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Balls denies watering down sex education bill

By Channel 4 News

Updated on 23 February 2010

Children's Secretary Ed Balls insists he is not "watering down" new plans to make sex education compulsory in all schools in England and Wales, calling it an "overdue and radical change".

North Cheshire Jewish Primary School pupils (Getty)

The controversy lies with an amendment Mr Balls has tabled to his own children, schools and families bill, which completes its final passage through the Commons today.

The bill requires state schools to teach all students aged between five and 16 about contraception - and explain relationship issues like civil partnerships and divorce. The lessons must encourage diversity and equality, and must not promote homophobia. Teaching must be "accurate and balanced" and reflect a range of perspectives.

And parents will not be able to withdraw their children from such lessons once they reach 15.

The amendment would let faith schools effectively opt out of sex and relationship issues that do not fit within the context of their beliefs, say critics, who claim it will "completely undermine" that part of the bill.

Mr Balls insisted today that there would be "no opt out for any faith school from teaching the full, broad, balanced curriculum", but he said that Catholic schools, for example, would be able to tell pupils that they believed contraception was wrong.

The British Humanist Association is furious, pointing out that the Catholic Education Service of England and Wales said it was their lobbying which won the change of heart.

The BHA claimed the amendment could lead to "subjective and narrow teaching", which would have a "grossly negative impact on vulnerable young people".

The Liberal Democrats' schools spokesman, David Laws, said it would allow faith schools to be "tolerant of intolerance in the name of religious freedom".

According to the most recent government statistics, there are currently just under 7,000 faith state schools in England, covering well over a million pupils -  the vast majority of them in primary rather than secondary schools.

Some 4,500 are Church of England, with around 2,000 Roman Catholic Schools. There are just over 100 aligned to another Christian faith, while 38 are Jewish, nine Muslim and three are Sikh.

But even though the number of new faith schools is rising, there is still considerable public unease towards them. Three quarters of people in a recent poll felt that all state-funded schools should teach an "objective and balanced syllabus" and should not be allowed to discriminate against any potential employees on the grounds of their beliefs.

And a report by the gay rights group Stonewall in 2009 found that "gay pupils in faith schools are more likely to experience homophobic bullying than their peers in non-faith schools". Some teachers, it said, claimed that the beliefs of the school or their pupils could be a barrier to tackling homophobia or explaining lesbian and gay issues in class.

Most recently, those who claim religious freedom is an issue welcomed a judgement by the Supreme Court. In December last year, they ruled that a Jewish school could not refuse entry to a boy who did not meet its definition of an "orthodox Jew" - because his mother had converted.

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