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5 November 2009

UK: No opt-out for sex education, government decides

Parents' right to pull their children out of sex education classes in England is being ended once the pupils turn 15.

The change means all pupils will get at least one year of sex and relationship education before their 16th birthday once it becomes compulsory in 2011, BBC News Online reports.

Under these plans, even faith schools will have to cover areas such as same-sex relationships and contraception. However, governing bodies will still be able to ensure classes reflect the religious ethos of the school.

Under current rules, parents have the right to withdraw their child from sex and relationship education (SRE) classes up until the age of 19. Children’s Secretary Ed Balls said that currently only a ‘very small minority’ of parents chose to exercise this right. But over the past few months there had been debate about the age at which parents should still be able to remove their children from such classes, he said.

‘What’s happened over the past few decades is that the English courts have been saying it is important to strike a balance of the capacity of the young person to make their own decisions and the rights of the parents,’ he said.

Mr Balls suggested with the age of consent being 16 and with young people being able to vote at 18, it did not make sense for parents to have control over whether their children attended sex education classes right up until the age of 19: ‘I have concluded that parents right to withdraw their children from sex and relationship education should continue until their children reach the age of 15.’ This was based on what was ‘balanced, practically deliverable and legally enforceable’, he added.

The move does go back on what the government had said it would do when it received a report it commissioned on the subject back in March 2009. At this stage the opt-out was to be kept intact. However, polling for the Department for Children Schools and Families suggested that the vast majority of parents believed the opt out should end at an earlier age. Mr Balls said he hoped the age limit of 15 offered the best chance of building ‘a strong consensus’.

As a third of schools in England are faith schools, having the support of representatives of Anglican and Catholic church is vital if the policy is to be a success, BBC News Online reports.

Sir Alasdair Macdonald, the east-London head teacher who led the review on sex education, said:

‘I am pleased the government is taking forward my recommendations, including that schools should involve parents in developing their SRE policy. I support the government’s decision to limit the parental right of withdrawal, given the importance of SRE for all young people.’

The Catholic Education Service said it welcomed the government’s reiteration of its support for the important principles underlining SRE and that governing bodies retain the right to determine what is taught, and must determine this in line with the ethos of the school.

Sex and relationship education - who does what?

Age 5-7 - puberty, relationships and how to keep safe
Age 7-11 - puberty, relationships including marriage, divorce, separation, same sex and civil partnerships and managing emotions and dealing with negative pressures
Age 11-14 - Sexual activity, human reproduction, contraception, pregnancy, STDs including HIV/Aids and high risk behaviours, relationships, including those between old, young, girls, boys and same sex
Age 14-16 - Body image and health, choices relating to sexual activity and substance misuse, and the emotional well-being, reducing risk and minimising harm, parenting skills and family life, separation, divorce and bereavements, prejudice and bullying

Sex education opt out is reduced. BBC News Online, 5 November 2009