This article follows on directly from Part 5 and is an extension to this series, which originally addressed Covid issues. Part 5 of my series addressed the amendments to the Relationship and Sexuality Education (RSE) component of the school curriculum and the reaction of many parents to what appears to be the sexualisation of young children via that curriculum. The present article, Part 6, considers what the WHO guidance says on this subject, examines some of the scientific evidence, offers a spiritual perspective and outlines the rights of parents. The previous article ended with a quote from a letter by the Northern Ireland Department of Education that was sent to all school principals:
The change to legislation brought in by the Secretary of State does not apply to primary schools.The evidence suggests otherwise, as will be revealed in this article.
What are the authorities saying?The Northern Ireland guidelines are based on the WHO guidance material. In 2019, the Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessments (CCEA) issued guidance to Northern Ireland primary schools at the behest of the Department of Education. It has already issued an update, entitled RSE: Update for Primary Schools, which states that “the guidance has been updated to reflect new legislation”. It explains in the section entitled Sexual orientation and gender identity that “a young person’s sexual orientation and/or gender identity is a central and significant part of who they are and how they see themselves in relation to others.” The document goes on to say:
There is some evidence to suggest that children as young as eight years old may begin to question their sexual orientation, and from early adolescence, begin to identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual (McDermott, 2010, page 9). Recent research reveals that transgender young people become self aware that their assigned birth sex is different from their gender identity between the ages of 3–5 years old. However, it is between the ages of 6–16 years old that transgender young people begin to understand their feelings, and can start to talk about them (McBride, 2013).Elisabeth McDermott, Professor of Health Inequality at Lancaster University, researched the higher levels of suicide and self-harm in the LGBT group and her final report is available here. Her report recommended that sexuality and gender diversity are compulsory components of the curriculum. The Northern Ireland CCEA guidelines continue:
Schools should handle the issue of sexual orientation and gender identity in a sensitive, non-confrontational and reassuring way. In the primary setting, schools can do this very effectively by teaching about difference in Relationships and Sexuality Education and in the wider Personal Development and Mutual Understanding curriculum.It then gives the following guidance with regards to the Foundation stage, in which it states that children should be able to “name similarities and differences between girls’ and boys’ body parts”, and be able to “name parts of the body including penis and vagina”. The full curriculum for the Foundation Stage (under-7s) and Key Stage 1 (ages 7–9) is set out here. An example of the content for Key Stage 1 states that children should “know the meaning of the terms heterosexual, gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender”. The guidance further states that:
Schools should be proactive in establishing links with local agencies, such as Cara-Friend, that work with schools to provide training for teachers and anti-bullying workshops for pupils. Cara-Friend’s workshops cover general LGBTQ+ awareness and also address the issues of homophobia, transphobia and biphobia. See Cara-Friend—Training & Workshops for more information.Separately, the Education Authority, which manages the schools in Northern Ireland, issued a suite of guidance materials in 2019 to both primary and secondary schools (available here and here):
The Department of Education guidance states that education for all children and young people should be provided in an inclusive environment that is nurtured within the whole community. This environment should be ‘positively welcoming to all, whatever their identity.’It goes on to say that schools should “increase the visibility of transgender young people by supporting pupils in setting up a Gender and Sexual Orientation Alliance or introducing transgender role models". Furthermore, in the latest letter to school principals, the Northern Ireland Department of Education states (emphasis added):
Although the changes made by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland relate to Key Stages 3 and 4 [over-12s] only, the Department appreciates that Relationships and Sexuality Education follows a progression across all Key Stages. We therefore welcome responses from both primary schools and primary school age pupils.And, worryingly, the influential Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO) is reported as having prepared a teacher training resource entitled Creating an LGBT+ inclusive school. This was part of INTO’s Professional Development Summer Course Programme 2023, in which school teachers were advised to “change their language and lessons to make them trans/gender non-confirming inclusive". The course also tells primary school teachers that they should “be prepared to ‘challenge attitudes’ introduce transgenderism to Junior Infants, and get children to challenge their own beliefs on issues around gender.” It also offers advice on “social transitioning”, and children are encouraged to debate whether boys and girls should only wear clothes from the boys and girls section of shops. It further develops the theme that transgender children find happiness when living as “their true selves”. As is apparent, despite the Department of Education assurance, the guidance for Northern Irish pimary schools is already in place—and more guidance is expected. Furthermore, in my view, the guidance goes well beyond the capacity and will of a standard classroom teacher and places unreasonable expectations on teachers in general. The Secretary of State refers to “scientifically accurate information”, and the WHO document uses the word “evidence” in the guidance title. For areas in which there is doubt, conflicting evidence or major sensitivity, one should apply the precautionary principle. The following section examines the evidence.
