Ministers have been accused of leaving “loopholes” in new relationships and sex education guidance after it emerged some Jewish schools were advised by lawyers to show a “united front” to prevent the teaching of LGBT issues.
The new guidance, finalised last month, states that that schools are “expected” to teach LGBT content as part of compulsory relationships education, though it is up to heads to decide when it is “age-appropriate” to do so. The requirement is opposed by the orthodox Charedi community, which says teaching about LGBT relationships would conflict with its religious beliefs.
The Charedim’s objections are along similar lines to those expressed by members of the Muslim community in Birmingham, who have been involved in a bitter dispute with some schools over LGBT relationships education for months. At the same time, secularists have warned that the seemingly optional nature of the LGBT content in the guidance gives religious groups a “loophole” to avoid teaching it.
Under the new RSE curriculum, schools must be able to give “good reasons” for departing from content set out in the guidance. They must also teach pupils to respect members of the LGBT community in order to meet the government’s independent school standards and get a clean bill of health from Ofsted.
New legal advice issued to Charedi activists Shraga Stern and Asher Gratt by law firm Asserson states that if faced with a “unified approach” from Charedi schools which refuse to teach LGBT content but are “otherwise compliant” with the independent school standards, it may be “politically unattractive” for the government to take action.
“The recent noisy demonstrations in Birmingham may well also weaken the government’s desire to press this issue head-on. The more uniform and widespread the approach taken, the better chance there is of the Government taking a less aggressive approach and reaching a resolution amicably.”
The advice, obtained and published by the National Secular Society, goes on to urge schools to use policy statements on RSE – which all schools are required by law to have in place from September 2020 – to explain that they “have had regard to the statutory guidance on RSE, but have decided not to teach some of the content in the guidance”.
Primary schools can then make clear that LGBT issues won’t be taught because they are “not age appropriate”, and are urged to refer to statements by ministers that back them up.
Charedi secondary schools can then argue they won’t teach about LGBT issues because “such issues are not appropriate in light of the religious background of the pupils in the school”, the advice goes on to say.
If they are still found to be in breach of the independent school standards, schools are urged to refer to the DfE’s guidance that “enforcement action will not normally occur if there are only one or two unmet requirements from the standards”.
“Since the independent school standards must be met, a statement saying that the school will not be teaching all parts of it is potentially suggesting a level of ‘civil disobedience’,” the advice goes on to say. “The policy statement should include arguments as to why in fact the school is compliant.”
Government urged to act
Stephen Evans, the chief executive of the National Secular Society, accused the government of leaving “loopholes” in its guidance, and urged Ofsted to “ensure that independent school standards are consistently applied to all schools across the independent sector”.
He also said the government should also issue a statement “making clear that all schools will be required to provide LGBT inclusive RSE”.
“For the sake of a quiet life, the government appears to have gifted religious authorities running schools an opportunity to evade expectations which are placed on all other schools,” he said.
Stern told Schools Week: “It must be clearly understood that under no circumstances whatever will the Charedi Jewish community teach sex education in their schools.
“If necessary we will home-school and/or leave the country. Secularists need to understand that religion is a protected characteristic and that religious parents have rights as well as obligations.
“It’s become clear to me that this dispute is not fundamentally about alternative lifestyles, but is grounded in attempts by secularists to foist atheism upon us. That is never – repeat never – going to happen.”
The Department for Education and Ofsted were approached for comment.