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Parents deserve to know what children are learning about sex

The 'interfering' parent stereotype inhibits necessary involvement in children’s lives. Credit: Getty

October 25, 2023 - 7:00am

“Interfering” parents, rejoice! Education Secretary Gillian Keegan is writing to schools to tell them parents should be allowed to view what their children are learning in relationships, sex and health education (RSHE). 

Until now, there has been some uncertainty about this, with a number of resource providers suggesting this would be a breach of copyright law. In a letter to schools, Keegan has stated that such concerns are trumped by a parent’s right to know. 

Of course, as some of us might have suspected, this doesn’t solve the matter entirely. What if sex education materials get into the hands of the wrong kind of parents? What about prudish, behind-the-times parents? What if they don’t like what they see, and then kick up a fuss?

This is not an unwarranted concern. One parent’s idea of keeping children in a state of ignorance is another’s idea of protecting them. Maintaining the balance between respecting cultural beliefs and ensuring a child does not grow up without access to vital information is difficult. In an ideal world, teachers should not be pressured into keeping some children in the dark.  

Yet in recent years this has been made more complex by the so-called culture war raging over “new” interpretations of sex and gender. The boundary between informing children and indoctrinating them has become increasingly blurred. Sex education is political, and while we might not want our children to be ignorant, fear of being seen as “that parent” — the bigot who “just doesn’t get it” — should not become a reason for remaining ignorant ourselves. 

As the partner of a teacher, I’m conscious of how difficult the situation is for them. I suspect the vast majority of teachers are not ideologues, desperate to tell children that “sex isn’t binary” or that “there are 72 genders”. Like most of us, they’re incredibly busy and just want to do what is right. As the Safe Schools Alliance documents, organisations such as Stonewall and Allsorts have been effective at presenting themselves as the “new” authorities on all things sex, sexuality and gender-related. 

At the same time, the image of the bigoted parent — a conception which fails to differentiate between, say, “thinks homosexuality is sinful” and “knows sex is binary” —  isn’t just used to encourage educators and children to withhold information. It’s also used to warn the rest of us off becoming that bigot who asks to see what their child is being taught. 

Many of those who say they abhor shame are quite happy to shame the overly-curious parent. Why would that be? Parents, like teachers, are not perfect. They are human, and varied, but one thing they generally do is perform a safeguarding role. There is something inherently concerning about the idea that they shouldn’t see the materials to which their children are exposed. Those which normalise breast-binding, for instance, pose a genuine risk. If teachers cannot speak out, perhaps some parents will. 

The “interfering” parent stereotype inhibits necessary involvement in children’s lives. As teenage girls, many of us might have been told “do what I want, or else you’re a prude”; as mothers of teenagers, we now hear, “look away, or else you’re a bigot.” This is a continuation of the same ritual. Who’d want to be the kind of parent who looks at their kids’ sex ed materials? Those of us who do are meant to think we are morally defective, as ever. 

Allowing parents to view materials and, potentially, to question them matters. Perhaps I sound like “that parent” when I write this. I’ll write it all the same not because I am interested in shaming others, but because I refuse to be shamed out of taking an interest in what we tell our children. It’s reassuring to know that, from now on, doing so should be a little easier.


Victoria Smith is a writer and creator of the Glosswitch newsletter.

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Stuart Bennett
Stuart Bennett
8 months ago

There is 100% an attitude in schools that parents are not trusted to pass on approved messaging about this. I’ve had it said to me directly by an RSHE coordinator at a local school. I quote “some parents can’t be trusted with these things”. That should be a fairly chilling attitude to every observer. Although anyone who thinks there are more than two genders can’t be trusted with it either.

David Morley
David Morley
8 months ago
Reply to  Stuart Bennett

I get your point, but also if left to parents, some really stupid ideas might be passed on by some. However, none of this should be behind parents backs.

Some parents may not be fit to educate their children in this or much else – they may not be the best to deliver education. But that doesn’t mean it should be done behind their backs – or worse, behind the backs of all parents in general.

Last edited 8 months ago by David Morley
William Shaw
William Shaw
8 months ago
Reply to  David Morley

I totally disagree.
Parents have a right to “indoctrinate” their children any way they want.
Even the stupid ones.

Last edited 8 months ago by William Shaw
David Morley
David Morley
8 months ago
Reply to  William Shaw

Why? Do the children have no rights?

Stuart Bennett
Stuart Bennett
8 months ago
Reply to  David Morley

Yes but that is overreach by the self styled bien pensant and teachers. Personally I would be asking a school whether they have 100% literacy in Maths & English and if they don’t then this subject can go in a box until they’ve demonstrated they can achieve the bottom rung of the ladder of their profession before moving to indoctrinating vulnerable minds with postmodern thought w*nks.