What does the evidence show?It turns out that the evidence is anything but clear. Earlier this year, National Health Service guidelines were redrafted to remind doctors that children may simply be going through a “transient phase” when they say they want to change sex. The guidelines recommended a clinical management approach to explore all developmentally appropriate options for children and young people who are experiencing gender incongruence, being mindful that this may be a transient phase, particularly for prepubertal children. Furthermore, an NHS commissioned report by Dr Hilary Cass warned that allowing children to “socially transition” could “have significant effects on the child or young person in terms of their psychological functioning” and “better information was needed about outcomes.” Many of the challenges and knowledge gaps that we face in the UK are echoed internationally: “there are significant gaps in the research and evidence base”, according to Dr Paul Rodney McHugh, Professor of Psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University. He continues by saying that affirming children in a false gender can cause real damage, and he presented evidence with regard to what happens if one does not affirm trans identity:
98% of gender confused boys and 88% of gender confused girls eventually accept their biological sex after naturally passing through puberty.Dr McHugh also states that multiple studies confirmed similar results. According to large study in 2021, when following up after an average of 20 years, only 12% of boys had persistent gender confusion. Furthermore, all these studies show that at least 80% of children lose their gender distress over time. What does the evidence show of what happens if you do affirm trans identity? A thorough study in Sweden showed that the suicide rate of those who had undergone sex-reassignment surgery was 20 times that of comparable peers. Professor McHugh goes as far as saying that school policies supporting social transition lead to “catastrophic outcomes for many such afflicted children.” McHugh continues:
We don’t have exact figures for how many children who are socially transitioned go on to take puberty blockers. However, child referrals to Tavistock’s GIDS clinic have skyrocketed in recent years, and 96% of children referred there were given puberty blockers.
Puberty blockersMuch of the evidence suggests that puberty blockers are not fully reversible and come with side effects. Dr McHugh says:
Puberty suppression hormones prevent the development of secondary sex characteristics, arrest bone growth, decrease bone accretion, prevent full organisation and maturation of the brain, and inhibit fertility.In a recent interview with Dr Ahmad Malik, it was mentioned that there has been an increased use of puberty blockers in children, prescriptions in the US more than doubled in five years, and surgeries on children have increased thirteenfold. Furthermore, there is emerging research by Professor McPherson which suggests that “puberty blockers may heighten the risk of mental health problems in transgender youth”. The aforementioned NHS-commissioned report also highlights the uncertainty around the evidence relating to the use of puberty blockers:
The Review is not able to provide definitive advice on the use of puberty blockers and feminising/masculinising hormones at this stage, due to gaps in the evidence base; Given the uncertainties regarding puberty blockers, it is particularly important to demonstrate that consent under this circumstance has been fully informed and to follow GMC guidance.It goes on to say that the “evidence was weak.” Other reports also highlight the lack of research evidence. In 2021, the Danish Sexology Clinic consultant, Dr Mette Haahr, gave an interview to Dagbladet Information in which she acknowledged “a lack of research” relevant to today’s mostly teenage female patients, and expressed concerns regarding the reasons why these teenage girls wanted to change gender. Dr Haahr commented:
We see that treatment helps young people in the short term. But we lack knowledge about what happens in ten and 20 years. Or when they want to have children. What happens when they fall in love and start to have an active sex life? [...] Transgender young people assigned female have, for the most part, no active sex life. How will their sex life develop and does this affect their perception of their gender?A report by American public health expert Dr Lisa Littman reveals that gender distress appears at or after the onset of puberty, often following online immersion and transgender identity declarations among school friends (commonly referred to as Rapid-Onset Gender Dysphoria). The study’s purpose was to investigate a population of individuals who experienced gender dysphoria, transitioned and then detransitioned, many of the subjects coming to the view that their gender dysphoria was caused by something specific such as trauma, abuse, or a mental health condition. The majority felt that they had not received an adequate evaluation from a doctor or mental health professional before starting their transition. “More research is needed”, Dr Littman concluded. So the scientific evidence is anything but clear and certainly not clear enough to merit pressing ahead, as many assert. There are huge gaps in our knowledge and in the evidence base.
