Catholic Medical Quarterly Volume 65(1) February 2015


Written evidence submitted by the Catholic Medical Association on 6th June 2014 to the Education Committee inquiry into PSHE and SRE in schools

Executive Summary

  • Content of compulsory curriculum risks religious discrimination.
  • Primary role of parents will be undermined by imposing compulsory SRE curriculum. Primary role of parents in SRE is important in maintaining child safety.
  • Exposure to sexual content risks harming children.
  • Experience of current programs shows lack of respect for children's modesty.
  • The SRE programs continue to have an inappropriate and unhealthy focus on physical sexuality.
  • The programs have factual shortcomings regarding contraception effectiveness and risks.
  • Supplementary guidelines regarding teaching about homosexuality and bisexuality in SRE are a promotion of these sexual orientations and fail to respect religious and moral beliefs of parents and children.
  •  Supplementary guidelines referring to teaching programs which condone pornography are dangerous.

The Catholic Medical Association:

The Catholic Medical Association (UK) is a registered charity which represents Catholic healthcare professionals, hospital chaplains and managers involved in clinical service. We provide guidance on ethical questions to our members and in submissions to government and professional bodies.

Statutory Personal, Social, Health and Economic Education

1. Compulsory curriculum contrary to faith and moral beliefs

It is important that schools be accountable to parents, not primarily to the State, in all matters of PSHE as the responsibility for the care of children in this respect rests first with parents. Cooperation and close collaboration with parents as primary carers and educators is of paramount importance, and we believe it is not advisable for the State to impose any statutory obligations in this area as these would only serve to undermine parental involvement even further.

Teachers are inevitably in a position of authority and can make a child who holds to a certain faith feel threatened or belittled if the beliefs and moral teachings of that faith are ridiculed or taught as wrong. It would also undermine the rights of parents to be the primary educators of their children. Their authority would be undermined in the eyes of the child. If the curriculum is inherently at odds with the teachings of the faith of the child, the teacher will not be able to validate the child's beliefs as worthy of respect. The Catholic Medical Association view is that curriculum material that is taught in a compulsory fashion and that does not respect the moral teaching of a faith body such as the Catholic Church infringes the right of children to be free from religious discrimination.

2. Compulsory sex and relationship education

Parents, or guardians with parental responsibility, should have the right to choose whether or not to opt into sex education for their children. On a point of practice we believe this should be specifically by an opt-in process where parents are allowed to peruse the materials and lesson plans that will be used prior to the sessions. This would also have the benefit of encouraging parents to take an active lead in their child's education in this sphere.

In light of the 2013 Torbay serious case review regarding organised child sexual exploitation, leaving children at the mercy of outside confidential sexual health agencies can make it easier for child abusers to get away with their abuse. By leaving children to receive their sex education from school, often with outside agencies involved, their parents give a message that they will not deal with that area of their child's life. Consequently children feel the only people to turn to are these agencies who keep confidentiality and thereby may aid in masking abusive sexual relationships. It is much better to encourage parents to take an active interest in this area in order to maintain lines of communication with their children and consequently be able to maintain their children's safety.

Overall provision of Sex and Relationships Education in schools and the quality of its teaching, including in primary schools and academies.

As a medical body, we have grave concerns about the quality and effect of sex and relationship education in our schools.

3. Harmful exposure to sexual content

Exposing children to sexual images and language is used in grooming children for sexual abuse. This form of grooming is a criminal offence. It is a way of inciting interest in sexual acts in children who by definition are vulnerable people. Their curiosity may make them experiment in the sexual sphere. Their desire to be 'adult' or desire to be pleasing to the groomer may also push them into becoming sexually active. Therefore great care must be used when exposing children to sexual content of any kind, even when it is used with the intention to prevent harm to children in the sexual sphere as is the case in sex education. This is because, even though the intention to incite the child into sexual activity is not present, the effect on the child can be similar, triggering experimentation with peers, interest and eventual addiction to pornography, perceived pressure from teachers and peers to be sexually active and further vulnerability to abuse. This sexual activation of children leads to further health issues such as drug and alcohol use, sexually transmitted diseases and infertility. Therefore the risks are very high. We are very concerned that current government guidelines for key stage one primary school children requires that children should “recognise and compare the main external parts of the bodies of humans”. At such an early age, this corrupts respect for natural modesty.