William Shaw
William Shaw
8 months ago
Reply to  Stuart Bennett

That is indeed a chilling attitude.
There’s no such thing as “patents can’t be trusted.”
Parents can raise their children (and indoctrinate them) any way they want… the state has no right to impose its views, and neither do teachers.

Last edited 8 months ago by William Shaw
Marcus Leach
Marcus Leach
8 months ago

Why not have centrally approved texts and materials and ban outside materials? Why should dangerous pressure groups such as Stonewall be permitted to have their extreme ideologically driven propaganda be put into children’s minds?
The approved texts and materials could be put online for parents have direct access to them. Having a situation where each individual parent has to squeeze out of their child’s school what specific materials they have decided to use is an unnecessary, cumbersome impediment.

Last edited 8 months ago by Marcus Leach
Richard M
Richard M
8 months ago
Reply to  Marcus Leach

A couple of questions:
Who decides what’s going in the centrally approved texts? Are they going to be equally vulnerable to influence by interest groups like Stonewall?What happens when individual or groups of parents dissent from the centrally approved texts and want to prevent their children being taught them?I think schools and parents should have flexibility to teach SRE in different ways. They should simply have to make all materials available to parents, which could be done easily within a parent portal which most schools have these days, and allow parents to withhold consent without judgement.

Marcus Leach
Marcus Leach
8 months ago
Reply to  Richard M

The approved texts and materials would be decided within the Department for Education. Unlike you laissez faire system, this would allow MPs in Parliament to directly interrogate DoE officials on controversial materials, both on their own behalf and on behalf their constituents. If sufficient pushback was received, any offending material could be removed nationally, quickly and officially. Your scheme would involve concerned parents removing their children, but leave the rest to indoctrination with whatever extreme material some pink haired, pierced trans ideologue decides to use. It would also add the inconvenience of each school having to publish their particular materials.
If parents dissent they would contact their MPs. However, I am minded, like you, that ultimately parents should be able to withdraw their children from teachings that go beyond uncontroversial factual information and and into dangerous pseudoscience such as trans ideology or explicit discussion of sexual practices beyond the basics.
To a large extent RSHE seems an irrelevance in the modern world of the internet, smartphones and mainstream, pre-watershed tv programmes incorporating “alternative lifestyles” front and centre.
By the time it comes to teaching sex education, these days the kids probably know more than the teachers.

Last edited 8 months ago by Marcus Leach
Lindsay S
Lindsay S
8 months ago
Reply to  Marcus Leach

The classes should be scrapped or at least, parents should be able to opt their children out of them.
schools are not effective replacements for good parenting, at all. If you’re too busy or too scared to parent your own children, then don’t have them. Allow schools to do your job, as a parent, at your Peril!

S Wilkinson
S Wilkinson
8 months ago
Reply to  Marcus Leach

Absolutely. The DfE made the teaching of RSE compulsory, specified a sketchy curriculum including some politically charged elements which schools didn’t feel they had the resources, confidence or ability to deliver and opened the floodgates to external grifters and ideologues (sorry – ‘providers’) with no oversight.

vicki lathom
vicki lathom
8 months ago
Reply to  S Wilkinson

Grifters, sometimes called consultants, are definitely making this harder. They should stay out of schools and schools should intensely vet them before allowing them to come into classrooms and “teach.”

Daniel Lee
Daniel Lee
8 months ago
Reply to  Marcus Leach

The problem is that the people deciding “centrally approved texts and materials” in the schools are just as radical as pressure groups such as Stonewall.

Richard M
Richard M
8 months ago

Before the age of 16, schools should not keep any information about children or what they are being taught from their parents/guardians, aside from situations where there are credible safeguarding concerns like domestic abuse, which need to be reported to the proper authorities.

Children are not the property of the school or the state. While they are minors their upbringing (within the law) is the primary responsibility of their parents/guardians.

As far as SRE goes, adults who talk to children about sex then instruct them not to tell their parents are rightly treated with extreme suspicion in all other walks of life. I see no reason why this should be different in schools just because they call it SRE.

For the record, as someone is bound to accuse me of being a prude, I have two children and never had an issue with them learning about sex, protection, respect for themselves and others in relationships, same sex attraction, gender dysphoria etc. As they’ve grown into teenagers, we discuss these things with them openly at home. But I respect the right of other parents to act differently.

Lindsay S
Lindsay S
8 months ago
Reply to  Richard M

Absolutely! Whilst I appreciate some parents are uncomfortable discussing such matters with their children. There are certain matters which should be left to parents and SRE is one of them! The more we relinquish our responsibilities, as parents, to school, the less respect and authority we have. Parenting is not merely producing children, any idiot can do that. Parenting is the job of raising and guiding our children into adulthood.

vicki lathom
vicki lathom
8 months ago
Reply to  Lindsay S

I’m lost. What is “SRE”?

