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Should parents have the right to withdraw pupils from Relationships and Sex Education?

By Mark Richards,

24 Jan 2020

The DfE (Department for Education) rarely introduces anything that doesn’t attract a good deal of criticism.

Education is such a hot potato and any new guidance or initiative quickly becomes a political football to be kicked around by all the stakeholders of education, regardless of who the government of the day is.

However, it’s not often that a proposal causes so much controversy or sparks such a heated and passionate debate as the recent government overhaul of Relationships and Sex Education has. Among the many questions that have been raised since the new proposals were published is the question of whether parents should have the right to withdraw pupils from Relationships and Sex Education (RSE) classes. The right of parents to withdraw their children has been retained The overhaul of Relations and Sex education is long overdue.

It’s the first proper update in two decades and the world and our perceptions of relationships have moved on considerably in that time.

The status of the LGBT community has been greatly enhanced in recent years.

Most people would admit there is still a long way to go, but – in general – we live in a much more inclusive world than we did 20 years ago – a world where diversity and equality is encouraged and promoted, if not always completely reached. Indeed, the new Relationships and Sex Education proposals have received much praise from many quarters.

The proposals have been hailed as an important aspect of preparing young people for the 21st century. And, although there are many changes and updates contained within the proposals, one thing remains the same – parents still have the right to withdraw their children from Relationships and Sex education lessons if they see fit – at least until three-terms before a child’s 16th birthday. Schools must respect parents’ request to withdraw 'except in exceptional circumstances' The right of parents to withdraw their children has been one of the most contentious issues raised by the new proposals.

Some see it as something of a cop-out on the government’s part and have expressed concern that many pupils will potentially miss out on a highly important aspect of their education.

On the flipside, others have expressed fears that Relationships and Sex education curriculum promotes an agenda that is at odds with particular religious faiths. There is also a lack of clarity around schools needing to respect the wishes of parents 'except in exceptional circumstances'.

There has been little explanation of what actually constitutes these ‘exceptional circumstances’, and the DfE has recently announced that it will be issuing further guidance about this. Is there a solution in sight? To put it bluntly, it would appear that there is little sign of a solution being found to all the different arguments that are raging about Relationships and Sex education.

Rightly or wrongly, it’s one of those issues that it is always going to be hard to find consensus and common ground on. Part of the problem is that it goes beyond differences in religious beliefs – or the actual content of the proposals. Many people simply take issue with the level of influence that the new proposals give to schools.

The argument is that ‘the school’ – or in effect ‘the state’ is now leading and controlling the conversation.

For some, this is a step too far and an idea that some sections of the community will always take exception too.


1- Government issues new guidelines on Relations and Sex education

2- UK overhauls Relationships and Sex education for primary and secondary school students

3- The mobile phone in schools Debate rumbles on