You can tell a lot about someone by the company they keep. So what does it mean when the minister of state for schools appears to be courting the pro-life idealogues of the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child, while ignoring a hugely popular network like Mumsnet? Both SPUC and Mumsnet wrote letters to the Department of Education regarding sex education. Both letters were received. But only one got a reply. Nick Gibb MP took time to write back to SPUC; Mumsnet got nothing.
This is curious. Of course, a minister can’t respond personally to every query, but when it comes from a website that gets five million visits a month, you might imagine a politician could see the argument for answering: that’s a lot of potential voters you could reach for the price of some Basildon Bond and a stamp. SPUC claims 45,000 members in the UK. So what is it about those 45,000 that makes them more worthy of ministerial attention than the Mumsnetters?
The answer is that Gibb seems to be following the path of his anti-choice appeasing colleague, secretary of state for Health Andrew Lansley, and cosying up to the most reactionary elements he can find. And SPUC is pretty reactionary. The organisation is ostensibly a campaign against abortion. However, it has expanded its remit to oppose contraception, same-sex marriage – and now, sex education through the Safe at School campaign. The Safe at School campaign relies on one sinister question: “Do you know if your child is safe at school?” From that seed of uncertainty, it seeks to convince parents that schools are practising a sort of institutionalised child abuse by teaching children anything to do with reproduction. “Sex education in school […] is priming children from the age of five to become sexually active,” it says, marking the exact point where enforced ignorance and victim-blaming meet.
The SPUC attitude is inadvertently a paedophile’s dream. Not only does it falsely suggest that pre-pubescent children can be coaxed into sexual activity (Humberts rejoice! SPUC says your victims have been taught to want it), but it also seeks to deprive children of a vocabulary with which they can discuss, and so have control over, their own bodies. It’s this base level of knowledge – the simple naming of parts – that SPUC seeks to deprive children of.
In his letter to SPUC, Gibb writes: “I can confirm that neither the National Curriculum nor the new draft programme of study requires the naming of internal or external body parts with regard to reproduction.” For SPUC, this opens the way for them to resist schools providing any information to children about reproduction, and the organisation’s website is already celebrating the withdrawal of schools from sex ed under pressure from SPUC campaigners.
But SPUC does not represent the majority of parents. Mumsnet’s letter to the DoE – the one that Nick Gibb didn’t reply to – highlighted the results of a survey of its members’ attitude to sex and relationships education. These findings obviously can’t be extrapolated to the whole population, but they are strikingly positive: 92 per cent were happy for their children to attend SRE classes, and 69 per cent thought the subject should be compulsory at primary school.
“It seems odd for the government to ignore parents' views when it comes to sex education, and you have to wonder why," says Justine Roberts, Mumsnet co-founder and CEO. To a suspicious mindset, it might appear to be that ministers are on a mission of appeasement to the social conservative tendency, regardless of what parents really want or what is right for children.