Are the proposed changes legal?Equality and human rights barrister Dr Anna Loutfi, has announced that the Bad Law Project plans to launch legal proceedings against the Department for Education (DfE) over the content of RSE and Personal, Social, Health and Economic (PSHE) education lessons in England. Dr Loutfi said that parents rarely have any idea what is taught in PSHE. She contends that the programme is unlawful and that the curriculum is a form of child abuse, describing it as “mental, physical, and sexual, child exploitation and child indoctrination”. Loutfi has said that some lessons she has seen are over-sexualised and deliberately arousing. In this interview, Dr Loutfi discusses suing the Government over transgender ideologies being taught in schools. We can only speculate on the outcome of the legal challenges, which will no doubt follow if the Government presses ahead here.
A spiritual perspectiveWho decides your gender—you or God? What does the Bible say? Earlier, I referred to the rights and role of the churches and the position of faith in the legislation. In his book, Transgender, Rev. Vaughan Roberts sets out a Christian perspective. In what amounts to a statement of church policy, the former Moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, the Rt. Rev. Charles McMullen, writes in the foreword to Transgender:
The author sets out what is true for all of us, including those who have a deep sense of dislocation with their identity, which is that our true worth […] is to be found, above all, in Jesus Christ […] (and) we need to combine grace and truth, wisdom and understanding, compassion and sensitivity.Rev. McMullen further remarks:
The distinction between the sexes is increasingly being undermined especially in schools, where the concept of gender fluidity is often promoted. Christian parents and governors will surely want to express concern when this happens.Vaughan Roberts speaks of the “profound insecurity” and anxiety of many young people as they are being asked now to consider their gender. He says “we will always be insecure if our identity is based on something within us. An identity in Christ could not be more secure.” Experienced Belfast minister of religion Rev. Colin Megaw expresses the following:
The discussion from the outset must be set securely within the context of genuine love and compassion for the precious person. The journey for them has been one of pain, confusion and soul searching. With this understood, two points may be helpful. Firstly, that faith communities engaged in pastoral caring must be informed by Scripture, with quality scientific research advising decisions in seeking the best and safest outcome for the primary client. Scientific evidence shows the safety risks with research associated with pre pubescent surgery. The irreversibility of transition surgery is a deeply relevant point, and statistics relating to post surgical regret must be an integral part of the discussion, highlighting care and caution.