David Morley
David Morley
8 months ago

What if sex education materials get into the hands of the wrong kind of parents? What about prudish, behind-the-times parents?

The answer to this one is simple: you let them see the materials and then deal with the issues that arise. You do not sneak things in behind parents backs.

This is only a problem for we-know-best people whose strategy for decades has been to sneak things in behind peoples backs.

Dougie Undersub
Dougie Undersub
8 months ago

Once upon a time, schools didn’t attempt sex education. I have vague memories of being introduced to the reproductive organs of the rabbit in 3rd Form biology, that was about it. Amazingly, the human race didn’t die out as a result of our ignorance.

Avro Lanc
Avro Lanc
8 months ago

I wonder if thinking that a person’s skin colour is irrelevant and that woman do not have penises makes me a ‘behind-the-times’ parent….

Aphrodite Rises
Aphrodite Rises
8 months ago
Reply to  Avro Lanc

Without any effort whatsoever, you have become a radical. I guess you exist outside the the range of indoctrination.

Arkadian X
Arkadian X
8 months ago

“Sex ed material”
or
“Sexed material”
I think this difference sums up quite nicely the issue.

And the copyright “problem” is total nonsense. Would you have the same issues with maths or chemistry?

Lindsay S
Lindsay S
8 months ago
Reply to  Arkadian X

Encouraging children to keep secrets from parents is what child abusers do. It’s one of the biggest red flags in safeguarding children. Schools should keep this in mind.

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
8 months ago

Any school that insists in keeping teaching materials secret from parents is no longer engaged in education, but indoctrination.

Hugh Bryant
Hugh Bryant
8 months ago

Education is first and foremost the responsibility of parents, not the state. The alternative is totalitarian.

William Shaw
William Shaw
8 months ago
Reply to  Hugh Bryant

Not just first and foremost.
Education is totally the responsibility of the parents.
Teachers act in loco parentis.

AC Harper
AC Harper
8 months ago

“Schools cannot be the sole authority on gender issues”.
I realise that this is a sub-head but still… there are some headmistresses and a few headmasters that take their ‘in loco parentis’ really, really, seriously. This means that they will apply their values to your children because ‘they know better than you’.
I recall our much younger children bringing home letters about what should and should not be included in packed lunches. Considering the quality of school dinners I thought this was an overreach. We paid no particular attention to it and there was no follow up.
I have to say that more recently schools appear to be getting better, concentrating more on learning and discipline. But perhaps my granddaughter is going to a school with a less authoritarian headmistress?

Sharon Overy
Sharon Overy
8 months ago

How many times has this happened now? At least once a year, a government minister tells the public sector institutions supposedly under their remit that they’re not following the law/rules. They’re ignored because there are no consequences for doing so.

Rinse and repeat.

Steve Grattan
Steve Grattan
8 months ago

As a parent I want to know exactly what is being taught to my children in EVERY subject. The fact that any idea or subject may be withheld from parent’s scrutiny is all we need to know about what is going on. “It’s our little secret” is the ultimate red flag.

Adrian Smith
Adrian Smith
8 months ago

The Bad Law Project is trying to get these lessons as they currently exist abolished altogether:
https://www.badlawproject.com/reclaim-education
PSHE and RSE lessons (Personal, Social, Health and Economic Education; and Relationships and Sex Education) are being used to politically indoctrinate and sexually groom our children into radical lifestyles.This is happening without parental knowledge or consent. Third party providers sell propaganda to schools, which is then used to teach radical ideologies as settled fact. Political indoctrination is against the law, but schools are doing it anyway. Bad Education seeks to challenge this situation by establishing:An advisory panel of experts on PSHEA nationwide parent-teacher associationA public information media campaign

Erik Hildinger
Erik Hildinger
8 months ago

The idea that children are subjects of (or perhaps the property) of the state, and that it is within the power of some state official to determine whether parents are permitted to learn what the state teaches their children is appalling. That transient teachers know better than the parents of their students what is appropriate for them, particularly in view of some of the nonsense taught in teachers colleges, seems facially absurd. In the US the education departments of universities are often called “the slum of the academy.” Should their allies in the government be making important decisions about what children are taught, particularly when the material is quite evidently faddish, subject to change, and often quite opposed to the evidence?

