I recently reposted an article from my old blog. In that article, I discuss the idea that teaching students about something is not the same as promoting it and I gave the example that learning about Winston Churchill may cause you to be more critical of him than you might be by just absorbing a view from popular culture.
There are two controversies in Australian education that might benefit from being examined in this way. Recently, there has been a furore about the Safe Schools program; an issue that links more broadly to the issue of sex education. This bubbles along at the same time that students in government schools are being exposed to a religious instruction programme implemented by advocates of faith groups rather than teachers.
It is absolutely critical that students get good sex education. As a science teacher who isn’t particularly squeamish, I’ve often been called upon to teach sex education throughout my career. The concern of conservative politicians that sex education promotes early sexual encounters is both ludicrous and besides the point. Sex is an important area of life that children should have a right to know about.
Teachers carefully and sensitively deliver sex education courses that teach about pregnancy, sexually transmitted disease and issues of sexuality, as well as answering students questions along the way. As an assistant headteacher in London, I used to teach a group of a Year 8 boys about sex in their personal, social and health education session. The rule was that nobody was allowed to personalise anything; no stories about themselves or other individuals and no personal questions. And there was a box on a side table where students could post questions anonymously.
There is a pressing need for sex education. Parents often aren’t well informed – in fact it is the children of parents who would wish to withdraw them from sex education that I am most worried about and this is a good reason to make it compulsory in state schools. And, like it or not, children will be exposed to pornography and this represents a twisted and often disrespectful view of sexual relationships. At least sex education can do something to redress the balance.
When I taught in the U.K., I assumed that the model of religious education that I encountered there was the norm. Indeed it was the kind that I had as a child. It can be delivered badly, of course; lots of colouring-in or making posters. However, the principle is sound. The purpose is to learn about the world’s major religions, what adherents believe and how they express their faith.
In a connected world and in a society where many faiths coexist, it is essential that children have a basic understanding of the beliefs of others. Not only does it serve this more instrumental purpose but it also gives some background knowledge that helps interpret current and historical events. It is at the core of the core knowledge that children should be taught.
It is absurd that, in places of education where a premium is placed on thinking critically about ideas, we should have religious instruction taught by faith groups with an interest in promoting their particular religion and in growing it with young people. Parents may send their kids to faith groups outside of school time if they wish but the idea that government schools funded by taxpayer dollars should have anything to do with this is just bizarre.
End this nonsense now and replace it with proper religious education.