Ed Balls’s climb-down on his sex-education proposals, though welcome, is basic electioneering
There is something profoundly depressing about the political jig that Ed Balls, Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, was obligedto dance so publicly last week.
A portmanteau bill sponsored by his department is currently making its way through parliament. Among its provisions is the requirement that all taxpayer-funded schools teach pupils something about sex and contraception.
What exactly does this mean? The details have yet to be finalised. What we do know is that, following a public consultation, Mr Balls will approve a Personal, Social and Health-Education curriculum that every taxpayer-funded school will be obliged to teach, and that this curriculum will include components on Sex and Relationships Education.
As originally drafted, the bill would have required state-funded faith schools to teach SRE exactly in the manner prescribed. But, last week, following intense lobbying by the Catholic church, Mr Balls made a critical concession.
In order to get the bill on to the statute book ahead of the general election, and (presumably) in order not to alienate Catholic voters, he grudgingly conceded that each faith school - which of course includes every "maintained" Jewish school - would be free to teach the PSHE curriculum "in a way that reflects the school's religious character".
The necessary amendment was carried in silence. But outside the Palace of Westminster all hell broke loose. A spokesperson for the National Secular Society accused Mr Balls of "cowardice." Its spokesperson said that, "the Government has once more bowed to pressure from the Catholic Church, betraying the children in faith schools who have a right to objective and balanced sex education."
What had angered the National Secular Society, and the rainbow coalition of anti-faith-school crusaders (which I am sorry to say includes sundry rabbis) and homosexual pressure groups that supported its stand on this issue, was that, as now amended, the legislation will permit maintained faith schools to approach the PSHE curriculum from a particular moral standpoint, grounded in the faith they profess rather than in some state-mandated faith.
This rainbow coalition wanted all schools in the state system to be compelled to teach that homosexual relationships are as normal as heterosexual ones, that homosexual civil partnerships are no different from heterosexual marriages, and that it is as normal for a child to be brought up by two "fathers" (or two "mothers") as it is to be brought up by a mother and a father.
This coalition also appears to believe that there is nothing inherently wrong with sex outside marriage and that teenagers should be encouraged to "try out" various partners before committing themselves.
But parents also have rights - something of which the rainbow coalition does not like to be reminded but of which politicians, in a democracy, need to be ever mindful.
As Ed Balls explained, in an attempt to calm the situation (though he need not have been so defensive about it) "every school will have to teach the full curriculum in a balanced way that respects equality and is not discriminatory, but of course what we are saying is they can explain the views of their faith… Catholic schools can say to their pupils that, as a religion, we believe contraception is wrong, but what they can't do is therefore say they are not going to teach about contraception." And he might have added that Jewish maintained schools will be obliged to teach something about homosexuality, but will be as free in the future as in the past to point to the prohibition of homosexual acts in the Hebrew Bible.
This freedom was precisely what the rainbow coalition wanted to be outlawed. And it is because I cherish that freedom that I applaud the stand taken by the Catholic church. But I freely admit that I have an ulterior motive.
As an educator, albeit at the tertiary level, I am becoming increasingly alarmed at the encroachment of the state into matters that are no business of any state that calls itself a liberal democracy. In my university, I must teach the prescribed curriculum in, say, international politics but, within that broad framework, what I teach is my business. The logical end towards which the rainbow coalition is working is one that would deny me this freedom. This end is a fascist one, to which no true defender of freedom can ever be reconciled.