UK Government slams Catholic RSE resource over ‘gender stereotypes’ that ‘could normalise non-consensual behaviour’

The UK Government has condemned a Catholic relationships and sex education (RSE) resource, arguing it should not be used in schools. It says it has ‘serious concerns’ and it ‘would be hard for a school to present [it] in a way that is consistent with the… statutory guidance.’ It contains ‘gender stereotypes’ that ‘could normalise non-consensual behaviour or encourage prejudice’. The resource was originally exposed by Humanists UK.

The comments were made by Schools Minister Nick Gibb in a letter to Conservative MP for Herefordshire Jesse Norman. Mr Norman wrote to Mr Gibb about the resource – called A Fertile Heart – after complaints that a school in his constituency was using it. Humanists UK has been lobbying the Government to ban the resource for six months. It welcomed the Government finally taking action over its misogynistic attitudes and misinformation. But it added that the Government should scrap carve-outs to the law that allow faith schools to teach RSE from a religious perspective.

A Fertile Heart says that ‘man was created to be the initiator in sexual relationships’ and women are ‘receiver-responders’. It also tells pupils that the pill is a ‘moral danger’, and that gay and lesbian people cannot marry and must abstain from sex.

In the letter Mr Gibb says that ‘generally, the Department does not comment on externally produced resources’. Instead, it prefers individual schools ‘make their own decisions about the best teaching resources’. But, following multiple complaints from Humanists UK and others – including Shadow Minister for Domestic Violence and Safeguarding Jess Phillips – it has made an exception.

Mr Gibb goes on to say he has ‘serious concerns’ that the ‘gender stereotypes’ in A Fertile Heart. He refers to the suggestion that men should play a ‘directing’ or ‘initiating’ role in relationships, and that the role of women is to ‘receive’. He says the resource ‘includes information about the effect of contraception on girls which is inaccurate and appears to be included to alarm pupils.’

A Fertile Heart was produced by Catholic priests. Until recently, the Archdiocese of Cardiff directed its use in all of its schools. But Gibb writes that ‘we understand that is no longer the case and schools in the Archdiocese now have a choice of resources, including A Fertile Heart.’ He says the Government ‘has no powers to withdraw the material’ or ‘direct that it is amended’. However, he says, ‘given our concerns about sexual violence against girls in schools and our increasing awareness of the way in which the school culture can contribute to this serious problem, I will write to the publishers of “A Fertile Heart”, and to the Archbishop of Cardiff to set out my serious concerns.’

Faith schools are legally able to teach RSE in line with their religious ethos. But Gibb says content should be made ‘clear when what [pupils] are being taught reflects a religious belief’ rather than fact. ‘This is particularly important where pupils are taught about topics, such as contraception and same-sex relationships, where religious belief may not align with aspects of the curriculum.’

The letter comes just as an urgent Ofsted review into sex abuse in schools has been published. It found that children and young people were ‘rarely positive’ about the RSE they’d received in school, with many saying it was ‘too little, too late’. School leaders ‘consistently underestimate’ the scale of the problem of abuse and harassment. ‘It shouldn’t be our responsibility to educate the boys’ said one girl who provided evidence.

Humanists UK Education Campaign Manager Dr Ruth Wareham commented: 

‘We have been lobbying the UK Government to condemn A Fertile Heart since we first uncovered it six months ago. We’re glad that it’s finally agreed it promotes unacceptable misogyny and factually inaccurate information. And that this content risks fostering rape culture and damaging pupils.

‘But the Government must now take steps to make sure that material like this is never used in classrooms. All children and young people are entitled to comprehensive information on sex and relationships. To make this a reality, faith-based carve-outs to RSE must be scrapped.’

One of the schools in England using the resource – St Mary’s RC High School in Herefordshire – recently had to ‘change the language’ of the resource in order to pass an Ofsted inspection. The inspection report said  ‘the way leaders intend to implement the RSE programme’ would not ‘endorse messages that are contrary to the Equality Act 2010’. But the full programme is still listed on the school’s website. Subsequently, St Mary’s was also named in a list of schools linked to pupil testimonies about sexual abuse on the survivor website, Everyone’s Invited.