What is happening in other countries?The experience of other countries is instructive because it highlights the road they have travelled. Is the United Kingdom going the same way? What have they learned from their experience? Denmark is thinking twice about paediatric gender transition, as stated in a recent article by Gender Clinic News. Author Bernard Lane writes that Denmark “is now offering a form of counselling rather than medical treatments to the main patient group of teenagers with no childhood history of distress in their birth sex.” The change in policy was given by the Health Minister, Sophie Løhde, as she announced that medical treatment at the Sexology Clinic would only be offered “if the child or young person has had gender dysphoria since childhood.” The Minister guaranteed a stop on gender reassignment for children where the underage individual’s gender discomfort has arisen in connection with puberty, and a de jure ban on the removal of breasts of underage girls in relation to surgical gender reassignment. Interestingly, Denmark’s call for an end to medical transition of minors is being spearheaded by a mainstream LGBT group, the Danish Rainbow Council, which was launched in 2022 under the leadership of transsexual Marcus Dib Jensen. The organisation is pledged to child safeguarding and recognition of gender dysphoria as a mental disorder, while opposing the extremes of gender ideology. The Society for Evidence-Based Gender Medicine (SEGM), also in Denmark, reflected the direction of international travel, which is surely of concern to many. The SEGM said:
It remains to be seen whether the Danish Health Authority will take a cautious approach to the treatment of gender-dysphoric youth like the growing number of their European counterparts, or whether Denmark will choose to align with the current direction supported by a number of U.S. medical societies that assert that medical gender transition should be widely available for all youths who desire it.Sweden and Finland are even more advanced than Denmark in the post-2019 Nordic shift to caution, while health authorities in Norway are under pressure after the country’s independent healthcare investigation agency declared in March that medicalised gender change for young people was “experimental” and should be confined to clinical trials. Systematic reviews of the evidence base undertaken in Finland and Sweden showed it to be weak (as did reviews in the United Kingdom). Several Northern European countries cited a supposedly sound Dutch protocol in support of their earlier laxity on puberty-blocking and transgender surgery for minors; the Netherlands itself is now coming to terms with the unlawfulness of that protocol. It seems that the countries which had moved furthest and fastest along this road have reached a point of reflection and are now pulling back. For us in Northern Ireland and other parts of the United Kingdom, the lessons are obvious—we should do likewise.
WHOse decision is it? The rights and roles of parents and governorsMany parents in the United Kingdom do not believe they have rights to know the curriculum or to have a say in what that curriculum is. It is for this reason that it is extremely important that parents know and understand the constitution, function and legal responsibilities of school Boards of Governors. I shall address the Northern Irish situation specifically, but it is not greatly different in Scotland, England and Wales. In Northern Ireland, in order to discharge their responsibilities under the Education Reform Order (ERO) 1989, Boards of Governors—on which parents sit by right—determine curriculum policy. Parents, whether or not they sit on the Board of Governors, have a right to know the curriculum and the right to have been consulted on it. Article 10 of the ERO requires that the Board of Governors “determine and keep under review its policy in relation to the curriculum.” Article 31 places a duty of the Board of Governors:
[...] to make available either generally or prescribed persons, such information relating to:Articles 125 and 126 relate to information to be given to parents. In Northern Ireland, there is quite a convoluted management system because of the Province’s complicated history. In our tripartite management system (quadripartite, if you include CCMS, the Council for the Catholic Maintained Sector), it can be hard to ascertain who actually is in charge. See here for further discussion in this area. As a head teacher, I always took the view that parents had the right to know what was being taught. And in any case, every pupil’s notebook includes lesson notes and is taken to their homes and likely seen by their parents. Northern Irish schools’ Boards of Governors, as I have already mentioned, are made up of parents elected by the parent body; teachers elected by the staff; church representatives; and, in the case of most schools, someone nominated by the Education Authority and who will also be local. As a consequence, in many cases, the governors will be made up entirely of local people who are, have been, or are about to become parents of children at the school. Parents have a right to know who the governors are, for it is the governors who are responsible for the school. This places significant power in the hands of parents.
