Parents object to Catholic school lobbying on sex education

Posted: Tue, 5th Dec 2023

Parents and teachers call lobbying "scandalous", "heavy-handed".

Monkey Business Images, Shutterstock

Parents and teachers have raised complaints over Catholic schools' "scandalous" lobbying on sex education in Scotland.

State-funded Catholic schools have emailed parents directing them to instructions on how to respond to the Scottish Government's consultation on new guidance for relationships, sexual health and parenthood (RSHP) education.

The National Secular Society has warned the Scottish Government that allowing state-funded schools to teach RSHP according to religious doctrine undermines the promotion of health and wellbeing and threatens LGBT inclusion.

The Catholic Church officially condemns same-sex relationships, sex outside marriage, contraception and abortion. The NSS has found these teachings echoed in relationships and sex education policies in many Catholic schools in the UK, including Scotland.

Head teachers pressed to encourage parents to lobby for Catholic Church interests

In an email seen by the NSS, St Paul's High School Glasgow directed parents to a link to the consultation, in addition to a link to instructions on how to respond to the consultation.

The instructions are located on the webpage of the St Andrew's Foundation for Catholic Teacher Education, a unit within the University of Glasgow's School of Education which supports Catholic education.

The instructions advise respondents to "copy and paste" text into their response which objects to the omission of specific reference to "denominational education" in the new guidance. The response requests that the government "reiterates their support" for denominational education and that "the Religious Authorities with a role in denominational education" continue to "have the right to provide guidance on RSHP for their schools". In Catholic schools, the religious authority is the Bishops' Conference of Scotland.

The text adds that "Christian teachers have noted that they feel increasingly coerced to teach against their conscience in matters relating to sexual relationships" and "Muslim families have raised concern that their religious beliefs are being contradicted in RSHP lessons".

The email to parents follows a communication from the Scottish Catholic Education Service (SCES), which promotes Catholic education, to head teachers in November asking them to respond to the consultation.

The SCES's email requests "immediate action" and for head teachers to forward the email on to "parent councils" and "interested members of community [sic]".

It says it is "vitally important that the Catholic Education Community has a strong and united voice in responding to this consultation, requesting the same action as the Bishops".

The email includes a briefing paper which says: "No Catholic school can be expected to compromise its mission integrity and abandon its fidelity to Church teaching through the promotion of values, actions or services which conflict with the teachings of the Catholic Church".

It adds that acknowledging "diverse" families "does not condone or encourage sexual activity or behaviour which is at odds with Catholic moral teaching".

"I've never opted in to lobbying from a priest. Just want to know when my lad needs PE shorts."

Leanne McGuire, chairperson of Glasgow City Parents Group and who has a daughter at St. Paul's High School, says her concerns arose when some parents contacted the Parents Group about the email.

She said SCES's approach seemed "heavy-handed, lacking trust in the ability of parents, carers, and Parent Councils to express their own views on the consultation".

Danny Carden, whose son attends a school in Leith, posted on X that he had complained about the lobbying. He said: "I've never opted in to lobbying from a priest. Just want to know when my lad needs PE shorts."

He also posted an image of the statement: "I've responded to the consultation encouraging them to ignore the orchestrated lobbying from Catholic school leaders and to ensure that young children receive teaching on equality, sex education and gender from an early age, with an emphasis on personal wellbeing and harm reduction."

Former Catholic school teacher Matt Armstrong told the NSS the lobbying is "a scandalous misuse of council run schools".

Another teacher, Damien Donnelly, has registered concerns with Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills Jenny Gilruith after he was contacted by local authorities around Scotland.

He said: "Interestingly it's Catholics who find it offensive that they're being told through their children's school how to respond to suit the Catholic Church".

Several parents also expressed concerns that schools using their communications for political lobbying may not be compatible with the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).

NSS: Scottish government must not assume Church's views mirror those of parents and children

NSS head of campaigns Megan Manson said: "This issue reveals one of the fundamental problems of allowing religious institutions to control state-funded schools: the interests of religious bodies do not automatically align with those of parents and children.

"Within school communities, including Catholic Schools, there are a diverse range of opinions on what should be included in relationships and sex education.

"It is not surprising that many parents and teachers object to being told by the Catholic Church how to respond to this consultation and what views to give.

"We urge the Scottish Government not to assume the views expressed by the Catholic Church accurately reflect those of the parents and children they claim to represent."

The consultation closed in November.

What the NSS stands for

The Secular Charter outlines 10 principles that guide us as we campaign for a secular democracy which safeguards all citizens' rights to freedom of and from religion.

Tags: Faith schools, LGBT, Reproductive rights