What is the Tory government so afraid is being taught in school sex education classes?

Gillian Keegan pictured against an edited background showing a blackboard with drawings of hearts and rainbow flags.

You could be forgiven for thinking that sex education should be a relatively settled matter – and yet, in the UK, it’s anything but.

The Tory government has once again pushed the issue into the news cycle, with education secretary Gillian Keegan writing to schools to make it clear that parents have the right to see the sex-education materials available to their children.

Keegan’s letter might seem relatively innocuous when taken by itself, but the move is part of a wider push within the Conservative Party to stop certain topics being discussed in the classroom.

In September 2020, sex education seemed like it might finally become a settled matter. That month, relationships and health education became compulsory in all schools, and sex education became mandatory in secondary schools.

By March 2023, the government’s resolve started to wane – and it all kicked off thanks to Tory MP Miriam Cates.

The anti-trans MP stood up in parliament and presented what she described as a “dossier of evidence” to prime minister Rishi Sunak on the “graphic lessons” that young people were receiving during sex-education classes.

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The issue was that Britain’s young people were learning about oral sex, how to choke their partners safely, and being told there are “72 genders”, the MP for Penistone and Stocksbridge, in Yorkshire and the Humber region, alleged.

“Across the country children are being subjected to lessons that are age inappropriate, extreme, sexualising and inaccurate, often using resources from unregulated organisations that are actively campaigning to undermine parents,” she claimed.

Cates, who has only been an MP since 2019, called on the prime minister to commission an independent inquiry into what she described as a “safeguarding scandal”.

The Department for Education (DfE) promptly announced a review. In a statement, officials said there had been “disturbing reports” of “inappropriate material” being taught, and Keegan proclaimed that she was “deeply concerned” by some of the topics being discussed.

Anti-trans groups gave sex education advice to government

And in recent months. disinformation has grown concerning sex education in UK schools.

In one incident on the Isle of Man, school staff faced death threats when it was reported that a drag queen had taught a sex-education class which featured “graphic photos” and had asked a pupil to leave the room when they said there were “only two genders”.

An investigation found almost all the allegations were false: no one was dressed in drag and no pupil was asked to leave.

In May, various groups presented oral evidence on sex education to the government’s Women and Equalities Committee. Anti-trans and anti-drag organisations were among those who took part.

In one of the lowest points of the session, Tanya Carter, a spokeswoman for Safe Schools Alliance UK, claimed gay and lesbian pupils were being encouraged to change their gender.

“I’m incredibly concerned about what children who would grow up to be gay and lesbian are exposed to these days not only online, but in schools,” she said.

Labour MP Kate Osborne later said some of the claims made during the review did not paint “a true picture of what our children are actually hearing and learning in schools”.

Even as the government draft new guidance on the issue, it appears nobody is clear on what is currently being taught in schools and what should be taught.

All we know is that Cates believes there is “indoctrination” in classrooms – and she wants the government to clamp down on what young people are learning.

Meanwhile, the government has not yet issued any updated guidance. In its most recent update, the DfE promised the long-awaited document would be available “later this year”.

Until that’s published, there will be uncertainty within schools – and among parents – on exactly what the issue is, and why it needs to be changed.

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