BY MADELEINE TEAHAN AND ED WEST
CATHOLIC SCHOOLS must teach pupils where to access an abortion, Schools Secretary Ed Balls has said.
Mr Balls was speaking hours before a crucial vote on a Bill that would introduce sex and relationships education for children as young as five and forbid parents from removing their children from sex education classes once they turned 15.
The Bill, which was passed by 268 votes to 177 and now goes to the House of Lords, is strongly supported by the Catholic Education Service (CES), which last week hailed an amendment to the Bill that it said it had secured after “extensive lobbying”.
The BBC described the CES as having “gone to ground” before the debate but it re-emerged on Wednesday morning with a statement claiming that the Bill safeguarded the rights of Catholic schools.
The CES said: “The governing bodies and head teachers of voluntary aided schools are required to conduct their schools in accordance with their Instrument of Government and the Trust Deed under which they operate. The provisions of the amendment will enable schools with a religious character to fulfil these requirements in the teaching of Personal, Social, Health and Economic (PSHE) Education, which includes Sex and Relationships Education (SRE).
“The teaching of all aspects of the curriculum in Catholic schools reflects their religious ethos. In the same way, the SRE in Catholic schools will be rooted in the Catholic Church’s teaching of the profound respect for the dignity of all human persons.” But the statement did not directly address the question of whether Catholic schools will be forced to teach girls where to obtain an abortion.
Fr Tim Finigan, a parish priest and blogger in Blackfen, Kent, said: “Catholic schools cannot give information about how to access the local abortion clinic since this would be formal co-operation in a grave evil.” The controversy over the sex education Bill was reignited last Friday when the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF) issued a press release responding to secular lobby groups that were critical of the amendment obtained by the CES.
The statement explained that from September 2011 schools with a religious character will no longer be able to opt out of statutory PSHE and SRE lessons. It used the example of St Thomas More, a Catholic secondary school in Bedford, to illustrate how the new provisions would work. The DCSF claimed that the school taught pupils about various “pregnancy options, including abortion” in a “non-judgmental way” as well as “the spectrum of proand antichoice views”.
The school issued a statement on Tuesday saying its lessons were underpinned by Church teaching on the sanctity of human life.
It said: “As an outstanding Catholic school, the teachers at St Thomas More deliver high-quality SRE which is reflective of the school’s Catholic ethos ... placing such information in the context of the Catholic faith. The school follows the Edexcel RE GCSE course, but the teaching takes place resting on the profound respect found in the Catholic faith for the sanctity of all human life.” On Tuesday morning Ed Balls gave an interview to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme in which he again insisted that the amendment did not “water down” the Bill.
He said: “If you are currently a Catholic school... you could choose to teach only to children that contraception is wrong, homosexuality is wrong. That changes radically with this Bill.
“A Catholic faith school can say to their pupils: ‘We believe as a re ligion contraception is wrong.’ But what they can’t do is therefore say that they are not going to teach contraception to children, how to access contraception, or how to use contraception. What this changes is that for the first time these schools cannot just ignore these issues or teach only one side of the argument.
“They also have to teach that there are different views on homosexuality. They cannot teach homophobia. They must explain civil partnerships. They must give a balanced view on abortion. They must give both sides of the argument. They must explain how to access an abortion. The same is true on contraception as well.” He added: “To have the support of the Catholic Church and Archbishop Nichol [sic] in these changes is, I think, very, very important, is a huge step forward.” The interview sparked outrage among Catholics opposed to the Bill. Antonia Tully, a mother of six school-age children and coordinator of the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children’s Safe at School campaign, said: “We beg Archbishop Nichols and other religious leaders to back parents, whether Catholic or of other faiths, who refuse to allow their children to be subjected to what the Government Bill demands.
“Archbishop Nichols must say whether schools should do what Ed Balls demands: tell their children how to access abortion and where to get and how to use contraception. Or will the Archbishop tell schools to resist – even though they may risk legal action, losing Ofsted accreditation or even losing hard-won state funding?” John Bowers QC, a leading employment barrister, said the Bill would result in a “radical appropriation of power by central government, enabling them to dictate teaching on a matter over which many parents have strongly held moral or religious convictions”.
Meanwhile, the leading Dominican theologian Fr Aidan Nichols has called for a “radical” reduction in the number of Catholic schools in the state sector. Writing in The Catholic Herald this week, he argues that the Church cannot currently ensure the Catholicity of all its schools.
“My suggestion therefore is this,” he writes, “ought we not, for the sake of making the best use of our resources, radically to reduce the number of our schools in the state sector so as to concentrate on deepening the Catholicity of a realistic number, rather than seeing, as at present, the Catholicity of the total number ever more attenuated?” On Wednesday, Ed Balls admitted that the Government was likely to miss its target of reducing teenage pregnancy by 50 per cent compared to 1998 figures by 2010.
He said: “It was a really ambitious target – it was a 50 per cent fall. I think it was right to set an ambitious target and it is going to be really hard to make that amount of fall.” But he added that the latest figures out this week would show “the lowest rate of teenage pregnancies for well over a decade”.
He said there had been a 10 per cent fall in conceptions and a 20 per cent fall in births.
“This has been really successful,” he said. “But it is not enough. I’m still worried about it and there is a lot more to do.”