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Fact check: Has legalising same-sex marriage in the UK had consequences for the school curriculum?

The claim

With the deadline looming for the receipt of responses to the Australian Marriage Law Postal Survey, campaigners on both sides of the debate continue to make their arguments.

During a discussion on Q&A on October 23, 2017, No campaigner Karina Okotel argued that legislating to approve same-sex marriage would have consequences for sex education in schools.

In response to an audience question, Ms Okotel said Christian schools would not be immune from "consequences that flow" from such a change.

She continued: "And we've seen that just last week, when Theresa May in the UK said that one of her greatest achievements in her parliamentary career was legalising same-sex marriage. And the next step now is to ensure that there is LGBTI sex education in all schools — not just government schools, all schools."

An audience member then asked Ms Okotel about an earlier reference she had made to a Jewish school in London.

On September 13, Ms Okotel told the National Press Club:

"Three months ago in England, a Jewish school failed three inspections as they didn't teach about homosexuality and gender diversity, and therefore as same-sex marriage is legal, the students were not being provided a full understanding of fundamental British values.

And that school now faces closure."

Has the introduction of same-sex marriage in the UK had consequences for the education that children receive?

RMIT ABC Fact Check finds out.

The verdict

Ms Okotel's claim is baseless.

Experts say the British Government's efforts to standardise relationships and sex education throughout English schools by 2019 is not a result of, and is unrelated to, the legalisation of same-sex marriage in England in 2013.

The Jewish school referred to by Ms Okotel has indeed failed inspections by Ofsted, the regulatory body.

But this is a result of alleged breaches of the UK's anti-discrimination law, the Equality Act 2010, which came into force years before same-sex marriage became legal.

The UK authority says the inspection result has "nothing to do" with same-sex marriage.

Same-sex marriage in the UK

Same-sex marriage is legal in most of the United Kingdom: it is allowed in England, Wales and Scotland, but not in Northern Ireland.

Legislation to legalise same-sex marriage in England and Wales was introduced into the British Parliament in 2013 by the government led by conservative prime minister David Cameron. The first marriages took place in March 2014.

Similar legislation was passed in Scotland in 2014, with the first marriages taking place on December 31, 2014.

'LGBT education in all schools'

Ms Okotel refers generally to a statement made by Mr Cameron's successor, Theresa May, also a Conservative Party MP.

Fact Check understands this to be a reference to a speech given by Ms May to the Pink News Awards on October 18, 2017. Pink News is a UK publication focused on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) issues.

Ms May referred to the progress made on LGBT rights since homosexual sex was decriminalised in the UK in 1967, adding there was still more to do.

"Progress we've made has been the result of cross-party reforms.

A Labour peer and Conservative peer took the Sexual Offenses Act through Parliament 50 years ago.

Great strides were made by the last Labour government.

I was proud to be the Home Secretary who published the equal marriage white paper, I was proud to be one of the sponsors of the bill and proud to vote for it to become law, so that today no matter who you are, you can enjoy the love and support of marriage.

David Cameron says that legislation was one of his proudest achievements as Prime Minister, and it is one of my proudest achievements as Home Secretary.

But we need to keep up our action, so we are pressing ahead with inclusive relationship and sex education in English schools, making sure that LGBT issues are taught well.

We're determined to eradicate homophobic and transphobic bullying."

Ms May does not suggest in her speech that changes to sex education are a consequence of same-sex marriage being made legal four years earlier.

UK-based LGBT rights campaigner and former Labour Party candidate Peter Tatchell told Fact Check:

"Sex education programs existed before same-sex marriage became legal. They did not flow directly from same-sex marriage and the British Prime Minister was not suggesting they did."

Nor did her speech break new ground on the issue.

same sex marriage breakout

Schools in the UK

The British school system differs from that in Australia. There are three main types of schools:

  • Maintained schools (funded by local authorities/councils, run either by the local authority or a foundation)
  • Academies (funded by the central government and run by a trust)
  • Independent schools (regulated by the central government but run independently).

In March 2017, the British Government announced that it was working to formalise and standardise the way that sex and relationships education is provided in schools.

At present, this education is delivered in a variety of ways in schools and in some cases not provided at all.

But from 2019, if all goes to plan, there will be compulsory "relationships education" in primary schools and "sex and relationships education" in secondary schools.

"It is important that we ensure universal coverage for all pupils and improve quality," the British Government said in March.

The Government explained the situation in a press release accompanying its announcement:

"Relationships education, RSE [relationships and sex education], and PSHE [personal, social, health and economic education] are designed to ensure pupils are taught the knowledge and life skills they will need to stay safe and develop healthy and supportive relationships, particularly dealing with the challenges of growing up in an online world.