- the curriculum of the school
- the educational provision made by the school for pupils and any syllabuses
What does the UK Government say on the issue of parental rights?The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has told the Westminster Parliament:
The Government recognise the sensitivity of the topic and that some parents may wish to teach their child about sex education or to make alternative arrangements for sex education to be provided in line with their religious background or belief about the age at which their child or children should access it. In recognition of that, the regulations also place a duty on the Department of Education to make regulations about the circumstances in which a pupil may be withdrawn from education on sexual and reproductive health and rights, or elements of that education, at the request of the parent.This is an important and significant policy statement. Furthermore, as set out in the regulations, the UK Government expects that the Department (of Education in Northern Ireland) will consult on both the guidance and the provisions for the circumstances in which a pupil may be excused from the education or specified elements of that education. The Secretary of State, who had earlier attributed the “underdeveloped nature” of provision to parental influence, went on in his speech to affirm parental rights on this matter:
Consultation with parents is already common practice in Northern Ireland. A school’s RSE policy should be subject to consultation with parents and endorsed by a school’s board of governors. The regulations do not change that approach and we expect and encourage the Department of Education to engage with and consult parents on the guidance it produces. A school’s RSE policy should be subject to consultation with parents and endorsed by a school’s board of governors.Parents, of course, have a right to a copy of that policy. The Department of Education has affirmed parental rights in a letter sent to all Northern Irish school principals, as laid down by the Education Reform Order; in it, the Department sought to assuage rising concerns. The letter states (emphasis added):
The Regulations also make provision for, at the request of a parent, a pupil to be excused from RSE lessons that contain age-appropriate, comprehensive and scientifically accurate education on sexual and reproductive health and rights, covering prevention of early pregnancy and access to abortion.The letter goes on to say (emphasis added):
All grant-aided schools are required to have a RSE policy based on the ethos of their school, subject to consultation with parents and pupils, that should be kept under review to inform their taught RSE programme.In Northern Ireland, the Education Authority is the managing authority for all schools, and it reiterates (emphasis added):
The Department requires all grant-aided schools to develop their own RSE policy based on the ethos of their school, which is subject to consultation with parents and pupils.It encourages parental involvement under the heading Information for schools on how they can enhance parental engagement:
Parents can play an active and positive role in their child’s education, and being involved in a child’s education can help improve their chances of success in school.The Education Authority is a member of the Northern Ireland Innovation Forum, which has produced this resource for teachers to help encourage and advance parental engagement in schools through digital application. The Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment (CCEA) reiterates in its guidance that “Schools should consult closely with parents or carers.” Under section 3.1 entitled Withdrawal from Relationships and Sexuality Education, it states that “In Northern Ireland, parents have the right to have their child educated according to their wishes.” The CCEA has produced and disseminated an update called RSE: Update for Primary Schools, in which it states (emphasis added):
As parents or carers play a crucial role in supporting their child’s education (DE, 2009; Harris and Goodall, 2007) schools should consult closely with parents or carers to allay these fears. A recent survey conducted by the Education and Training Inspectorate (ETI) has concluded that schools need to do more to engage parents or carers in this aspect of their child’s education. ETI states that ‘there is a need for parents to be involved more in developing the Personal Development curriculum in school’ (ETI, cited in Marshall, R, 2014, page 105). Schools could employ strategies such as:The Department of Education’s letter underpins the essential aspects of the Education Reform Order in relation to parents, including their right to remove their child from class:
- providing up-to-date parent or carer-friendly information leaflets
- holding awareness-raising workshops; and
- sharing resources to educate parents or carers on, for example, how to ensure that their children are using social media safely and responsibly.
The Government recognise the sensitivity of the topic and that some parents may wish to teach their child about sex education or to make alternative arrangements for sex education to be provided in line with their religious background or belief about the age at which their child or children should access it.So the three bodies in charge of the management of Northern Irish schools and which determine the school curriculum have all clearly stated the rights and role of parents, in line with The Education Reform (Northern Ireland) Order 1989.
Rights of teachersThe Department of Education letter to principals, referred to earlier, states:
In keeping with the design principles of the Northern Ireland curriculum, schools have flexibility to decide on the content of their taught RSE programme and how to deliver it.Many teachers will object to teaching such content, and this was raised in Westminster:
The question of whether teachers object to teaching scientifically accurate education on sexual and reproductive health and rights, including access to abortion and contraception, will be a matter for the Department of Education, as it has overall responsibility for education in Northern Ireland.Teachers must be satisfied that the resources they plan to use reflect the ethos of the school. Developing a Relationships and Sexuality Education policy should be a collaborative process involving teachers, parents or carers, pupils, governors and other educational and health professionals. Each of these stakeholders has a valuable contribution to make, so schools must develop a structure which provides genuine opportunities for all stakeholders to contribute to the policy. It is hoped that each school can create a Relationships and Sexuality Education policy which is unique to them through a consultative process. The policy should:
—Chris Heaton-Harris MP, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland
- cater for and meet the needs of all pupils; and
- ensure clarity and consensus on how RSE will be taught.
