Gillian Keegan accused of ‘inflaming controversy’ over sex education teaching

 (PA Wire)
(PA Wire)

Unions have accused the Education Secretary of “inflaming controversy” around sex education and unfairly criticising schools.

School leaders’ unions wrote to Gillian Keegan to say it was “desperately disappointing” that she had chosen to “denigrate” schools “in pursuit of a headline”.

Their letter referred to a press release issued this week about correspondence being sent to schools to make clear they should provide parents with access to relationships, sex and health education (RSHE) curriculum materials, and to parents, telling them they have the right to know what their children are seeing and being taught in the classroom.

It is desperately disappointing that you, as the Secretary of State for Education - the very person who should be standing up for schools - instead chooses to denigrate them in pursuit of a headline

Letter from education unions

In a statement, Ms Keegan used the phrase “no ifs, no buts and no more excuses” as she said the Government was “acting to guarantee parents’ fundamental right to know what their children are being taught”.

But, in an apparent sign of strained relationships between education unions and the Government, the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) and the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) said the letter had been “‘spun’ into a press release that was clearly designed to give the impression that you are getting tough with recalcitrant schools for failing to provide access to these materials”.

The unions said they believe the vast majority of schools share RSHE materials with parents, with only a “very small number” of possible cases of that not happening.

A review into RSHE was announced in March following concerns that children are being exposed to “inappropriate” content.

Schools are still awaiting updated RSHE guidance, which the Government has said will go out “for full public consultation later this year”.

The union letter, signed by ASCL general secretary Geoff Barton and NAHT general secretary Paul Whiteman, asked Ms Keegan to “think more carefully” about the impact of her future statements and urged her to be “a champion for our schools and colleges”.

Inflaming controversy over RSHE is hardly likely to encourage people into the profession or inspire confidence among teachers who are teaching this subject

Letter from education unions

They said: “It is desperately disappointing that you, as the Secretary of State for Education – the very person who should be standing up for schools – instead chooses to denigrate them in pursuit of a headline.

“This sort of thing undermines public institutions and feeds a breakdown of trust that is corrosive. You are aware that schools are experiencing very difficult conditions in terms of challenging pupil behaviour and high levels of absenteeism.

“We need political leaders to be encouraging parents to support schools rather than making that relationship more difficult. It is also incredibly hard to recruit and retain enough staff to deliver the curriculum in general, let alone the extra demands of a subject as sensitive as RSHE.

“Inflaming controversy over RSHE is hardly likely to encourage people into the profession or inspire confidence among teachers who are teaching this subject.”

The Government said Ms Keegan has been clear that the vast majority of schools are teaching about sensitive issues in a good way but said there had been reports to the department, MPs and in the media of some schools not sharing materials when requested by parents, often due to a misunderstanding of copyright laws.

A Government spokesperson said: “It is a parent’s fundamental right to know what their child is being taught in school.

“This letter makes sure that schools, teachers, and parents are empowered to share sex and relationship education materials. We hope the unions will support the clarity and reassurance we’ve provided to all.”