Blair's attempts to 'modernize' sex education backfire

Britain's prime minister gives education leaders two weeks to prepare

When it comes to sex education, what schools should, and should not tell children is virtually guaranteed to spark controversy.

So it comes as no surprise that an effort by British Prime Minister Tony Blair's earnestly modern government to change teaching guidelines set under Conservative predecessor Margaret Thatcher appears to have backfired.

The fact that Mr. Blair's Cabinet includes three openly gay ministers has added fodder to the opposition Conservatives' contention that the government is now furthering a "homosexual agenda."

The furor started last week, when Blair said he plans to push through a bill that would abolish the Thatcher law that bans promoting homosexuality in schools.

In explaining the move, the prime minister said many organizations dealing with children had told him that the 1988 law "inhibited people, and sometimes teachers, from doing their jobs properly in explaining to children the facts of life." He added that the law also prevented teachers from dealing with cases in which actual or perceived gay pupils were subject to "homophobic bullying."

But Blair and his ministers clearly failed to anticipate the wave of criticism - some of it from their own advisers. Chris Woodhead, the government's chief inspector of schools, condemned the bid to change the law.

Mr. Woodhead said last week that there was no evidence the existing law had "a negative influence." In the many school visits he had made around Britain, no head teacher had ever told him the ban on promoting homosexuality was a matter of concern, he said.

Woodhead's comments were a blow to Blair. As chief inspector, he has a unique overview of British schools.

The Thatcher government introduced the banning provision, known as Section 28 of the Local Government Act, in response to concerns that left-wing local councils, which were responsible for the running of state schools in their areas, were allowing pupils to be indoctrinated with homosexual propaganda.

For example, teachers in some parts of Britain were using a book, "Jenny Lives with Eric and Martin," about two gay men raising a young girl, in sex education classes. Section 28 outlawed the use of such texts. Its repeal would permit their use.

A video, paid for by the Avon Health Authority, is already causing a stir. The video, reportedly being shown in 180 private schools, portrays a college student advising school children to "try experimenting with both boys and girls" in order to work out their own sexual orientation.

Such prospects led Archbishop George Carey, leader of the Church of England, to urge Blair to "think again" about the repeal of Section 28. Jonathan Sacks, Britain's chief rabbi said the proposal to abolish it was "based on a fundamental confusion between tolerance and moral judgment".

It was at this point that the prime minister called on Education Secretary David Blunkett to consult urgently with church and religious leaders and prepare guidelines promoting family values. The guidelines are expected within two weeks.

"The new guidance will clearly state that sex and relationships education should be firmly rooted in a framework for personal, social, and health education," says an Education Department source. "It will set out that children should be taught about the importance and nature of married and family life."

But under pressure from his party's left wing, Blair instructed Labour parliamentarians to back the bill - or face the Commons' most severe form of discipline.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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