December 4, 2011
According to The Telegraph, academies and free schools will be “made to sign up to strict new rules introduced by Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, setting out what pupils must learn about sex and relationships”.
The paper claims that Gove is introducing a new funding agreement – the contract between the school and his department – which confers on headteachers a duty to ensure children are “protected from inappropriate teaching materials and learn the nature of marriage and its importance for family life and for bringing up children”.
Shocking yes, but hardly surprising – it’s exactly what you’d expect from the Tories and their Victorian moralising. The reaction from gay rights activists, secularists and feminists has been understandably furious. ”The wording of the section suggests a strengthening of traditional values in schools,” says The Telegraph gleefully, “but will also provoke opposition from those who believe marriage should not be given a privileged status in the curriculum.”
There’s just one problem. The Tories may be happy to take the credit for it, but the “nature of marriage” clause was actually introduced by Labour almost a decade ago. It’s been in academies’ funding agreements since they were introduced by Tony Blair. Here’s the Mossbourne Community Academy’s agreement (one of the first) from 2004:
Sound familiar? The clause is nothing new. But The Telegraph makes it seem so by comparing the marriage clause in funding agreements with current guidance on sex and relationships education. They’re two completely separate things – something an education correspondent ought to know.
In fact, the marriage clause simply reminds schools of their responsibilities under the Education Act 1996, which – through a government-backed amendment to the Learning and Skills Act 2000 tabled by the Bishop of Blackburn – states that:
The Secretary of State must issue guidance designed to secure that when sex education is given to registered pupils at maintained schools -
(a) they learn the nature of marriage and its importance for family life and the bringing up of children, and
(b) they are protected from teaching and materials which are inappropriate having regard to the age and the religious and cultural background of the pupils concerned.
The really interesting thing about this story is that the Conservatives opposed this amendment back in 2000. Why? Well, as the MP for Maidenhead – a Mrs Theresa May – put it during a Commons debate, because it “had been introduced only as a compromise, with the specific intention of making it easier to repeal section 28, by making section 28 redundant and making any attempt to retain it perverse.”
“[ I]n this entire debate we have seen the hypocrisy of the Government,” Mrs May went on, “and we have seen how very out of touch they are with the British people.”
I find the idea that schools should promote marriage – over other forms of relationship – distasteful and personally offensive. I’d get rid of it in a shot. But we should be careful not to encourage The Telegraph‘s trolling or the Tories’ crowing – and, perhaps most importantly, we shouldn’t let Labour off the hook for introducing the clause in the first place.