Currently only pupils attending local-authority run secondary schools — which represent around a third of secondary schools — are guaranteed to be offered current sex and relationships education, and PSHE is only mandatory at independent schools. Neither are currently required to be taught in academies.

The Government is proposing the introduction of the new subject of 'relationships education' in primary school and renaming the secondary school subject 'relationships and sex education', to emphasise the central importance of healthy relationships.

The focus in primary school will be on building healthy relationships and staying safe.

As children get older, it is important that they start to develop their understanding of healthy adult relationships in more depth, with sex education delivered in that context."

In its announcement, the British Government claimed that it was committed to:

  • Retaining "a parent's right to withdraw the child from sex education" in secondary school; and,
  • "[E]nsuring that the education provided to pupils … is appropriate to the age of pupils and their religious background."

There is no reference in the policy document or press release to same-sex marriage or any focus on LGBT issues.

The policy manager at Brook, a UK-based young people's sexual health and wellbeing charity that delivers sex education in around 12 per cent of English secondary schools, insisted that sex education and same-sex marriage were not linked.

Lisa Hallgarten told Fact Check that "welcome developments in sex and relationships education are not a result of, or related to, the legalisation of same-sex marriage in the UK".

She added:

"Currently, there are different legal obligations regarding provision of sex and relationships education. This has meant that children and young people have been really let down, many receiving inadequate education and some receiving none.

From 2019, all children and young people will be entitled to a minimum education offer. Brook celebrates this because whatever type of school a child goes to and wherever they live, all children face the same challenges as they grow up and all are entitled to be prepared with the same information and skills ...

[W]e must ensure that inclusive SRE is not only mandatory, but also relevant and appropriate to the lives of young people — including lifestyle issues such as alcohol, drugs, mental health, sexting and pornography.

The law allows schools to teach in line with 'the tenets of their faith', so there are concerns that in some schools young LGBT+ students will not receive education that is relevant to them.

However, schools are bound by the 2010 Equality Act which obliges them to meet the needs of all their students."

Closure of schools that do not cover LGBT issues

The anecdotal story mentioned by Ms Okotel in her Press Club speech and again in passing on Q&A appears to be a reference to a small Orthodox Jewish primary school for girls in London that hit the headlines in June 2017.

Vishnitz School is an independent school with around 170 students, aged between 3 and 8.

Under English law, independent schools are inspected and regulated by the Office for Standards in Education, Children's services and Skills, known as Ofsted.

Ofsted inspected Vishnitz in July 2013 and found it to be of a "good" standard.

However, in February 2016, October 2016, and again in May 2017, Ofsted found that the school did not meet all of the required Independent School Standards.

According to the published reports, the school's curriculum did "not pay enough regard to developing respect and tolerance for those who may have protected characteristics as set out in the 2010 Equality Act."

The Equality Act is a law that was introduced by the Labour Government of Prime Minister Gordon Brown that aimed "to harmonise discrimination law, and to strengthen the law to support progress on equality."

The UK's obligations under European Union law were also considered when drafting the legislation.

Explanatory notes to the bill stated that one of the effects of the law was that "listed public bodies will have to consider how their policies, programmes and service delivery will affect people with the protected characteristics."

The nine "protected characteristics" are age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex, sexual orientation.

The law came into being three years earlier than same-sex marriage, and under a different government.

A spokeswoman for Ofsted told Fact Check that the outcome of the inspection at Vishnitz "had nothing to do with attitudes towards gay marriage, or specifically teaching pupils about gay marriage." She added:

"What inspectors found in Vishnitz Girls School was that leaders were not paying enough regard to developing pupils' tolerance and understanding of people with these protected characteristics.

That means it was not developing pupils' awareness that there are people who have different beliefs and faiths from theirs. And, crucially, that those people have the same rights and freedoms as they do.

The standards do not expect schools to teach pupils in detail about homosexuality or gender diversity, only that they encourage respect for other people, paying particular regard to the protected characteristics set out in the Equalities Act.

The Independent School Standards are enshrined in law and schools cannot choose which parts of the legislation they comply with.

But that doesn't mean they have to abandon their religious principles. Of course parents have the right to expect an education that conforms to their religious beliefs — but it must comply with the law. And it is possible to do both, as we see in faith schools up and down the country."

A spokesman for the Board of Deputies of British Jews, the national representative body for the UK's Jewish community, said:

"Vishnitz School is a strictly-Orthodox Jewish school and is not representative of mainstream Jewish schools in the UK. Most Jewish schools in this country teach a curriculum that complies with the Equality Act 2010 but also remains true to their faith-based ethos."


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