Schools, sex and religion

A Freedom of Information request from Paul Braterman, a leading Scottish secularist and Honorary Senior Research Fellow, University of Glasgow, to the Headteacher at St Andrew’s Academy in Paisley raises serious issues on sex education in Scotland.

 

Pamela Stenzel, an American evangelical Christian and sex campaigner, visited St Andrew’s Academy on May 8, 2013, and addressed an audience including some 200 pupils from St Andrew’s and various other local schools, advocating abstinence before marriage as the only effective alternative to teenage pregnancy and STDs.

 

One result of the visit has been an intervention by Nicky Coia of Greater Glasgow and Clyde Health Board.  “I wanted to alert you that a school in one of our local authorities has recently brought in Pam Stenzel,” he said. “We are raising the matter with the local authority.”

 

That intervention has brought a sharp rejoinder from the Scottish Catholic Education Service’s Michael McGrath: “NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde has no locus to decide whom Catholic schools invite to speak,” he said. “It’s for the schools to invite speakers and for parents to decide if they want their children to attend, which is what happened in this case.”

 

Professor Braterman’s FOI questions include requests for information on the funding of the event and on whether the publicity for the event made it clear that attendance by pupils was voluntary.

 

He has also asked whether the school was aware that Ms Stenzel claims inaccurately that 30% of all sexually transmitted diseases including gonorrhea are incurable and life-long, and that abortion leads to an increased risk of depression.

Perhaps most pointedly Professor Braterman asks if the school was aware that by giving the impression that condoms are largely ineffective in preventing the spread of AIDS and STDs, the talk was in direct contradiction of official Scottish Government advice, that “all young people must be given advice on safe sex”, on how to avoid or limit their exposure to infection and that young people should “use a condom that carries the British Kite Mark or European CE safety mark during sex. This prevents your partner(s) becoming infected with HIV, hepatitis and other sexually transmitted infections such as chlamydia, syphilis, gonorrhea and herpes.”

The issue at stake, accurately identified by Michael McGrath, is whether denominational schools have a right, a duty as they would perceive it, to refuse to follow government advice on sex education if that advice is contrary to the beliefs of the denomination.

Only a few weeks after the submission of the FOI questions and the intervention of Greater Glasgow and Clyde NHS, the Scottish Parliament’s Health and Sport Committee has recommended that contraception should to be easily accessible and young people ‘friendly’ as one element of a strategy to counter the levels of teenage pregnancy in Scotland.  The Committee specifically states that high quality, comprehensive sexual health and relationships education (SHRE) combined with easily accessible young people-friendly contraception services are key elements in the drive to reduce rates of teenage pregnancy.  It also believes that schemes such as the C Card Scheme, which makes condoms available at a range of venues to 13-24 year olds at no cost, make an important contribution to ensuring contraception is easily accessible to young people.

 

Such an approach is certain to be resisted by the Roman Catholic Church and indeed by evangelical Protestants and certain other religious groups.  The issue for government however will be how to react to the Catholic Church’s insistence that publicly-funded RC schools should follow church policy and not government policy on such matters.

 

At the time of writing, Professor Braterman’s FOI questions remain unanswered.

 

The above article was first published in Holyrood Magazine on 1 July 2013.

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