Anthony Speaight KC is co-author of “The Forgotten Human Right: the Rights of Parents relating to Children’s Education” published by the Society of Conservative Lawyers
There is a widespread desire amongst Conservatives for “dividing lines” between us and Labour. Those of us who volunteered for the unsuccessful by-election campaigns in July can understand why. Some possible dividing lines are difficult. But one of the least problematic and most popular would be the enactment of a parental right of access to school teaching materials.
Concerns have been growing about some of the materials used for lessons in Relationship and Sex Education (“RHSE”). Miriam Cates presented to the Prime Minister a dossier that included materials suggesting that there are not two genders, but rather a sliding scale from the most masculine to the most feminine. In a recent Deltapoll survey, 32 per cent of school leavers said they had been taught that a woman can have a penis, and 20 per cent that a man can get pregnant.
Controversial teaching is not confined to RHSE. In the same survey, 42 per cent of school leavers had been taught as fact that Britain today is a racist country. A guidance document for Coventry schools advocated the use of a Pyramid of White Supremacy graphic, which presents the idea that genocide and racist violence depend on veiled racism, manifested in such things as a “Euro-centric curriculum”. This is part of a new-style anti-racism, which rejects the “colour-blindness” of Martin Luther King and regards such ideas of mutual tolerance as part of the problem.
That graphic is just one example of pernicious North American ideologies. Another is the explicit teaching of the language of these ideologies. YouGov found this year that 59 per cent of school leavers had learned at school about at least one of “unconscious bias”, “white privilege” or “systemic racism”. One in six had been taught about “intersectionality”, a theory developed by Kimberle Crenshaw, a black American feminist, but almost unknown amongst even the best-educated British adults.
Gender Theory and Critical Race Theory appear distinct. But they form part of a wider, all-encompassing ideology obsessed with identities. It has transposed the Marxist analysis of victim-oppressor in class terms into a framework of identity. Whilst nobody would object to older pupils being taught about the existence of new ideologies, many parents will be unhappy about these notions being taught as fact.
Both in RHSE and in anti-racism teaching, most of the controversial materials are produced by external providers, who are often themselves partisans or lobbyists for social or political change. Normal teaching staff could be using externally provided materials. Members of this new breed of educationalists are being invited into the classrooms to deliver lessons.
These providers are remarkably coy about parents seeing their materials. Sometimes their contracts with schools contain terms expressly prohibiting their materials from being shown to parents. Clare Page, one such parent, who had been refused a sight of the materials by the head teacher, used the Freedom of Information Act to seek access. But both the Information Commissioner and on appeal the Tribunal rejected her request.
In that and another similar case, the Commissioner has relied on two exemptions from the normal obligation of disclosure – confidentiality, and the provider’s commercial interests. Both these exemptions apply only where they accord with the public interest. It may seem bewildering that the balance of the public interest was considered to go against disclosure.
Some parents will, of course, welcome the new teaching. But what rights exist for parents who do not?
Theoretically, they have plenty of rights. Every major declaration of fundamental rights recognises that the education of children is ultimately a matter for parents, not the state. The indoctrination of children, which authoritarian regimes often pursue, is inimical to a free society.
These principles are nominally part of our own domestic law. Sections 406 and 407 of the 1996 Education Act require balanced presentation on political issues. In a case about Al Gore’s climate change film, the High Court held that this extended to any issue of public policy.
The same Act also acknowledges the principle that children should so far as possible be educated in accordance with parents’ wishes. But when schools are teaching as fact Gender Ideology and Critical Race Theory these principles have become something of a dead letter.
The crucial first step is for parents to have access to the slides shown in classrooms and teaching guides. Article 2 of the 1st Protocol to the European Declaration of Human Rights guarantees respect for the right of parents to ensure education conforms with their religious and philosophical convictions. But how can parents ensure this if they are refused sight of what is being taught? The human rights lobby is curiously silent about the UK being in breach of this limb of the ECHR.
Access must extend to prospective parents as well as current parents. Good parents will be reluctant to move a child who has settled at a school. It is when choosing a school that information about what is taught can most easily be taken into account.
Accordingly, the Society of Conservative Lawyers has published a draft Parental Rights Bill and is consulting on a revised version. This would require schools to ensure that teaching materials in digital form are placed on a website accessible to current and prospective parents. That would not cover conventional published textbooks, or a teacher’s notes for an individual lesson, but would catch the graphics and teaching aids from the external providers. Since all such materials are by their nature on a computer server somewhere, this ought not to be an unduly onerous requirement, but the obligation could be rolled out by stages, beginning with RHSE and anti-racism materials.
In view of the evident reluctance in this area, good enforcement mechanisms are essential. Our Bill would outlaw contractual terms prohibiting schools from providing access to teaching materials. It would amend the Freedom of Information Act so that the confidentiality and commercial exemptions cease to apply to school teaching materials. It would require the identification of external organisations and individuals brought into schools and would give parents an individual right of action to enforce both these provisions and also the pre-existing law on political balance.
Such legislation would not be launching a “culture war”. The effective rights created would be as available to “woke” parents, who may wish to check whether teaching conforms with their “woke” wishes, as to the more traditionally-minded. But among the latter, it would be hugely popular. Elements in the teaching unions may hate it. But so strong a life-long advocate for the ECHR as Sir Keir Starmer might struggle to explain what is wrong with bringing the UK into line with its international obligations.
There are 12 months or so in which to get such a short Bill on the statute book. For Rishi Sunak it should be a no-brainer.