4. Lack of respect for natural modesty

In our experience of clinical work with children, they show a natural modesty, especially in teenage years. In the clinical setting it is appropriate to treat children with appropriate respect when inquiring about intimate bodily function, and also when performing medical examinations.

In our experience of sex and relationship education in schools, children's natural modesty is not respected. Examples of educational methods we have come across include:

  • Labelling and colouring pictures of genitalia
  • A requirement to shout terms of sexual function or anatomy out loud at the front of class
  • Discussion of periods and sanitary wear in mixed groups (which is regarded as inappropriate among groups of men and women)
  • Showing of cartoons of sexual intercourse
  • Graphic descriptions of the sexual act
  • Showing of a delivery of a baby


5. Unhealthy focus on physical sexuality

In our experience, SRE programs focus on the physical aspects of sexuality, without placing adequate emphasis on the reason for its existence – i.e. marriage and family life. These areas of focus will aid in building children's aspirations for their life, building self- esteem, and consequently will protect them from premature sexual activity and risk of sexual abuse. A child is psychologically better able to understand and consider the areas of loving relationships and marriage. This kind of pre-emptive approach of building aspirations for healthy relationships and building self-esteem is used effectively by organisations specialising in protecting vulnerable children from sexual abuse. The only healthy context for educating a child about physical sexuality is in the much more important context of educating them about healthy relationships and marriage. At the same time, we support the parents’ rights to be the primary educators for their children, and to assess the right context and point in time for teaching their children about their physical sexuality.

6. Factual shortcomings

We have concerns about the factual medical content of sex education. In our experience, children are exposed to exaggerated claims of the efficiency of condoms as a means of preventing STIs and pregnancy. Children are not made aware that the most common 'reason' for abortions in the UK is a failure of contraception use (see information from private abortion providers in the UK). They are not informed about the risks in real life use of contraception rather than use in laboratory or in optimal conditions. They are not informed about the side effects caused by various methods of contraception. We are particularly concerned that they are not informed about the abortifacient action of the pill and coil. It seems the programs major aim is to push contraception on children because teenage pregnancy is seen as the primary evil to prevent, rather than focusing on children’s safety, health and emotional wellbeing. It has been shown in UK history that when contraception access by children was reduced during the period when Gillick succeeded in blocking prescription of contraception to children without parental consent, teenage pregnancy rates fell. Pushing contraception on children has been shown to have the opposite effect to that intended. In this context, the biased and incomplete information presented to children is particularly concerning. In our experience, abstinence from sex is not given the respect it deserves as a way of maintaining and increasing self-esteem, staying healthy, increasing emotional maturity and increasing chances of a happy long term marriage.

Whether recent Government steps to supplement the guidance on teaching about sex and relationships, including consent, abuse between teenagers and cyber-bullying, are adequate.

7. Promotion of homosexuality

We are concerned that the supplementary guidance produced by Brook, the PSHE Association and the Sex Education Forum and which is supported by the Department for Education, states that “All sexual health information should be inclusive and should include LGBT people in case studies, scenarios and role-plays” and refers to Stonewall to provide information and packs for schools, including primary schools. The supplementary guidance states 10% of children are gay or bisexual whereas national statistics show the UK figure to be 1.5%, and even Stonewall says it is around 7%. It seems the advice is written by people promoting a certain ideology. Stonewall which the advice refers to exists to promote homosexuality. This guidance is in direct contradiction to previous government advice about not promoting sexual orientation and about sensitivity to the religious and moral beliefs of parents and children. Because children are vulnerable to suggestion, this early exposure to homosexuality and bisexuality will influence and confuse them, causing unnecessary psychological strain. Where children are exposed to this promotion of homosexuality against their parents' wishes, it is a grave infringement of parental rights and responsibility.

