By Catherine Bryan, Assistant Director, Catholic Education Service
It isn’t easy being a young person in 2018. What with social media, mobile phones with unlimited access to the internet and the 24-hour celebrity news cycle, young people are faced with challenges even their slightly older contemporaries didn’t have to comprehend.
The question facing the Catholic Church now, is how we respond to and protect our young people from the potentially dangerous effects of these facts of modern life? Do we bury our heads in the sand, or do we tackle the issue head on? We must do the latter.
What’s more, this is an issue that will not go away. The Department for Education and the Welsh Assembly have set a clear direction of travel, that this is an area which is going to receive more attention. Indeed, we have seen recently, a clear commitment to compulsory Relationship and Sex Education (RSE) in Wales and we await the outcome of the DfE’s consultation response to their RSE agenda.
Throughout its long history, the Church, whilst always remaining true to the teachings of Christ, has also adapted its pastoral response to the needs of its flock. Now, in the internet age, it needs to do so especially with regards to Relationship and Sex Education and our Catholic schools are best placed to support parents with this incredibly important task.
For those not involved in education, attention-grabbing headlines about RSE can lead to a false impression of what the subject is actually about. Therefore, we need to set the record straight and debunk the myths around it, because ultimately, in an increasingly dangerous world, RSE is about keeping young people safe.
It is also about teaching young people what a healthy relationship looks like so that as they develop and grow they can make the right choices when faced with a range of challenges. What RSE is not about is pushing a particular agenda or promoting secular attitudes over the teachings of the Church. It is about dealing with the real-life issues young people face and providing practical and compassionate pastoral guidance.
Neither is it all about sex.
Sex education does play a role in preparing young people for adult life but unless it is situated within the broader context of relationship education, it is a fruitless exercise. The model Catholic RSE curriculum recognises this and puts the formation of healthy and loving relationships at its core. This has now been more widely recognised and acknowledged as the national focus has shifted from Sex and Relationship Education to Relationship and Sex Education. A subtle difference, reinforcing the importance of healthy relationships in order to protect young people from potentially dangerous relationships.
People are often surprised when they hear that the Catholic school sector is the only one in the country with a comprehensive and age-appropriate RSE curriculum from 3yrs to 19yrs. The reason for this? Catholic education centres around the formation of the whole child, and teaching a young person how to build and maintain healthy relationships is an essential part of forming rounded individuals.
This is why, when the Government announced last year that it intended to make RSE statutory, the Catholic Education Service (CES) publicly welcomed this commitment to improve the quality and provision of RSE in all schools. And we did so, because Catholic schools already recognise the importance of this and teach high quality RSE as part of the holistic education which seeks to form as well as inform young people in preparation for adult life. We also welcomed it because the Government sought to protect parents’ rights, as well as the ability for Catholic schools to approach RSE within the context of Church teaching.
The CES has a strong relationship with the Department for Education and we have been working closely with them to ensure that any statutory requirements are appropriate for Catholic schools. The first and most important being protection of the right of parents to be able to withdraw their child from sex education. Parents have the primary responsibility of teaching their children how to form loving relationships and Catholic schools are there to assist them with this. Therefore, if a parent feels best placed to deliver some of the more sensitive elements of sex education outside the classroom, they have the right to do so and this is something the Government remains committed to.
The reality is, however, that very few parents choose to do this because the vast majority of Catholic schools closely involve parents with the delivery of their RSE programmes. The most recent Catholic schools census found that just 0.01% of parents with children in a Catholic school exercise their right of withdrawal. Of more than 850,000 pupils in Catholic schools, that is the equivalent of just one pupil in every 7,800.
It is also important to note that schools with a religious character will still be able to teach RSE within the tenants and traditions of their respective faiths. For Catholic schools, this means that we can remain faithful to the Church’s vision of human wholeness, whilst at the same time ensuring that young people are given the factual information and equipped to make informed life choices.
And they need to be able to make informed life choices because of the very real dangers out there. Online grooming, inappropriate social media use, sexting and pornography are all examples or products of unhealthy relationships, and, unless we show children how to recognise the above as dangerous, we are failing them in the long term. This must of course be done in an age appropriate way, but it is something which does need to start early on in a young person’s development.
Our Catholic values are grounded in forgiveness, compassion and mercy. To deny young people an education in this area would be to deny these core values rooted in the Gospel and Church teaching, and leave them unprotected in an increasingly dangerous world. This would be the greatest tragedy of all.