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The Sinister RSE Code

The ever-reliable internet suggests that the Welsh and English RSE curricula:

​includes bondage, anal sex, self-stimulation at age 4 was voted against by the overall majority of Wales is queering of the Education System means that we're failing to safeguard our children.

You could be led to believe that RSE is the worst thing to happen to our children in recent memory. If that's the case, why were these frameworks introduced? New Relationship and Sexuality Education frameworks were introduced in Wales in 2021 and England in 2020, in response to a growing understanding of how our children have been let down by a lack of robust, comprehensive and modern relationship and sexuality education in the past. But since these new frameworks have been launched, there has been a backlash by a minority of parents that primarily focusses on the developmentally inappropriate nature of the frameworks, the 'queering' of education, and also that, in Wales, parents cannot withdraw their children from these lessons. In 2021, this backlash culminated in a group of parents taking the Welsh Government to court, to stop the rollout of RSE. In this article, I will look at the reasons for the introduction of the frameworks, their actual contents compared to the claims of content by parental groups, how widespread complaints by parents actually are, and the possible reasons behind their objections.


Why did RSE need to change?

I went to school between 1986 and 2000, the heyday of Section 28; an act of the UK Government which banned the promotion of homosexuality. Whilst no schools were ever prosecuted for breaching Section 28 [1], it created a culture where schools avoided conversations about homosexuality and (in my experience), did not tackle homophobic bullying. This has led to a generation of LGBTQ+ people with mental health problems, not caused by their sexuality or gender identity, but by the way that society treated them [2].

Although RSE frameworks comprise so much more than LGBTQ+ awareness, even just talking about LGBTQ+ pupils makes the importance of RSE clear. LGBTQ+ pupils need to become comfortable with who they are, but wider society also needs to understand and accept them for who they are. Only in this way can we have a truly inclusive society. This rationale applies to all diversities, where tolerance, understanding and respect are vital. We need only look at the recent headlines of Andrew Tate, famous for his toxic masculine videos and messages, to see why RSE is important. If we are to safeguard our girls and young women, respect for all needs to be taught right from day one. People like Andrew Tate are a symptom of a society that needs our help; and RSE is one of the tools we can use to tackle such misogyny and hatred.

The Wales RSE Code leaflet for parents [3] states:

We need to help all of our young people to excel in all aspects of life, so they grow into adults who are healthy, confident individuals. Education should encourage and support young people to respect themselves and others, to value diversity, and give them the ability to build healthy, respectful relationships.

Similarly, the Relationships and Sex Education (RSE) and Health Education Statutory guidance for England [4] states:

Today’s children and young people are growing up in an increasingly complex world and living their lives seamlessly on and offline. This presents many positive and exciting opportunities, but also challenges and risks. In this environment, children and young people need to know how to be safe and healthy, and how to manage their academic, personal and social lives in a positive way.

Modern RSE frameworks are composed of a far wider range of topics than the traditional 'sex ed' lessons. They also cover diversity in families, healthy relationships, respect and online safety. It is perhaps the wording of RSE that causes initial upset, with them being mistakingly worried about sex being taught to 3 year olds. But as we will see later, the developmentally appropriate nature of the frameworks is core to all of the curriculum design models.


The backlash

So what are the parents campaigning against RSE actually protesting against? Broadly, their objections can be categorised into three areas: secrecy around RSE; the developmentally inappropriate nature of the materials; the inability to withdraw from lessons in Wales; and the 'queering' of education. Let’s look at each of these in turn, what they are saying and the truth behind them

The secrecy around RSE.

A common narrative that often appears in the objections, particularly from people in Scotland ‘warning’ people in Wales, is that schools refuse to show what RSE materials they are using, and suggesting that there are RSE providers who need to be background checked. Initially, you can understand why people would want this. If we wanted to, wouldn't we all want to see everything that is shown to our children in schools? But on further reflection, this is a dangerous stipulation in many ways. First of all, it inadvertently accuses all teachers of not safeguarding their children and not trusting teachers and schools to use their best judgement. This is a classic example of the demeaning attitude and lack of respect that some people have for the education system. I have never been asked to show my teaching materials for any subject and I don’t know of any teacher who has. If we’re not asked to show our history teaching materials, why is RSE any different? We tackle incredibly important and challenging topics across the curriculum and if we are to publish every piece of planning and resource that we use, the workload on teachers will push an already overworked system to the brink of collapse. This is not to say that there is no transparency. All parents in all schools are invited to look at books in parental consultations, schools regularly publish curriculum reports and they are always open for parental communication.

