Handle with care: You can’t teach RSE in a moral vacuum

In July this year, new legislation came into force that requires post-primary schools to teach pupils about contraception and abortion.

New RSE regulations were imposed on Northern Ireland by Westminster in June. Schools are expected to start teaching the new content from January, just over a month after a consultation on the changes ends (24th November).

The regulations require all state-funded post-primary schools to provide “age-appropriate, comprehensive and scientifically accurate education on sexual and reproductive health and rights covering prevention of early pregnancy and access to abortion”.

Older secondary school pupils are well aware of abortion, of course – it’s not a new topic. But requiring schools to teach ‘access to abortion’ as a ‘reproductive right’ is new. Many parents will quite understandably fear that schools are being pushed into teaching abortion in a morally indifferent way.

Whatever your stance on abortion, it is far from an ethically neutral topic.

Taking liberties

Controversial topics need to be handled with particular care; taught in alignment with a school’s ethos and taught with respect for parents’ values and beliefs. Schools in Northern Ireland have their own particular contexts that must be understood, without inappropriate educational approaches being bulldozed through against the reasonable expectations of parents and teachers.

But the lack of nuance on this one particular issue is characteristic of a wider inclination among some activist educationalists to take liberties with the rest of the RSE curriculum.

In a post-sexual revolution, 21st century culture, teaching the full gamut of attitudes towards relationships and sexual behaviour may seem like a practical necessity. Surely young people need this education for their own safety? But it’s a minefield.

When this sort of broad curriculum has been promoted elsewhere in the UK, it has led to a multiplicity of problems. At The Christian Institute we’ve helped hundreds of parents, teachers and governors who are personally impacted by the chaos that has ensued.

Time-pressed teachers in England have struggled to implement new RSE requirements introduced in 2020. Secondary schools are required to teach young people about “healthy, nurturing relationships”. Sex education includes contraception and intimate relationships, as well as resisting pressure to have sex, and acceptable and unacceptable behaviour in relationships.[1]

‘Wild West’

It may sound positive, but just three years on and the Westminster Government has had to conduct an urgent review of this education, with one politician calling it a “Wild West” in which external interest groups vie to introduce more and more extreme, ideological content.

The Proud Trust’s ‘dice game’ encourages young people to imagine what ‘pleasurable acts’ could be performed using a combination of different body parts.[2] Some pupils have been asked to mould sexual organs out of Play-Doh.[3] And 72% of secondary schools teach the highly contested claim that people have a ‘gender identity’ which can be different from their biological sex.[4]

England is not alone in this. A Scottish Government-endorsed website provides free teaching materials to schools, which introduce pupils to “mutual masturbation, penetrative vaginal sex, oral sex and anal sex”.[5]

All this despite guidance that requires this education to be appropriate to the pupils’ age and stage of development. Can we expect “age-appropriate, comprehensive and scientifically accurate” RSE in Northern Ireland to fare much better?

RSE guidance will need to be watertight to prevent activists gaining a foothold and promoting disputed ideologies as fact.

Northern Ireland’s Department of Education is consulting on the new changes, with a focus on the parental right to withdraw their children and how the teaching should be delivered. Yet strangely, the consultation booklet claims schools should deliver topics which are required neither by the new regulations nor existing education law. Some of these topics will be welcomed by most parents. But some, such as “LGBTQ+ issues”, are controversial.

Watertight guidance?

It is hardly surprising that the consultation should reveal hints of an ideological battle for schools far wider than its decidedly narrow scope. It follows a pattern that has already been set in the rest of the UK that changes to law provide an opportunity for activists.

You can be sure that they will be responding to the consultation, demanding the inclusion of concepts that are neither “age appropriate” nor “scientifically accurate”. Some will want to see radical gender ideology, smashing ‘heteronormativity’, and dubiously titled ‘sex positive’ content.

The Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment has been tasked with developing teaching material for the new RSE content. But among the resources it already provides to schools are worksheets teaching the terms ‘non-binary’, ‘cisgender’ and ‘pansexual’, as if they have widely accepted and uncontroversial meanings.[6]

Any teaching on contentious issues, including contraception and abortion, must not be delivered as if questions about sex, relationships, identity and the lives of the unborn exist in a moral vacuum.

It raises the prospect of external groups with highly-contested agendas being invited in to deliver content. RSE guidance will need to be watertight to prevent activists gaining a foothold and promoting disputed ideologies as fact.

Ethical dimension

The right to withdraw is an essential backstop protection for parents. It helps keep schools accountable. It must be available to parents for all aspects of RSE, whatever the age of their child. Applying a right of withdrawal only to some areas of RSE inevitably leads to controversial content sneaking in elsewhere.

Any teaching on contentious issues, including contraception and abortion, must not be delivered as if questions about sex, relationships, identity and the lives of the unborn exist in a moral vacuum. Ethical considerations cannot be ignored.

Beyond this, the guidance should ensure parents are fully informed about RSE and can access all materials used to deliver the subject, even if provided by third parties. And it should still rest with school governors to develop an RSE policy that upholds the school’s ethos in consultation with parents.

The DoE consultation closes on 24th November. But only time will tell if the new legal changes will signal a turning point in young people’s education.


[1] RSHE guidance, paragraph 69

[2] https://www.christian.org.uk/news/parents-warned-about-explicit-govt-funded-sex-ed-resource-for-schools/

[3] What is being taught in Relationships and Sex Education in our schools?, New Social Covenant Unit, 2023

[4] Asleep at the Wheel, Policy Exchange, 2023, page 49

[5] https://rshp.scot/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/Part-1.-How-people-have-sex-Having-sex-for-the-first-time-Activity-plan-April-2020.pdf

[6] https://ccea.org.uk/downloads/docs/ccea-asset/Resource/Unit%201%3A%20LGBTQ%2B%20Identities%20And%20Terms.pdf