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
8 months ago
Reply to  Erik Hildinger

From my own experiences teaching in both Europe and the United States, schools are entirely mired in group-think. Students are afforded zero agency i.e. their behavior and academic progress is entirely dependent on the ‘skill’ of the teacher. The latest nonsense to come from the teaching college I’m working at is that if a child misbehaves then the whole class should leave until they calm down. Moreover, words like ‘behavior’ and ‘discipline’ tend to be cast in a negative light. When I was studying Critical Race Theory at college, these were seen as racially charged terms reminiscent of the Southern slavery era. Even in Europe, when a teacher mentions that children need more discipline it conjures up images of a black-cloaked cane-wielding school master. Teachers are caught between a rock and a hard place where they have very little in the way of real authority, but are still held completely accountable for their pupils’ behavior and test results.
What this has all meant is that anyone with brains and / or ambitions has been leaving the profession for greener (and richer) pastures. Most teachers, while very well-meaning, tend to make useful idiots. As long as they believe that they are being compassionate and kind you can get them to teach anything. There are some who try to resist, but their efforts are at best quixotic.
I also have a crack-pot theory that education now attracts the kind of people who previously would have gone into the priesthood or joined a convent – people who believe themselves to be devoutly good. Could it be that many of these were attracted to the church in order to suppress their own sexual proclivities but, because organized religion is no longer in vogue, they now go into education and teach these sexual proclivities instead to young children all the while believing that they are good people for doing so?

Last edited 8 months ago by Julian Farrows
Champagne Socialist
Champagne Socialist
8 months ago
Reply to  Julian Farrows

UnHerd’s resident fantasist off on another flight of fancy!

Erik Hildinger
Erik Hildinger
8 months ago

Ipse dixisti!

Erik Hildinger
Erik Hildinger
8 months ago
Reply to  Julian Farrows

Some very interesting speculations.

vicki lathom
vicki lathom
8 months ago
Reply to  Julian Farrows

Very interesting theory. Some would dismiss this out of hand, but from some of the articles I’ve read about the gender ideology being taught in schools, there seems to be a religious tone.

David Morley
David Morley
8 months ago

with a number of resource providers suggesting this would be a breach of copyright law

They could simply have granted schools a limited permission to copy for parents own use.

William Shaw
William Shaw
8 months ago

What’s contained in the educational materials may be visible to parents but what some teachers say in class to brainwash the children is an entirely different matter.
It entirely depends how the material is presented and by whom.
Viewing the material is a small step in the right direction.

Paul T
Paul T
8 months ago

Excessivism caused this problem when progressives didn’t know when to stop.

David Morley
David Morley
8 months ago

Yet in recent years this has been made more complex by the so-called culture war raging over “new” interpretations of sex and gender.

Not at all. The same issue arose over homosexuality. Doubtless before that masturbation was an issue. If it is male and assisted by porn rather than vibrating plastic, doubtless it still is for many. It’s not new. This has always been a battleground.

It’s just that certain ideologues are happy with the change they pushed in the past, but not with the change that is being pushed now. For them this is only a problem now because they suddenly find themselves on the side of the resistance rather than the promoters.

Paul T
Paul T
8 months ago
Reply to  David Morley

No, progressivism must have a limit and that limit is what was initially demanded; the least that could be expected. It should not go any further. So for sex education it was demanded that information should be thorough, honest, complete and not shameful. Once all that was achieved further demands should have fallen away – or been ignored.
To say that parents and society, having agreed to what was achieved have now become reactionaries is an unhelpful, silly and really quite shallow claim.

David Morley
David Morley
8 months ago
Reply to  Paul T

LOL – because everything up to and including your own opinion is progress: everything beyond that is decline.

And society did not agree without a struggle.

Paul T
Paul T
8 months ago
Reply to  David Morley

Your words, your projection.

John Tyler
John Tyler
8 months ago

Well said!

S Wilkinson
S Wilkinson
8 months ago

Everybody seems to have ignored the rights of parents as stipulated by the European Convention on Human Rights.

In the Guide to Article 2 of Protocol 1 Right to Education it clearly states
“In the exercise of any functions which it assumes in relation to education and to teaching, the State shall respect the right of parents to ensure such education and teaching in conformity with their own religious and philosophical convictions.”

Obviously this is not as straightforward as it might appear, but it seems to me that much of the overreach of RSE beyond what most people would consider necessary or appropriate (gender ideology, BDSM practices, pornified sex as normal etc etc) could be challenged by parents using the above.

Daniel Lee
Daniel Lee
8 months ago

“What if they don’t like what they see, and then kick up a fuss?”
It’s every parent’s right to kick up a fuss if they don’t like what they see. Then in a correctly operating marketplace of ideas, they will either be supported or not. It says volumes that radical teachers want to keep that marketplace either closed or stocked only with their own ideas.

Eleanor Barlow
Eleanor Barlow
8 months ago

Even Stonewall isn’t as dangerous as those Islam fundamentalists who threaten death to any teacher who dares to present an alternative view to their religion.