When these arguments talk about oversight, they often forget about the role of the Governing Body. Governing Bodies are there to monitor and hold schools to account. If parents have concerns about materials that a school is using, then the appropriate complaints procedure should be followed. Now, I am not saying here that no school has ever used inappropriate materials (critics of RSE enjoy bringing out individual examples to try and shut down RSE), but they also fail to acknowledge that this is the tiniest percentage of schools and instead of banning an important part of the curriculum for every child, or punishing every school and teacher, the individual school should take the appropriate action to ensure appropriate nature of the materials they are using in lessons. Using the history example, if an individual school showed a racist video, we wouldn't ban history across the curriculum, action would be taken to/by that individual school. RSE should be treated no differently.

There are some who would call for only approved resources to be used in RSE lessons in schools. The reality is that there simply isn’t a realistic way of vetting every education resource that goes into every school. If we do it for one area, we would have to do it for all, and that’s not at all faesable. What is realistic, is trusting our professionals to use their best judgement. And that brings us nicely on to the next common complaint.

RSE is developmentally inappropriate

Is it? No. No, it is not.

(Part of me was tempted to stop writing there as this argument is ludicrous, but let’s explore it further).

Public Child Protection Wales are an organisation made up of parents opposed to RSE, under the guise of promoting safeguarding, and they object to RSE as it stands in the UK. This is a very common image shared by them and at one point, posted through letterboxes to some families in Wales.

PCPW claim that RSE in the UK contains messages of anal sex, bondage, pornography and self-stimulation at age 4-6. What they have cleverly (or not so cleverly) done here is used a wide range of resources (that are not at all part of RSE in England or Wales) to collate RSE horror stories. My son is 9 and I would be horrified if he learnt any of these at his age. But he’s not. Because none of it is in the RSE frameworks.

What proponents of this message often say is that this information is given in preparatory documents used by the UK or Welsh Governments or that they’re contained in resources designed to support RSE. But they’re missing the point in that none of these are in the mandatory documents. I was part of the pioneer network that developed the Curriculum for Wales and was involved in the design process from formation to release. As part of any curriculum design process, you look at a wide range of documents to find out everything that is out there. That doesn’t mean that you use them, or that you agree with them. Some of these documents that PCPW refer to are included on the UK and WG websites, not because they form part of the RSE frameworks, but because it allows people to see preparatory or research documents.

PCPW also use the UNESCO resources as ‘evidence’ for these claims. However, searching the UNESCO resources website [4], the only mention of anal sex in their guidance is in the importance of discussing HIV transmission (something that absolutely should be taught in Secondary schools). Unsurprisingly, there is no mention of bondage or self-stimulation for young children. Similarly, the age 4-6 section of the Welsh RSE Framework contains no statements about sexual intercourse, masturbation or bondage. Their claims are totally without merit and are dangerous in destroying the trust between parents and schools.

I recently challenged a very strange tweet that was send to the Welsh Minister of Education that seemed to suggest they wanted to film children in the classroom. The response I had from an opponent of RSE was simply bizarre. The sender seemed to somehow think that the video they attached counteracted my point about RSE being important in schools. The video in fact, contains a father in the USA who was concerned about books with swearing and gratuitous violence which were found in two elementary school libraries. I know of no teacher who would want their pupils in Primary school reading swearing or exposed to sexual violence and so I’m not sure what point the Tweet author is trying make. This is a deliberate use of logical fallacy to try to make a point. This video demonstrates an issue with the individual school libraries, and has absolutely nothing to do with RSE. If a primary school has books with sexual violence or swearing, then primary schools should absolutely be held accountable for this. But what has this to do with RSE? Nothing. But what terrifies me more about this Tweet, is that this person seemed to be ok with cameras in the classroom. I’ll say what I said in my tweet: *shudder*.

