An open letter to Matthew Offord MP re. same sex marriage, teachers and schools

Dear Matthew Offord,

I was genuinely shocked to read your response to Nick Lansley’s partner about same sex marriage, as it seems you are suffering from some very basic misconceptions about how schools and how sex and relationships education should work. As I am not one of your constituents I thought I would write an open response to you on my blog.

Before I go into your problematic response about schools I need to ask you about your statements:

“It is my strong personal, moral and religious belief that the institution of marriage is to provide the foundation of a stable relationship in which those two people of the opposite sex procreate and raise a child. That is physically not possible for same-sex couples so I don’t see the point of introducing a law to allow this”

Can I just ask you where you stand on opposite sex couples who are infertile? Who don’t ever want children? Who marry past the age of menopause? Should they still have the legal right to marry? Based on your statements I would assume you would be campaigning for an end to marriage in these cases, or do they get an exemption because they are heterosexual?

In your letter you stated:

“In regard to education, Section 403 of the Education Act 1996 places a legal requirement on schools to teach children about “the importance of marriage”. If marriage is redefined, schools will have no choice but to give children equivalent teaching on same sex marriage, even those children of a very young age, including those at primary school.”

Can I ask you exactly what you think is wrong about that? The 1996 law is sixteen years old and needs updating as does the whole of the legislation and guidance relating to Sex and Relationships Education. We currently only have the 2000 DfE SRE guidance (twelve years out of date) and we are still waiting on the outcomes from the PSHE review. Both the law and guidance pre-dates the Section 28 Legislation (which only actually ever applied to local authorities not schools directly) and also needs to be updated in light of that. There is no mention of civil partnerships in the guidance for example. I absolutely agree with you that teaching about marriage is very important, but I would argue that teaching about equality, tolerance and respect is even more so.

What exactly is your issue with primary school children talking about same sex marriage? Are you falling for the classic ignorant assumption that discussing sexual orientation means you also have to talk about sexuality and sexual activity? You really can separate the two out you know- talking about gay marriage to primary school children does not mean you have to talk about “gay sex” at all. (By the way the concept of “gay sex” is erroneous anyway. Being a sex and relationships educator I do feel I have to point out that the spectrum of sexual activity is NOT confined to one particular sexual orientation. Any sexual activity you can think of can be carried out whether you are in a same sex or opposite sex relationship.)

Alternatively are your worries that talking about same sex marriage to primary school children might make them gay? I have worked with young people for 12 years now, let me tell you that talking to young people about different sexual orientations DOES NOT MAKE THEM GAY. What it absolutely does do is make them more tolerant, respectful and understanding of people’s differences. Can I ask you if you think it is acceptable for a young person to be bullied because of their perceived sexual orientation? To live in constant fear of persecution by people who don’t understand them? One of my proudest teaching and learning moments was covering a lesson on homophobia with a class, a boy with strong faith views shouted out “I WANT TO KILL ALL GAYS” he was angry and convinced this was a course of action they deserved. By the end of the lessons he came to me and said “Miss, I still don’t like it and neither does my faith, but I get what you mean now about not being mean to someone because of it.” For him that was the most monumental shift, and he was a violent angry young man, I have absolutely no doubt that he would be the type to beat someone up for acting “gay” whether or not they actually were. I strongly believe widespread teaching of such lessons would go a huge way in reducing incidences of homophobic bullying and violence. Surely you agree that a reduction in hate crime is a good thing?

Your letter makes it clear you are a man of faith however all major religions teach tolerance and respect and you absolutely can teach about different sexual orientations in a way that does not conflict with faith views. What you seemed to be advocating was that schools be absolutely silent on the issue of sexual orientation, which can only lead to more bullying and violence against individuals who may or may not turn out to be gay but they are perceived to be “different”.

Thanks to addressing issues of homophobia within my previous school, a girl who had previously contemplating drastic steps because of her sexual orientation, had the confidence to confide in me she was a lesbian and from there was able to come out to her mum. Her mum later said to me “I’m glad that she could talk to someone when she couldn’t face me with it, and I’m grateful and relieved that the school were there to support her, without the support who knows what she could have done.” I made a difference to that girl’s life and since then I have devoted my teaching career to supporting young people and the people that work with them around issues in Sex & Relationships Education. It is not over the top to say it really can save lives. Thankfully schools now have a moral and legal duty (see Equality Act 2010) to support all students regardless of ability, gender, sexual orientation, race or religion, and when given the opportunities they do this very well indeed.