ConclusionUnder these regulations, the British state or the World Health Organisation appear to be trying to take responsibility for the protection of our precious children. The documentation refers to “age appropriate” requirements, but who decides when is “age appropriate” and what is “age appropriate”? School management arrangements in other countries and in other parts of the United Kingdom differ, so it is vitally important that parents know their rights. In particular, this means knowing and understanding the constitution, role, responsibilities and duties of the school Board of Governors. In Northern Ireland, the Board of Governors is responsible for the curriculum, but parents also have a right to have their child educated according to their wishes. To restate the words of Chris Heaton-Harris, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland:
A school’s RSE policy should be subject to consultation with parents and endorsed by a school’s board of governors. These regulations do not change that approach, and we expect and encourage the Department to engage and consult with parents on the guidance it produces and the circumstances in which a parent can opt their children out of the specified.The Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment (CCEA) has stated that “schools should consult closely with parents”, and that “parents have a right to have their children educated according to their wishes.” Bear in mind that if there are legal cases and accusations that the law has been broken by teaching in schools, it is not the Minister, the Department of Education or the Education authority that will be held responsible; it will be the legal responsibility of the Boards of Governors of the individual offending schools. They may wish to be reminded opportunely of that fact. In addition, the agencies involved in Northern Irish curriculum design—the WHO, International Technical Guidance, the Department of Education, the Education Authority and the CCEA—not only all assert the rights of parents to be passively consulted, but moreover are clear that for the delivery of a successful programme, the active engagement and involvement of parents is essential. Surely, the matters discussed in this article are not matters for schools or teachers; these are matters for parents and should be discussed at an appropriate age in an appropriate setting. These issues are the most private of private matters; therefore, a school classroom with thirty or more children does not provide the proper forum. The McDermott report cited earlier suggests the need for support services for young people. It seems to me that schools are being seen in this policy area as an easy and cost-free way of providing support, when actually what seems to be required is highly skilled and confidential support. The document entitled International technical guidance on sexuality education: An evidence-informed approach also expresses an “ideal” situation whereby teachers would be trained, but it also says that the absence of training should not be a reason for non-delivery. It states:
Well-trained, supported and motivated teachers play a key role in the delivery of high quality CSE.And for an effective curriculum, the following is stated:
During the preparatory phase: Involve experts on human sexuality, behaviour change and related pedagogical theory.It is clear that the training and provision of well-trained teachers needs to precede the introduction of the programme. This has not taken place. So even if one agrees with its delivery in principle, it is remarkable that the WHO is comfortable with untrained people delivering this most complex and sensitive issue to children at the most impressionable developmental age of their lives. In my view, using untrained and unwilling teachers is a recipe for permanent psychological harm. Furthermore, due to the imposition of a false time schedule, there is no time for schools to draw up policy, consult with and inform parents, arrange meetings or prepare leaflets. In my opinion, school principals and Boards of Governors must personally review the content of any programme offered by self-accredited external “experts” to assure themselves that such material reflects the ethos of the school and the views of parents, and they should widely consult on their school’s RSE policy. What are the rights of parents? For Northern Ireland at least, the regulations are clear. Parents have the right to:
- be consulted with respect to the curriculum
- withdraw their child from class (both of these rights presuppose a parent’s right to know what is to be taught)
- know who is on the Boards of Governors
- sit on a Board of Governors as an elected representative
- make representations to the Board of Governors
- have their child educated according to their wishes
- educate their child at home