The inability to withdraw from lessons

This is the only part of the RSE Code in Wales where I can (almost) understand the resistance. As parents, we want to feel that we have control over our children’s lives and being told that we cannot withdraw our children from an areas of their life is bound to put some people’s heckles up. However, the reality of the situation is that this is the case for pretty much every other area of the curriculum. Schools would not allow withdrawal from English or Maths; it simply wouldn’t happen. So why should it be allowed from a framework that aims to develop our pupils as healthy, happy people?

One of the reasons that withdrawing from RSE lessons is not as simple as some would like you to think, is that effective RSE is primarily not delivered as ‘RSE lessons’. Let’s take the statement: ‘An awareness of how to communicate wants and needs in relationships, and begin to respect those of others.’ . This is not a statement that you would deliver in an ‘RSE lesson', but one that you would embed through everyday practice. How then would you withdraw children from these lessons? Should that pupil be withdrawn every time that you talk about respect? What the parents here are generally saying is that they want them withdrawn from sex education and/or mentions of sexuality or gender. Withdrawing from RSE frameworks as a whole is impossible, but withdrawing from sections would be a logistical nightmare for schools and is simply not realistic.

More important than the logistics of withdrawing, is that a rounded view of the world will help them understand the world they live in, themselves, and each other. To withdraw any child from these lessons would give them a disadvantage in life and potentially damage their own relationships and/or mental health. I can't see why any parent would want that, unless it conflicted with their own biases or prejudices.

The 'Queering' of Education

In amongst the arguments against RSE and indeed against education in general, will be statements along the lines of 'the queering of education'. This phrase is fascinating, especially because it has no agreed universal meaning. Most people seem to be using it as a phrase to suggest that 'Queer Theory' is now underpinning education. But what does that actually mean? My experience when I ask what 'Queer Theory' means to them, they send me to academic articles or to misleading websites, suggesting that they're not sure what it means or they been misled by fake news. But essentially, queer theory challenges the notion that heterosexuality is 'normal'. You may also have heard the term 'heteronormativity', which is a viewpoint that our society is based around heterosexual lifestyles. For example, if a man says they are married, we assume it's to a woman, and if books that children are exposed to only contain images of straight, married couples, then we are not representing the range of families that we actually have in our society. Don't we want children exposed to the world that actually exists rather than an exclusively straight, white, able-bodied, middle class UK that does not exist?

I am not gay because there were gays all around me. If anyone has read my first blog post about my school life and how it affected my mental health (you can read it here), then you will know that I only learnt the word 'gay' in secondary school, but I still remember watching Pat Sharp on Fun House as a 9 year old and wanting to kiss him, but no idea why. I am gay because of who I am, not because of what society did to me. The same applies to gender. I know several transgender people, and they always knew. It wasn't because someone showed them a book with transgender people in. Yes, there are people who have detransitioned, and I really feel for them, but if we ban the conversation about gender because of this, then we risk hurting so many more children, exactly like Section 28 did.

One of the most common documents that I have been sent to look at is an article that reads like an academic journal, and purports to prove that 'Queer Theory' is corrupting our schools. I won't be posting the link here as I do not want to publicise it, but luckily I have an academic background and so I was able to see immediately that this particular document is biased and intentionally selects evidence that proves a point. Now, my blog post is absolutely biased with my feelings, as it is a blog, and at no point do I claim that it is a balanced argument or an academic journal. This publication I refer to however, is dangerous as it gives the impression that it is academic, but it has not gone through the peer review process that ensures balance and objectivity in academic journals. And this is what is sinister (to use a critic of RSE's own word) about much of the 'evidence' that RSE critics use to strengthen their arguments. Presenting beliefs as facts, and pretending that there is academic rigour to biased articles, only confuses people and misleads them into extreme views. If RSE critics actually had a point to make that wasn't based in prejudice, then they wouldn't have to resort to tactics that rely on deceit, selective inclusion of key facts, and exclusion of minority groups.


The real reasons for the backlash.

When you look into the accounts of the people that are fighting against RSE (I wouldn’t advise that you do, it’s not pleasant), frighteningly common threads begin to appear through many of their tweets and/or followers.

The most obvious and possibly largest group are transphobic and homophobic people who do not want sexuality or gender discussed in school at all. I have a nine-year-old and teach year 5 and I can tell you that a large proportion of what they argue and talk about at that age is gender and boyfriends/girlfriends, even without RSE frameworks being in place. A huge portion of RSE frameworks are about healthy relationships and in a world where children are one click on TikTok away from hearing relationship damaging dogma and propaganda, RSE in schools has never been more important. Don't we all want all of our children understanding consent, appropriate relationships and respect?

