Parents in Wales will soon lose the right to withdraw their children from lessons on sex and relationships or religion, provoking concern among both church groups and secular campaigners.
Kirsty Williams, the Welsh education minister, confirmed the plans – part of the government’s overhaul of relationships and sexuality education (RSE) and religious education – but said they would require “careful and sensitive” implementation after the government’s public consultation revealed strong feelings.
Williams said the decision “ensures that all pupils will learn about issues such as online safety and healthy relationships” in state schools, and pledged to take into account the views expressed in the consultation.
“I recognise this is a sensitive matter and the consultation responses reflected strong and deeply-held concerns. These went further than the question of right to withdraw itself and extended to the appropriate role of the state in education on these matters,” Williams said.
The Terrence Higgins Trust welcomed the decision, saying it had campaigned for compulsory lessons for nearly four decades.
“By guaranteeing access to relationships and sexuality education lessons for all pupils, Wales is leading the way,” said Debbie Laycock, head of policy at the HIV and sexual health charity.
“Until now far too many young people have learned about sex through whispers in the playground. This decision by the Welsh government will go some way to fixing this.
“It’s absolutely vital lessons are LGBT+ inclusive and have a strong focus on HIV and sexual health so all young people have the knowledge they need to form healthy and fulfilling relationships.”
Some religious and secular groups were less enthusiastic at the loss of rights for parents, with Welsh humanists warning that it could be unlawful.
“International case law shows that jurisdictions that do away with the right to withdraw end up being found in breach of the human right to freedom of religion or belief, as it leads to young people being indoctrinated against their or their parents’ wishes,” said Kathy Riddick, the coordinator for Wales Humanists.
A number of religious and church groups reported concerns to the government’s consultation, which suggested renaming the religious education lessons as “religion, values and ethics” and widening the curriculum to include different religions and humanism.
Most Christian groups “strongly opposed” the ending of the parental right to withdraw their children from RSE classes, according to the consultation summary, with some warning that it could lead to parents deciding to home-school in response.
“There were concerns that the values of the state would dominate and could change with the political mood, leaving parents with no ability to prevent their child from being ‘indoctrinated’ in ways they do not approve,” the consultation reported.
There are more than 200 Christian faith schools in Wales, but headteachers across the country were broadly supportive, according to the National Association of Head Teachers Cymru, which described the subjects as “too important for young people to miss”.
The new relationships and sexuality education curriculum would be drawn up over the next two years, Williams said. It would encompass primary school pupils learning about family relationships, friendships and kindness up to the age of seven, followed by lessons on gender equality, respectful relationships and online safety between the ages of seven and 11.
At secondary school the lessons are to include sexuality, consent, rights and equity, as well as reproduction, with lessons on sexual health following at an “appropriate stage,” the Welsh government said.
In England, relationships lessons in primary schools and sex education in secondary schools will be compulsory from September. Parents in England will still be able to withdraw their children from sex education classes until the age of 15.