‘Education not indoctrination’ isn’t just a slogan, it’s written into law


By Ciarán Kelly, Acting Director

A few years ago, The Christian Institute and others won a genuinely historic legal case against the Scottish government that stopped it implementing the full data-sharing nightmare that was the Named Person scheme.

In its ruling, the UK Supreme Court said:

“The first thing that a totalitarian regime tries to do is to get at the children, to distance them from the subversive, varied influences of their families, and indoctrinate them in their rulers’ view of the world.”

You might have thought that after that the Scottish government would have learned its lesson. You’d be wrong. The underlying mindset on Relationships, Sexual Health and Parenthood (RSHP) is the same. The state knows best, and parents are to be seen and not heard.

There are some solid foundations in Scottish law for the relationship between state and family in education. The same is true for education law in other parts of Britain. But in practice, the state is ignoring them and constructing an entirely different building across the street.


It’s a basic principle written into law that parents, not the state, are responsible for the education of their children [1]. Of course, most parents are happy to delegate the responsibility for schooling to schools, usually state schools, paid for by those parents’ taxes. But it is a delegation. And where the state does provide education, the law requires that ‘pupils are to be educated in accordance with the wishes of their parents’ [2].

The European Court of Human Rights has put it this way: ‘The State [and this includes state-funded schools] is forbidden to pursue an aim of indoctrination that might be considered as not respecting parent’s religious and philosophical convictions.’ [3].

This is the dynamic at play. The struggle is between the ‘totalitarian regime’, with its doctrines of intolerant tolerance and exclusionary inclusivity, and the ‘subversive, varied influences of the families’, which may want schools to uphold the reality of biological sex, or to give space to the belief that marriage is only between one man and one woman. Or a family which has no desire to see its children taught about porn, even if it’s rebranded as ‘ethical’ porn. Or a family which, horror of horrors, simply wants to see the materials being used in RSHP classes and to know that Stonewall, or Mermaids, or Time for Inclusive Education, or LGBT Youth Scotland aren’t going to be allowed to peddle their wares to kids.

The fact is that ‘education not indoctrination’ is written into law. State schools are under a legal duty to provide education without indoctrinating children or seeking to recruit them to any cause or campaign, whether that be through a Pride march, or Purple Friday, or whatever.

‘Objective, critical and pluralistic’

Schools have become a key battleground in the ongoing cultural debates, and RSHP is one of the strategic beachheads into the minds of young people. But teachers have 30 kids – how can they possibly reflect 30 sets of beliefs? Actually, it’s quite simple. The courts have found that it is done [4] by teaching in a way that is ‘objective, critical and pluralistic’. In other words, fairly presenting different viewpoints and helping pupils to consider them critically and come to their own view.

Perhaps because of this, the current statutory guidance on the conduct of RSHP has several positives. Consultation with parents should be ‘standard practice’ when developing or reviewing an RSHP programme and parents should have ‘the opportunity in advance to view key teaching materials’ [5]. The guidance also provides for a right to withdraw ‘from all or part of a planned sexual health education programme’ [6]. But the Scottish government has been trying to produce a new version of this guidance, potentially removing these provisions, which is due to go out to public consultation at some point.

That guidance also says the subject ‘should present facts in an objective, balanced and sensitive manner’. It also expects teachers to ‘be aware that children and young people come from a wide range of backgrounds and respect this in their teaching practices’ [7].

In short, the current position is that councils and schools are under no obligation to use the government-backed resources or even implement the government’s take on RSHP at all.

So that’s what should happen. But what is happening is that the Scottish government has promoted a bank of resources that even fall short of its own standards for RSHP. To take just one example, one resource teaches children as young as five that ‘sex is what your parents are told you are when you are born’ [8].

Another recommends to parents a video that says: ‘If a girl can be a senator, or an astronaut, or a plumber. If a girl can wear pants and have short hair. If a girl can even have a penis. What is a girl anyway?’ Well, that escalated quickly.

‘Embedding’ LGBT issues

Pressure groups have been highly effective in promoting this kind of teaching in schools, and teachers, parents, governors, and councillors who have doubts are often hesitant to challenge it for fear of being accused of bigotry or transphobia. A student at Mearns Academy who challenged ‘The Authority’ ended up excluded from school.

So the problem we’re looking at today isn’t a problem of law; it’s not really about guidance, although I’m not pretending that’s not an issue. It’s mainly about the cultural water that schools and families are swimming in.

It’s about John Swinney announcing in 2018 that Scotland would be the first country in the world to embed LGBT issues across the curriculum. After all, you can’t withdraw your child from every lesson. And then local authorities and schools just jumping to it – without any law being passed, without any proper legislative process.

It’s about the Scottish government engaging, even funding, groups such as Time for Inclusive Education and LGBT Youth Scotland to tell it what it wants to hear. And adopting that advice and then rolling it out as ‘best practice’ across the country.

It creates a climate of fear of being branded ‘phobic’ or a bigot, and a desire by some schools to go further to avoid the label. That’s where we’re at today, and that’s the problem we have to solve.

This article was first published in the Scottish Union for Education’s Newsletter No.5 on 2 March.

1. Education (Scotland) Act 1980, s. 30; Education Act 1996, s. 7
2. Education (Scotland) Act 1980, s. 28; Education Act 1996, s. 9
3. According to the European Court of Human Rights, ‘As to the word “convictions”, taken on its own, it is not synonymous with the terms “opinions” and “ideas”. It denotes views that attain a certain level of cogency, seriousness, cohesion and importance (Valsamis v. Greece, §§ 25 and 27)’.
4. Lautsi v Italy (2012) 54 EHRR 3 s. 62 and 63.
5. Conduct of Relationships, Sexual Health and Parenthood Education in Schools, para. 55.
6. Conduct of Relationships, Sexual Health and Parenthood Education in Schools, para. 56.
7. Conduct of Relationships, Sexual Health and Parenthood Education in Schools, p. 10–11.