Also, whether people want to admit it or not, the reality is that up to 10% of the population are LGBTQ+ and if we do not ever discuss these things, this whole section of society will grow up wondering why they feel different (as happened to me in school). But also by deliberately not mentioning LGBTQ+ people, we are saying that they don’t exist, which is phobic in and of itself. Inclusion of LGBTQ+ people on displays, in books and in lessons is not going to turn anyone LGBTQ+, they already are that way, even if they don't understand it themselves, but it will make our world a more inclusive and tolerant place.

An argument opponents to RSE also use is that they don’t want sex talked about to three-year-olds. Let me tell you, I have never talked about sex to Foundation Phase pupils, and never will. If you can talk in Early Years about a man and a woman marrying each other, then you can talk to them about a woman and a woman marrying each other. Sex doesn’t need to be mentioned. At that age, it’s about realising that there are different families and that different people love each other. And who wouldn't want that. I got engaged in the Christmas holidays and I can't wait to tell my class (and I won't need to mention sex once).

As a parent, I am personally dreading when my son gets a phone (I will be leaving it as late as possible). The world that our children are exposed to gives little protection to them, no matter what the social networks say. But if we bury our heads in the sand about what they are going to be exposed to, then we are not preparing them for some of the horrific websites, tweets, TikTok videos etc, that they are inevitably going to see and hear. There is an absolute point about protecting children's innocence, but if we go to the extreme by not talking about the reality of the world, when they do experience these things, then they will not be prepared and are at risk of being influenced by eating disorder groups misogyny, gratituious sexual violence and all manner of negative impacts of the internet. True protection of our children is helping them get ready for the world, not hiding them from it. And this is one of the goals of RSE.

The final reason that I will talk about here, is religion. A minority of religious people will use religion as a reason for their children not to be ‘exposed’ to LGBT+ or gender discussions. This happened in Birmingham in 2019 [5], where parents protested against LGBT lessons. Religious beliefs are one of the nine protected characteristics and some believe that this can be used as a reason to be able to select what education their children receive. However, in the instance of Birmingham 2019, not only did the High Court judge rule that the small group of parents had misinterpreted what was being taught, but they could not see how the teaching conflicted with religious law or beliefs. A common trend that we also see in the desire to ban any talk of sexuality or gender in schools is membership to far right 'Christian' groups. This is a trend that was initially seen in the USA and more recently in Scotland with the backlash against the Gender Recognition Act. But all of these stem from the same place; they fear giving rights to another group because it might mean that they lose their own rights. They fail to see that their messages are the same given by ultra right misogynistic men and historically, when one group is given equal rights, other groups do not lose out. The same patterns can be seen in LGB groups. They use fear to exclude a group and weaponise groups against each other to preserve their own privilege. Thankfully, these represent the minority in our society, but unfortunately, they shout the loudest and so it can be easy to assume that they outnumber the rest.

But these things often repeat themselves and this is where we are in Wales now. A small group of parents are echoing the same messages as in Birmingham, using religion or 'safeguarding' as an excuse for being homophobic and transphobic. I follow a number of LGBTQ+ vicars, priests, LGBTQ+ religious organisations, and people who practise many religions, and I can tell you that religion does not spread hate, people do.



All of this backlash culminated in a group of parents taking the Welsh Government to court in 2021. Unsurprisingly, they lost the court case as many of the disproved views from above were put forward as ‘evidence'.

These small groups group would like you to think that they represent the majority, as they suggest in the following tweet, and that most of the Senedd voted against it:

But that simply isn't true. There is no evidence for RSE being against the wishes of the majority of Wales, particularly as it has been mandatory in schools from September 2021 and there are no large scale protests or mass withdrawals from schools.

The fact is, no matter what change happens in schools, there are always opponents and critics. But when you couple inevitable bemoaners with homophobia and transphobia, there was bound to be pushback. But RSE is key to making the UK an inclusive country and the vast majority of us know that it is the right thing to do and trust the teachers to do the best by their children.


Further Reading

Thank you to Miss Sadler (@TheatreTrotter) for contributions to this article



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