Jewish education leaders have given a guarded welcome to the government’s announcement of its plans for sex education in schools.
Ed Balls, Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, unveiled plans to make personal, social, health and economic education compulsory in schools from 2011.
Faith schools will have to teach the new curriculum, but “within the tenets of their faith”, said Mr Balls.
A Jewish cross-communal group under the aegis of the Board of Deputies has been in talks with the government and other faith groups, including Catholics, Anglicans and Muslims, discussing a voluntary strategy.
Catholics and Anglicans have given a broad welcome but with some reservations, shared by Muslim groups. But there has been criticism of the change to parents’ right to withdraw their children from sex lessons.
Board chief executive Jon Benjamin argued: “We have said all along that if the government wants this to work, it has to be presented in a way that is acceptable to schools coming from different points of view.
“If there is something outlandish, it won’t work.”
At the same time, he said, the community needed to be realistic about dealing with the issues that affect young people.
“Schools could teach the physical aspects of the subject through science lessons, which some are doing already, while the moral side could be dealt with in religious studies lessons.
“We will be pushing for schools to have a lot of latitude in how they teach this.”
A more radical view came from Dr Joanna Rees, a mother of six, a GP and former chair of the parents’ association at Hasmonean Schools. She said: “The government has poured so much money into sex education yet we still have the highest teenage pregnancy rate in Europe.
“We should be putting money into ‘no- sex’ education. I believe it is important to teach this in a religious, cultural and social context.
“You can’t look at this in isolation. Children have access to pornography on the internet, music is sexual, there is so much of this around them. But what is this legislation doing? It’s teaching them to have sex when they should be taught how to say ‘no’ to sex before marriage.”
But Rabbi Avraham Pinter, principal of the strictly Orthodox Yesodey Hatorah schools in Hackney, east London, argued that the government’s plans were well intentioned but would only allow parents to avoid responsibility for their children.
“We don’t have a problem with sex education itself, because that will be dealt with in terms of the ethos of the school,” he said.
“The issue is the way children are brought up and this will allow parents to avoid responsibility by taking away choice.”