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Artillery Row

Walking a tightrope, tying themselves in knots

The Welsh Government’s new sex education curriculum is not fit for purpose

The frustration many people feel about Welsh Government’s failure to get to grips with some of the most pressing issues affecting girls and young women today will have been further exacerbated by the publication this week of the latest Thematic Report from Estyn (Wales’s equivalent to OFSTED) on “peer-on-peer” sexual harassment and assault in schools.  A strange phrase that obscures the reality reflected in the report’s own findings — that this is an issue that predominantly affects girls and that the perpetrators are most often boys. 

Sixty-one per cent of girls said that they have been subjected to face-to-face or online harassment including being asked to share nude photos. Eighty-two per cent of girls had seen those things happen to their peers. The report’s title, “We don’t tell our teachers”, makes it clear that this is an issue schools or teachers cannot easily police. It needs addressing at a fundamental level through effective, high-quality sex and relationships education.

When it was first announced, there were high hopes for the Welsh Government’s new RSE Curriculum, part of the new Curriculum for Wales. It would be mandatory and would challenge sexist stereotypes and the culture of harassment against girls and young women. It would also provide much needed education on healthy relationships, a commitment made when the Welsh Government chose not to address that on the face of the Violence against Women, Domestic Abuse and Sexual Violence (Wales) Act 2015. It’s clear that too many young people are getting their education around sexuality from online porn, often violent and geared around misogynist myths. This has an inevitable damaging effect on relationships of all kinds between the sexes, and potentially on all interpersonal or intimate relationships whether same sex or otherwise.

Why are the Welsh Government tying themselves in knots? Why can they not name the sexes?

Tomorrow, (Tuesday 14 December) the Senedd will be asked to approve the Statutory Code on Relationships and Sexuality Education, a subject title which some claim risks ridicule by pupils and students and will be alienating for many parents naturally concerned about what their offspring will be taught. Any renaming of this area of learning should be based on how effective it would be in reaching the majority of learners and encouraging understanding by the wider school community. It’s more likely that it will have increased the anxieties of many parents, some of whom have already expressed their anger and may even consider legal action. The content of the curriculum — although superficially progressive — is underpinned by a belief in gender identity (a subjective feeling) and the salience of gendered stereotypes to personal identity and most other aspects of life, rather than being an attempt to dismantle to them. 

The argument that using the term “sexuality” is more inclusive and will enable a more holistic approach is unconvincing.  This is a curriculum that will apply to learners aged from 3 — 16 years old after all.  Some sections of academia may view the term differently, but for most the word “sexuality” is associated with adult sexual desire.  And while the new RSE Code is an improvement on the consultation draft it tells schools, teachers, parents or children and young people very little. Surprisingly for a subject area where sex is crucial — both in the biological sense and in the activity — the Statutory Code does not name the sexes even once.  No mention of male and female. No mention of boys or girls; men or women; or even of pornography. 

While the earlier draft conflated sex and gender, the revised version uses them in tandem repeatedly, even where use of the word “gender” makes no sense.  Why are the Welsh Government tying themselves in knots? Why can they not name the sexes? In other recent policy documents they increasingly use dehumanising terminology and references to bodily functions such as “those who menstruate” rather than clear, accessible, easily understood language. 

They appear to be walking a tightrope that prioritises ideology — particularly a belief in the abstract concept of “gender identity” and it being more relevant than biology — over objective facts. Learners benefit from knowing that there are other worldviews, but a belief that everyone has an innate “gender identity” is no more than that. A belief. It may be a deeply held and important belief for some; but it is no more appropriate for a government to impose that belief on children and the adults who work with them through a statutory curriculum than it is for them to promote any single individual religion or creed. 

This week BBC and ITV have committed to end the use of the BAME acronym as a patronising catch-all term; but the pleas of many lesbian, gay and bisexual people that Welsh Government’s insistence on using the LGBTQ+ acronym is a kind of forced teaming that, as lesbian barrister Allison Bailey says, “hides a multitude of conflicts and inequalities” are repeatedly ignored. Criticism of the Glossary which accompanied the Draft RSE Guidance and Code which went out to consultation earlier this year was even harsher. Some definitions were described as ideologically-loaded and homophobic, in effect “taking the sex out of homosexuality”. 

Adolescence in particular is a time of contradictions when we tend to try out different identities to see what comfort they can offer or solutions they provide. Those identities may feel essential to us at that stage in our lives, but are often discarded or changed as we grow older. It’s a time when we question everything, yet are most open to ideas or influence and can become entrenched and extremist in our views. And a time when we can develop unhelpful and even damaging behaviours to cope with past trauma, or tumult and uncertainty in our lives. Social identities can be meaningful and helpful, giving us a sense of purpose and belonging, as can be finding our tribe; but they do not change the building blocks of reality. 

Children do not need a curriculum steeped in Butlerian ideology, or anti-science

The Education Act 1996 should provide some protection for children and young people, but judging by the Summary Report on the consultation Welsh Government is just going to gloss over any concerns expressed about schools breaching that. The Department for Education in England has published guidance which does provide some safeguards and clarity for children and young people. Why won’t Welsh Government do the same?

According to the Explanatory Memorandum the final RSE Guidance documents for Wales are still in development. Given that this is such a sensitive curriculum area, and that it will be compulsory in Wales, it seems reasonable that parents know what will be taught. It also seems more than reasonable that Members of the Senedd should be able to see a proper analysis of the consultation responses and the actual Guidance before being asked to approve the Statutory Code.

The basics of RSE are simple.  There are two sexes and three sexual orientations. People are all very different and deserve to be treated fairly and with compassion and respect. Everyone has human rights. Children need clear, factually accurate information presented in a non-judgemental way. They do not need a curriculum steeped in Butlerian ideology or anti-science, or one hijacked as a vehicle to promote an adult agenda. 

For all its talk of children’s rights and equity the current disquiet over the new RSE Curriculum, and Welsh Government intransigence about its ideological underpinnings, are likely to mean that it won’t deliver. This will be a tragedy for both girls and boys. But particularly for girls’ and women’s rights and well-being. What a wasted opportunity.

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