Commenting, DUP Education Spokesperson Diane Dodds MLA said:
‘‘Despite being a requirement of the school curriculum for many years, RSE has been the focus of rising concern among parents in recent times, in part because of some of the classroom resources being promoted. However, these concerns have been amplified by the Secretary of State’s disgraceful decision to impose laws on Northern Ireland which will make abortion a compulsory element of RSE for post-primary schools going forward.
The DUP opposed, and voted against, these regulations in the House of Commons.
RSE is a devolved issue and should have remained in the gift of a restored Executive and Assembly. Instead, these reforms were railroaded through without prior consultation with local communities. Even at this late stage, there is deep uncertainty surrounding the impact of the changes. The Department of Education was expected to consult on the circumstances in which a parent will be able to request that their child is withdrawn from the new teaching. The consultation, however, offers precious little in the way of detail.
Having taken time to engage extensively with principals, teachers, parents, faith leaders and a range of representative and sectoral bodies, we have now finalised our own response. At the core of this are five key asks.
Firstly, the Christian ethos of our schools should be protected.
The vast majority of pupils in Northern Ireland attend schools shaped by Christian teaching and values. Many schools were transferred to state control on the understanding that this ethos would be maintained. At the heart of a Christian ethos is belief in the dignity of every human being, respect for self and others, compassion, and tolerance. Abortion is at odds with this. In England, RSE must be appropriate to the religious background to pupils. Schools can teach about faith perspectives within RSE. These safeguards must be provided in Northern Ireland.
Secondly, the rights of parents must be respected, not restricted.
Parents are best placed to determine what is in the best interests of their child. They should be consulted on the development of all RSE materials. Parents, not head teachers, should have the final say on whether a pupil is withdrawn from RSE. A parental opt-out must be in place before the new teaching requirements take effect and must be unfettered as is the case for RE and collective worship. It must also not prevent parents from withdrawing their child from other elements of RSE.
Thirdly, abortion is a moral issue and should be treated as such.
Abortion involves the taking of innocent human life and is a deeply ethical and moral issue. The ‘facts’ are highly-contested. We object to the framing of abortion as a right, as do many parents. Where political issues are brought into the classroom, there should be space for a balanced presentation of opposing views.
Fourthly, teachers must not be forced to act against their conscience.
They must not be forced to teach elements of RSE that conflict with their deeply-held personal beliefs. Teaching staff should be able to opt-out in these circumstances.
Finally, the role of governors should not be undermined.
The agreement of Boards of Governors, teachers and parents in developing RSE is absolutely key. Governors nominated by the churches served by a school have a duty to promote a concept of education that is shaped by Christian teaching and values. The requirement to teach abortion within RSE is therefore a direct attack on their role.
We will continue to press the Department for an outcome which protects the significant freedom currently granted to schools to decide how RSE is taught in a way that is sensitive, in keeping with their ethos and mindful of the overarching duty in statute to ensure children are taught in conjunction with the wishes of their parents. Those who cynically view this consultation as an opportunity to make sweeping reforms to RSE must be resisted and
Diane Dodds MLA will host an RSE Workshop in Banbridge Old Town Hall on Thursday 26th October at 7.30pm.
A further online session will take via zoom on 6th November. Please contact [email protected] to register your interest.