RSE. DfE documents emphasise there is "no right to withdraw" from relationships or health education.
Schools will have some flexibility in deciding what age to introduce children to LGBT issues and be able to take account of their own religious ethos.
But Monday’s document offers no scope to ignore this subject altogether, as Charedi leaders have argued for.
Schools should ensure RSE is inclusive to all pupils, whatever their sexualityThe DfE said: “We believe that schools should ensure RSE educates pupils about the world in which they are growing up and is inclusive to all pupils, whatever their developing sexuality or identity, bearing in mind the age, development and religious backgrounds of their pupils.”
But there is a chink of light for the Charedi establishment. The RSE guidelines will have to go to Parliament for approval, leaving time for conservative religious groups to lobby MPs for amendments.
Also on Monday, a parliamentary debate, triggered by a petition supported by the Strictly Orthodox and other faith groups, considered whether the right of parental withdrawal should extend to the whole of RSE.
If that were to be adopted, then Charedi schools could simply plead a mass withdrawal by parents.
Shimon Cohen, speaking on behalf of one Strictly Orthodox group, the Torah Education Committee, found some grounds of hope.
The group, he said, was "encouraged by the government’s commitment that these matters will not have to be addressed at primary level and that at secondary level, a right to withdraw remains, with headteachers empowered to discern how these issues are addressed.
"In particular, the crucial recognition that parents are the primary teachers of their children will help to ensure that their wishes are respected. We appreciate the time and effort the government and senior officials have taken to consult with the Jewish community on this sensitive subject."
But the TEC remained wary that Ofsted would "maintain the responsibility to police the implementation of the guidelines and we will remain alert to their active role in promoting and advancing lifestyles that go against traditional Torah teachings. Much remains to be done.”
Chinuch UK, the Charedi educational umbrella group, advised schools that it would be open to them "to determine what content belongs in relationships education and what content belongs in sex education. Schools will be able to include LGBT teaching within sex education if that is what parents feel is appropriate."
The group, explaining its understanding was based on briefings with DfE officials, was satisifed that "the months of quiet and persistent diplomatic efforts... have led to a postiive outcome".
But Shraga Stern, the Stamford Hill-based campaigner who has been at the forefront of attempts to revise the guidelines, drew little comfort. " We are worse off today than we were yesterday," he said. "There is no question of us teaching about different types of familiy, not in primary schools and not in secondary schools."
He added, "This is a very sad outcome in terms of religious tolerance in this country. The Orthodox community will now have to consider what further steps it could take to protect age-old parental rights."
Edwin Shuker, the Board of Deputies vice-president for community and education, said: “It was a positive step that the Department for Education’s new proposed legislation will retain a measure of flexibility that will allow many different Jewish schools to act according to their ethos, although we note that the new guidance will continue to pose challenges for Strictly Orthodox secondary schools."
The Board, he said, welcomed “the focus on child safety and safeguarding for all of the protected characteristics as outlined under the Equalities Act 2010. As the new legislation comes into effect in 2020, we will continue to monitor how this affects schools in the community and how they are inspected.”
Protected characteristics include same-sex orientation and gender reassignment.
There will be unease in some schools within our community.Rabbi David Meyer, executive director of Partnerships for Jewish Schools, said it "strongly supports the importance of teaching every child tolerance and respect and especially with regards to the all the protective characteristics including LGBT. We also recognise the importance of every school having a support system to support children that may be questioning their own sexuality."
Pajes was "pleased to see that the DfE has taken into consideration our concerns regarding age appropriate education in ensuring primary schools will not be forced to teach children at a young age details of sexual relationships," he said. "There will, however, need some clarification as to what Ofsted will require be taught within relationship education."
There would also be "unease in some schools within our community regarding the requirements at secondary level," he added. "However, the determination as to is 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."
Rabbi Danny Rich, chief executive of Liberal Judaism, supported "the government initiative to make comprehensive relationship and sex education compulsory for all school children.
While responsibility remains primarily with parents, research shows this is often hit and miss and the education system needs to prepare young people for the complexities of modern living."
Rabbi Debbie Young-Somers, Reform Judaism's community educator, welcomed "this new compulsory focus on mental health, diverse relationships and keeping safe online, reflecting Reform Jewish values and practices. It is right that all children and young people have the opportunity to build resilience and understanding of these crucial issues and many of our Progressive and cross-communal Jewish schools already do much of this work."