You asked “So what will happen to parents who because of religious, or philosophical beliefs take their children out of lessons? ” I also would very much like an answer to that. Parents currently have the right to opt out of Sex and relationships education lessons (but less than 1% do). I would argue that young people should all have an entitlement to sex and relationships education lessons- and if it is not provided by the school then I would expect parents to provide it including teaching about different sexual orientations. Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual (LGB) people EXIST, parents simply cannot deny that. They have existed for more than the 2000 years you are glad that “homophobia” has been enshrined for. Well you actually called your homophobic beliefs “views” you stated:-

“Discriminated against and persecuted because they hold views that have been enshrined in our laws and have been the cornerstone of our society for two thousand years.”.

Can you please give me a “for instance” where someone with “views” such as yours has been “persecuted or discriminated against” to the same level as someone who is LGB (or Transgender). Has your stance in life ever led to Verbal abuse? Violent assaults? Being disowned? Murder? Suicide? No? Then please do not be so insulting as to be speaking from a position of privilege and claiming the same level of victimisation. Because it simply IS NOT TRUE.

Your letter asked:

And what of the teachers who object to teaching about same sex marriage. Will they face disciplinary action? How will it affect their careers?

Currently all teachers are expected to have the ability to teach Sex & Relationships Education. It is enshrined in QTS 21 of the Qualified Teacher Standards (although this is likely to change following the current review of teacher skills requirements). However thankfully many schools only ask for teachers willing to cover such topics to cover them, usually they will get additional training for this. This is important. I strongly believe no teacher should ever be forced to teach a subject they are not comfortable or trained in. All teachers are expected to uphold the law and school policies. This includes the Equality Act which “makes discrimination against someone for their real or perceived sexual orientation illegal in the provision of goods, services and facilities. Section 13 of the Sexual Orientation Regulations says that all students have an equal right to education, regardless of their real or perceived sexual orientation.” Therefore I would argue that teachers absolutely should teach about same sex marriage as part of sex and relationships lessons, but I absolutely agree it needs clarifying in law for those teachers in schools expecting all teachers to provide sex and relationships education. Having an ignorant homophobic bigot deliver lessons about homophobia could be incredibly damaging for the young people in those lessons and they are my priority. Not the tiny minority of teachers who may have views that conflict with their duties and responsibilities as teachers and who damage their own careers accordingly. Thankfully the vast vast majority of teachers I know are very supportive of challenging homophobia in schools when given sufficient support and training to do so. They know the damage homophobia can do to our young people.

You also asked:

Will same sex marriage be covered under such subjects as citizenship forming part of the main curriculum taught to our children and tested through examination?”

PSHE (Personal, Social, Health and Economic Education) and Citizenship are two very distinct but complimentary subjects. The law and curriculum surrounding both of them could definitely do with clarifying and updating, but I think you will find that the current debate about changing the law around same sex marriage has already been covered in many citizenship lessons across the land already. It is relevant to the subject and topical. I suspect some students may end up doing coursework on it. It’s already happening. Is that a problem for you?

You stated you have a “strong personal, moral and religious belief” in “the institution of marriage”, As a happily married heterosexual woman I also have a strong personal moral and faith in marriage, I strongly believe it is an institution all couples in loving relationships should be able to enter. In fact Chief Justice Margaret Goodridge said it far better than me:

Marriage is a vital social institution. The exclusive commitment of two individuals to each other nurtures love and mutual support; it brings stability to our society. For those who choose to marry, and for their children, marriage provides an abundance of legal, financial, and social benefits. In return it imposes weighty legal, financial, and social obligations….Without question, civil marriage enhances the “welfare of the community.” It is a “social institution of the highest importance.”

Marriage also bestows enormous private and social advantages on those who choose to marry. Civil marriage is at once a deeply personal commitment to another human being and a highly public celebration of the ideals of mutuality, companionship, intimacy, fidelity, and family…. Because it fulfils yearnings for security, safe haven, and connection that express our common humanity, civil marriage is an esteemed institution, and the decision whether and whom to marry is among life’s momentous acts of self-definition. Tangible as well as intangible benefits flow from marriage. The benefits accessible only by way of a marriage license are enormous, touching nearly every aspect of life and death. It is undoubtedly for these concrete reasons, as well as for its intimately personal significance, that civil marriage has long been termed a civil right. “

It was my personal and professional values and attitudes that compelled me to respond to your letter. Finally you stated “I do not believe that same sex marriage would serve to enhance British society or its values.” Could you please explain to me how same sex marriage would affect “British Society and values” in any other way than show we are a tolerant and accepting nation that recognises and celebrates individual human rights?

