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Out of control sex “education” in Scottish Catholic schools; background to the Stenzel Horrors

The underlying problem is that factual information about sex is, in Scottish Catholic schools, delivered under the Religious Education heading as part of the “Called to Love” module of sexual health and relationships education (SHRE), and tailored to suit Church doctrine, not scientific or educational reality.

A Scottish Parliamentary report, described here in Friday’s TESS, refers to “worrying” comments from NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde that Catholic schools had prevented NHS officials from scrutinising their SHRE.

In the words of the Scottish Qualifications Authority (I asked them), Religious Education in Scottish Catholic schools “is set out in statute with the Catholic Education Commission having responsibility for the faith content of the curriculum on behalf of the Bishops’ Conference of Scotland.  Religious education in Catholic schools takes place within the context of the wider Catholic faith community, in partnership with home and parish, and as part of the school curriculum’s Experiences and Outcomes.”

So there are no checks and balances. If it chooses (and it does so choose) the Bishop’s Conference can decide that agnosticism and atheism are not to be discussed as real options on a par with religious faiths. Even worse, it seems that the Bishop’s Conference can and does dictate the factual content of SHRE regarding human sexuality, refuses to even discuss the matter with NHS officials, and feels (and is) at liberty to override explicit Scottish Government guidance, when that guidance says (here and here) that

All young people must be given advice on “safe sex” and how to avoid or limit their exposure to infection. Young couples are encouraged to use a method of contraception and condoms to protect against transmission of infections.

and

a condom … prevents your partner(s) becoming infected with HIV, hepatitis and other sexually transmitted infections such as chlamydia, syphilis, gonorrhea and herpes

This leads to such horrific episodes as Pam Stenzel’s school visit in Paisley last month. I reported on this earlier, and have now heard back from the Local Authority in response to my Freedom of Information request. The visit has also been the subject of a story in today’s TESS, and I am happy to have been able to supply some if the information used there. If happy is the right word; we shouldn’t have to keep fighting against reality-denying nonsense in our schools, whether that nonsense is about creationism or about chlamydia.

Tomorrow, I am going to the Edinburgh Secular Society conference in Edinburgh where I will be talking about both those issues. On Sunday, I will post here the full response of Renfrewshire Council to my Freedom of Information request. There you will see, among other things, that the school who invited Ms Stenzel did not know about the highly questionable quality of her academic qualifications, that it regards nonsense claims she made as “contentious” when in fact they are downright wrong, and that her talk (filmed for future use) is in any case justified because it fits in with the overall message about being good.

More later.

Religion and Creationism in Schools: England, Scotland, and the US

In the US, the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment is generally agreed, despite the ravings of a few noisy radical revisionists, to imply that no Government-run institution, such as a public school, can advocate a religion or sponsor any kind of religious observance.

In the UK, the very opposite is the case (I would like to hear from readers about how this matter is handled in other countries). Schools are actually required to incorporate both Religious Education and Religious Observance into their timetables. Religious Observance means, in general, a school assembly with hymns and prayers, and may also include taking part in church services, and visits from ministers of religion. Religious Education, in theory at least, is something entirely different – a faith-neutral liberal arts subject, explaining without proselytising what the contents are of the world’s main religions, and how they respond to philosophical scrutiny. In practice, the teaching tends to be heavily weighted towards Christianity, which is perhaps well justified given Western cultural traditions. Less justifiable is a tendency to assume that Christianity is true, a difficult problem to avoid when most of those who opt to teach the subject will themselves be believers. There is also a very specific problem in primary schools, where the boundaries between different subjects is blurred, and where children hearing, for example, the story of Noah’s Ark will not know whether it belongs alongside the story of Little Red Riding Hood, or of dinosaurs, or somewhere else altogether.

In principle, parents (or, above a certain level, pupils) have the right to withdraw from Religious Observance and/or Religious Education. Reality on the ground is more complicated, if only because of bureaucratic hurdles, and the entire Religious Observance system is coming under increased critical scrutiny. I will report further on this as events unfold.

As a result of these different attitudes towards religion in schools, the tactics adopted by creationists in the US and  the UK are diametrically opposed (I discussed this on pandasthumb a couple of years ago). American creationists claim to be teaching the best available science, and support this claim by describing parallel universes, in which (for example) the fossil record is full of inexplicable gaps, while the Grand Canyon is readily explainable in terms of Noah’s flood. Pandering politicians then claim to be exposing schoolchildren to the best available science, or educating them by exposure to a concocted controversy. In England, officially at least, the authorities are having none of it. After some close questioning, in which I am proud to have played a part, the Education Secretary was pressured into describing himself as “crystal clear that teaching creationism is at odds with scientific fact”, and the Department of Education also clearly states in its materials that it recognises Intelligent Design as a variety of creationism.

None of this, however, affects what happens in Religious Education, as long as it doesn’t claim to be science. So creationists in England, trying to smuggle their material into schools, will find it much easier if they can do so in the name of teaching about religion. This is a growing problem, in view of the current Government policy of establishing schools free from local authority control, many of them run by groups with religious affiliations. Then the way is open for pupils to be taught evolution as an examination requirement, while also hearing it that it is in conflict with the school’s preferred interpretation of Christianity, or (a recently emerging problem in England) that it is un-Koranic.

In Scotland, the situation is different again. Education is “devolved”, meaning that it is the responsibility of the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh, rather than the UK Parliament at Westminster. Evolution is in the syllabus, but when it comes to creationism and Intelligent Design the Scottish Qualifications Authority has repeatedly ignored calls from teachers and others requesting guidance similar to that on offer in England. The stated reason, incredibly, is that no such guidance is necessary, because creationism is not a problem in Scottish schools.[1] As for the actual motivation, that requires a little knowledge of the present state of Scottish society. Growing numbers of Scots, especially younger Scots, have no religious affiliation, and secular marriages (in Registry Offices, or carried out by recognized Humanist celebrants) outnumber religious marriages. On the other hand, Biblical literalism retains its hold in some areas, especially the Highlands and Islands, where a former Moderator of the Free Church of Scotland (not to be confused with the Church of Scotland, nor with the Free Presbyterian Church, or others with almost identical names) continues to describe evolution as “dangerous pseudoscience”. Scottish politics is in a state of flux, with the collapse of support for the Westminster coalition parties and an upcoming referendum on total independence, so the Education Minister in Edinburgh doesn’t want to upset anyone. But if he lets his civil servants says anything on the topic, someone is bound to be upset, and his only escape is to pretend that nothing needs to be said.

More later.


[1] SQA to me, 4 Nov 2010: “There is no evidence from HMIE [Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Education] school inspections or other sources to suggest that creationism or ID is currently being taught in schools in Scotland.”

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