8. Non-judgemental approach to pornography

We are also very concerned that the supplementary guidance refers to teaching programs on pornography that are neither for nor against it. We are very concerned about the harmfulness and irresponsibility of such an approach.

Follow up to Oral Evidence session on 21st October:

Evidence given by Professor David Paton

This memorandum is in response to the Chair of the Committee’s request that witnesses at the Oral Evidence session sent the Committee any observations and, in particular, specific recommendations. There are three issues to which I would like to draw the Committee’s attention.

1. Working with parents

There appeared to be general agreement amongst the witnesses about the importance of schools working well with parents in the area of SRE. Even if the right to opt out is exercised only rarely, it clearly provides valuable reassurance to parents and encourages schools to consider carefully parental expectations. Hence it is important that this right is retained irrespective of whether SRE is made statutory. The Department could usefully provide guidance to schools to further improve the school-parent relationship.

Recommendation 1: guidance should be issued to schools to the effect that parents should be given good notice of any SRE sessions, should be invited to view any materials used in SRE sessions and should be provided with clear information on their right to opt out.

2. Confusion over different requirements regarding SRE within different types of schools.

During the oral evidence session, some concern was expressed over the variety of the regulations applying to different types of schools – primary, maintained, academies, free schools. One solution proposed was to make SRE statutory for all schools. However, one issue not considered in the Evidence sessions was the consequent implications for the freedoms regarding the curriculum currently enjoyed by academies and free schools. Indeed, we could end up in the anomalous position of PSHE/SRE being the only statutory subject in academies and free schools. An alternative way of clarifying the regulations would be to extend to all schools (including those maintained by local authorities) the freedom over whether and how best to deliver PSHE/SRE. All schools would still face the requirement that they deliver a broad and balanced curriculum.

Recommendation 2: the current requirement that maintained secondary schools under local authority control must deliver SRE should be removed.

3. Consent and The Brook/SEF Supplementary Guidance document

In my oral evidence, I raised concerns that the Brook/SEF “Supplementary Guidance” document provides schools with seriously deficient advice on consent for sexual activity amongst minors. For example, the document recommends use of the Brook Traffic Light Tool for identifying safeguarding issues (

The Traffic Light Tool advises schools that a 13 year old having consensual sex with someone of a similar age should be seen as an indicator of “safe and healthy sexual development” which provides an opportunity to give “positive feedback”. This advice is seriously misleading given the consensus in the academic literature on the physical, social and psychological consequences of engaging in early sexual activity.

Further, there is no recognition in the “Supplementary Guidance” or the associated Brook Tool of evidence from recent serious case reviews about the links between consensual underage sexual behaviour and child sex exploitation/abuse. For example the 2013 Torbay Serious Case Review states in section 5.12:

“Underage sexual activity by young people between thirteen and sixteen years old is judged on the perception that if it takes place with partners of a similar age, it is by mutual consent. This perception has to be reconsidered in light of the growing evidence in this case that the abusers were not much older than the girls and also that the girls, who often did not consider that they were being abused, lied about the age of their partners as they were aware of the potential professional response.” (

The Torbay Review further recommends in the context of Fraser guidelines and Gillick Competencies that “There appears to be a need to review current national guidelines to examine if they are sufficiently robust to account fully for the growing evidence around sexual activity and its links to sexual exploitation.” Similar issues were raised by the 2013 Rochdale Serious Case Reviews (see for example, section 4.3.2 in 20131220_93449.pdf )

Although the Supplementary Guidance is not formally authorised by the Depar tment for Education, its recommendation by the Department as an additional resource may lead schools to follow advice that endangers their pupils’ welfare.

Recommendation 3: schools should be advised not to make use of the Brook/SEF “Supplementary Guidance” unless or until the issues relating to underage sex and safeguarding are resolved. and

Recommendation 4: the Committee should recommend that the Government reviews the application of the Fraser guidelines within schools in the light of Serious Case Repor ts from Torbay and Rochdale.