Yours Sincerely

A Teacher of Equality, Compassion, Empathy and Respect.

Template letter for writing to your MP about Sex and Relationships Education and the Dorries Bill

This week I got all fired up and wrote a letter to my local MP and have even received a reply already (he is writing to Gove on my behalf and will be in touch when he replies….. I am holding my breath…)

Anyhow I figured since so many of you are uber busy creatures it maybe an idea for me to provide a template letter on my blog for you to tweak to your hearts content and email off to your own MP.  Me being an uber busy sausage myself this letter is actually one I adapted from the wonderful and lovely @sian_rowland (Website and blog) (Thanks for letting me share!).

After my edits it’s probably not the perfect letter (personally I am better at ranty blogposts than formal letters!) but its a step in the right direction and please do edit away from this starting point (and if you have any suggestions for improvements then feel free to share them 🙂 )

Please please do take the time to do this – it could make the difference we need.   You can find out who your MP is here.

<Insert your address and date etc>

Dear MP <Insert Name>

‘I’m writing to you about my concerns over Nadine Dorries MP, her ten minute abstinence bill and her comments in the media.  I am an <insert something about who you are and why you are concerned- eg. worried parent, teacher etc etc>

I recently read with disbelief Ms Dorries’ blog post in which she says,

‘The thrust was that girls as young as seven are taught about intercourse, safe sex, how to apply a condom on a banana, where to get condoms, how to detect an STI and that they don’t need to tell their parents anything.’

She provides no evidence for these statements and as far as I am concerned  they are absolutely and categorically untrue and I’m horrified that parents might think this happens in class,  I have heard from several respected PSHE advisers* that this is just not something that would happen in schools.   SRE for seven year olds is about age appropriate emotions and positive relationships (which at this age is pretty much ‘my friends and my family.) She also only mentions girl which is very worrying, boys have rights and responsibilities in relation to sex and relationships education too.  Schools also understand their duty in informing and involving parents. If parents are unduly concerned, they may withdraw their children from SRE lessons (NB but not from the Science parts) although less than 1% actually choose to do so.

Abstinence is already a part of SRE for secondary schools but only a part. Abstinence-only teaching, as is popular in the States simply doesn’t work (You can read more here: ) . Young people need to be given the skills and attitudes as well as the knowledge in SRE. ‘Delay’ teaching in which young people explore waiting until they are ready and in a stable relationships (including marriage), works much better.

It really worries me that as the country with the highest teenage pregnancy rate in Europe, we’re looking toward the country with the highest teenage pregnancy rates in the world for inspiration. There is clear and rigorous evidence that Sex and Relationships Education when taught properly does work – you can read more here:

On the Vanessa show, Dorries also suggested that “if girls said no more often, there wouldn’t be so much sexual abuse”. This is an unforgivable thing to say and a horrific reflection to those who have ever suffered sexual abuse, both girls and boys.  “Saying No” in no way prevents abuse and to say that it does is despicable victim blaming.

SRE does need to be taught better in all schools but with people like Nadine Dorries and her interference and micromanaging of the topic will ensure that SRE is never well taught and that teenage pregnancy and sexual health problems (where support has been withdrawn in most areas because of funding) will soar.

What we actually need is clear legislation and guidance from the government about SRE and support for schools in training and delivery of SRE.  Issues such as  sexual bullying, sexualisation, homophobia, pornography are becoming challenging areas for schools to tackle, and teachers desperately need help, training and support in tackling this as well as covering basic SRE to a much higher standard than it is currently. Without adequate SRE, young people will seek information via the media including the internet and with fewer and fewer local authority advisers in post, and a lack of guidance and support from the government,  schools have no one to turn to.

I’m very much hoping that you will consider speaking out against this bill. Your fellow MPs need educating in this area as demonstrated by the 67 for (as opposed to 61 against)  vote of her ten minute bill.

I truly believe that we need better, age appropriate relationships education in this country that addresses the needs of all children regardless of sex, religion and background.

Many thanks for your support during these difficult times and please get in contact if you want to discuss any of these issues further.

Yours sincerely

<your name>

*By this I mean me and Sian 🙂 but you can add your own evidence here, if you have it!