BY ANNA ARCO
CATHOLIC primary schools should teach sex and relationship education, an agency of the bishops of England and Wales has said.
The Catholic Education Service (CES) welcomed Government plans to make Sex and Relationship Education (SRE) compulsory in all primary and secondary schools.
In a statement on October 23 the CES said it broadly supported the Government's response to a review of SRE teaching. It also said Ministers had offered "important reassurances" to the Catholic Church.
It said: "The statutory rights of parents to withdraw their children from sex education remain but it is our hope that parents will not find the need to exercise this right as children are likely to benefit from experiencing SRE amongst their friends and peers."
Both the review and the Government's response have come under fire for proposing that schools teach SRE to children as young as five.
Politicians such as Geraldine Smith, Labour MP for Morecambe and Lunesdale, have publicly criticised the proposal, saying that it would rob children of their innocence and encourage underage sex.
Last month a cross-party parliamentary group called for sex education to be placed on the national curriculum "early enough to make a difference" in order to give "youngsters the confidence and ability to make wellinformed decisions". This was firmly opposed by the bishops' conference.
But CES chief executive Oona Stannard, who was on the steering group that prepared the SRE review. welcomed the plans and defended her position. She said that the plans for SRE in Catholic primary schools would teach children to name body parts and would place more emphasis on the value of relationships and Catholic teaching.
She said: "For us that clearly means — and it's ,the only reason we would ever accept and the only the way we would ever approach SRE that we will teach our Catholic values and our Catholic teaching and that it will inform our work with children and young people as rightly it should."
Speaking about how she thought compulsory sex education would work in Catholic primary schools, she said: "You would expect that young children would need to learn about body parts, that simple sort of biology.
"But at the same time they need to learn as part of SRE, but reflecting the Catholic values, that they are unique, that God has made them, that God loves them each equally, that each one of them is equal Iy valued and equally special. That would translate further into learning respect for one another, learning about building friendships, establishing friendships. getting on with one another, trying to see the best in one another."
But Miss Stannard also said that it was unlikely that compulsory SRE would withhold "the facts about contracep
Lion, because if you withhold facts you leave young people more open to exploitation by others who will not necessarily have their best interests at heart".
She added: "But you will always make sure that you are teaching what the Church says about contraception and about any of those associated issues that this might raise, such as abortion. Our schools will be very clear about what the Church says on these matters."
Miss Stannard said that it would be up to each school to prepare its sex education curriculum within the guidelines given by the Government.
She said that Schools Minister Jim Knight had promised he would respect the individual ethos of the schools and that he recognised "the particular nature of schools with a religious character and that they have their particular beliefs and values and that they must have flexibility to teach that".
Eric Hester, a retired headmaster, called the CES's support for the review a betrayal of Catholic parents and argued that it conflicted with Church teaching.
The Truth and Meaning of Human Sexuality, a 1995 document prepared by the Pontifical Council for the Family, says of childhood: "This period of tranquility and serenity must never be disturbed by unnecessary information about sex. '
Mr Hester said: "Catholic parents have rights over the education of their children. For the Government to try and take away the rights of Catholic parents during the 'age of innocence' is wicked. For the official education agency of the bishops' conference to support this destruction of rights of parents is beyond belief."
Miss Stannard robustly defended the CES's stance, saying that SRE in primary schools would not mean that children were sexualised.
She said: "What good SRE does is to help young people avoid unwelcome pressures... Indeed we would all abhor early sexualisation. Society as a whole has a lot of questions to ask itself about what it allows on television, advertising and so on.
"Now good sex and relationship education is not going to be doing anything that contributes to sexualisation; if anything it will be helping to avoid and reduce the impact of that.
"[If] children have a knowledge of the simply biology they are better able to protect themselves because they have confidence and self esteem. and they understand a bit more about themselves and they understand a bit more about one another."
Earlier this month Archbishop Vincent Nichols of Birmingham, the chairman of the CES, called for Catholics to fight against "any action or proposal that would sexualise children or be seen as in any way promoting sexual activity outside the context of married relationships".
At a meeting for foundation governors in the Diocese of Hexham and Newcastle the archbishop said: "In Catholic schools sex and relationship education must always be designed and delivered according to the teaching of the Church. It is this alone that gives critical stability to what Catholic schools do and to the coherence of the arguments they make. This is not simply a matter of responding to or resisting public opinion or widespread behaviour."
Britain has western Europe's highest rate of teenage pregnancy and more than 4,000 girls under the age of 16 have abortions every year. There was a 21 per cent increase in the number of girls under 14 having abortions last year.
Editorial Comment Page 11