Sex education should be fair to Catholics’ ideals

The existing guidance for schools is being updated. Picture: Ian Rutherofrd
The existing guidance for schools is being updated. Picture: Ian Rutherofrd
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Previous assurances must come to pass, says Michael McGrath

As the dust settles after the Scottish Referendum, we are likely to see a number of Scottish Government policy announcements which have been kept on hold for some time. I anticipate that one of these announcements will relate to revised guidance on the conduct of sex and relationships education in schools.

First issued in 2001, the existing guidance is being updated to take account of today’s Curriculum for Excellence framework. Arguably though, the more significant driver of this change is the introduction of new legislation in the form of the Marriage and Civil Partnership (Scotland) Act 2014 which received Royal Assent on 12 March, 2014. The most significant and contentious result of this new act will be the legalisation of marriage between same-sex couples. It has been suggested that one reason for the delay in announcing revised guidance to schools was to avoid further contentiousness prior to the referendum.

Now when this revised guidance does see the light of day, I expect it to be unambiguous in its proclamation of same-sex marriage as a legal institution which extends the same legal rights as have been enjoyed traditionally by heterosexual married couples. However, I also hope that it will be fair in its consideration of those who believe that marriage is uniquely a relationship between a man and a woman. That consideration should extend to respecting the freedom of religious belief and expression of those who might be charged with teaching children and young people about marriage.

Certainly in Scotland’s denominational schools, existing guidance enables teachers to follow guidance issued by the Catholic Church in the teaching of religious and moral issues (were this not to be the case, a school could not be recognised as “Catholic”). During the consultation phase of the new legislation, Scottish Government ministers gave assurances that this arrangement would continue to be honoured. So I expect to see these assurances reflected in its revised guidance.

In this context, the timing of our recent publication – God’s Loving Plan – is significant. The words of the Old Testament prophet Jonah help to explain the relevance of the document’s title: “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future and a hope”. (Jeremiah 29:11)

God’s Loving Plan updates guidance for teachers in Catholic primary schools on relationships education (including sex education) and will be used to plan how children will learn about themselves as the summit of God’s creation, about how they should relate lovingly to others and about how God equips them with potential for life. Ironically, Scotland’s Catholic schools have had the benefit of detailed church guidance on these issues – a fact which belies the myth that “Catholic schools don’t do sex education”.

The document reflects the belief of Christians (and followers of other faiths) that God has a loving plan for all whom he has created out of love. God wants us to know love firstly as children, in loving relationships with our families and friends, from whom we learn about tenderness, caring, self-giving and forgiveness. God wants us to learn that, as we grow, we can find love in good friendships and relationships through which we learn about our emotions and about the importance of respect, intimacy, modesty and chastity. The document stresses that, in honouring God’s loving plan for family life, the Sacrament of Matrimony is provided to bless the commitment of a man and a woman to an exclusive, loving and faithful relationship which is open to new life.The document uses four main themes to organise learning at the various stages, from Primary 1 to Primary 7. Through theme 1 – God Gives Me Life – children are helped to understand that God’s work can be seen in life all around us, in the beauty of the universe and in all the wonders of this planet. God created this world and gives life to all its elements which are provided to enrich our lives.

Through theme 2 – God Delights in Me – children come to understand that God made each of as a unique person and gifted us with all our capacities, including our bodies, for use in loving and serving others.

Theme 3 – God Calls Me To Love – helps children to realise that God is calling them to relationship with him, inviting them to reflect his love for them in loving actions towards others, in friendships and attractions based on love and respect and, ultimately for some, in a loving commitment to a husband or wife, blessed in marriage.

In theme 4 – God’s Loving Plan reflects My Choice – children will gradually learn God’s loving plan informs our conscience and calls us to make good decisions and to take responsibility for our actions.

From this it should be clear the most important learning must be provided by parents and carers. Teachers are encouraged to help them to understand how their children will learn about their bodies and to consider how they can help their children to follow God’s Loving Plan faithfully, to give them “a future and a hope”.

• Michael McGrath is director at the Scottish Catholic Education Service

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