Church representatives in Northern Ireland have reacted with concern to the imposition by Westminster of compulsory sex education curriculum content on all post-primary schools. A prominent church leader told Premier Christian News that parents may pull their children out of classes, whilst teachers may boycott the curriculum.
The announcement of new regulations by Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris, covering relationships and sex education (RSE), makes it mandatory for pupils to be taught about how to access an abortion in Northern Ireland, and the prevention of early pregnancy.
The Moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, Right Reverend Dr John Kirkpatrick, told Premier Christian Radio that parents may exercise their right to withdraw their children from the new curriculum: "There have been a number of parties already that have indicated that that is the direction they would encourage parents to go. I think people will respond to that," he said.
Dr Kirkpatrick also indicated that a boycott by teachers is a real possibility: “We have a great deal of Christian teachers in our school system. I'm not sure what they would do. I think many of them would feel very uncomfortable about pointing young people to abortion services,” he said.
“I think they would most likely feel our conscience would not let them do that. Many of them would,” he continued. “There may be one or two who feel pressured into it. But I think most would feel on their conscience unable to do that," he continued.
Until now, each school in Northern Ireland made its own decisions on how to teach sex education as part of their curriculum, which every school is legally obliged to deliver.
Dr Kirkpatrick said Westminster had laid the regulations without consultation, in a way that it is almost impossible to amend or change in Parliament. He called the move 'a patronising imposition': “When government starts to impose morality in this fashion, they've overstepped the mark," he told Premier.
“That's not what government’s established for. It is established to uphold good and right. But when it adopts a particular moral point of view, as it has on many issues, and then imposes that on people, well that's a different proposition.”
The Transferor Representatives’ Council, which represents the Church of Ireland, Presbyterian Church and Methodist Church, and oversees the appointment of over 1,500 governors to controlled schools in Northern Ireland, also expressed its deep concern.
“Laws and policies for Northern Ireland should be made in Northern Ireland by ministers who have been locally elected by its citizens – an electorate which includes parents, teachers, carers and guardians," said Dr Andrew Brown, Chair of the Transferor Representatives’ Council.
In a written statement to Parliament, Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris argued he had a legal duty to act on recommendations made in a United Nations report produced by the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women.
Known as the CEDAW Report, it proposed sex education in Northern Ireland should be compulsory and comprehensive.
According to Mr Heaton-Harris, legislation setting up the power-sharing Northern Ireland executive also required him to implement recommendations on RSE contained in the CEDAW report, which claims that young people in Northern Ireland are "denied the education necessary to enjoy their sexual and reproductive health and rights".
The regulations laid by Mr Heaton-Harris implement the CEDAW recommendations, which he said 'make age-appropriate, comprehensive and scientifically accurate education on sexual and reproductive health and rights’ to school-children.
But this justification was rejected by the Presbyterian church leader: “The Secretary of State is insisting upon the teaching of RSE in what he calls ‘a factual way’, in other words without a particular view on moral or ethical considerations. Surely he does not himself need to go back to school to realise that every approach to RSE will be shaped by a larger worldview, as there is no ‘neutral’ understanding of human identity and human sexuality," Dr Kirkpatrick said.
“He is seeking to impose a particular worldview on the education of children in Northern Ireland. What has happened today, seriously undermines a school’s ability to link RSE to its agreed values and ethos, in line with current Department of Education guidelines,” he concluded.