By Omo Ifabua
Fears are rising over the Welsh Government’s new changes to the school curriculum, which will revoke the choice of parents to opt-out their children from religious and sex education lessons. Wales will be the first country in the United Kingdom to make this shift and some have started to accuse the Welsh Government of breaching human rights. Until now, parents always held the right to educate their children in alliance with their own philosophical, religious or non-religious beliefs under the European Convention of Human Rights. This allowed them to opt-out their children from lessons such as Religious Education and Sex & Relationships Education, but this will no longer be an option under the new curriculum.
Once these changes are in place, Religious Education will be renamed Religion, Values and Ethics. Sir Malcolm Evans, a member of the Commission on Religious Education and a Law Professor at Bristol University, worries that the removal of the opt-out “safety valve” could trigger parents to take legal action against schools. He believes that this is highly likely unless the Government is “absolutely sure” the lessons will be “sufficiently inclusive, plural, critical and objective.” Some are also concerned that this could pose a potential struggle for faith-based schools, as voiced by rights charity Humanists UK – “We are extremely concerned that, in state-funded faith schools, where teachers may instruct children from a certain religious perspective, this will be practically impossible.” The charity’s Welsh co-ordinator Kathy Riddik added that “The proposed new law seriously risks exposing pupils to unlawful indoctrination,” advising the Welsh Government to “seriously reconsider the decision.”
However, this is not the first time that Wales has made a seemingly ‘drastic’ reform to its education system. Since the creation of the National Assembly for Wales in 1999, the regional government has had greater power over making educational changes. In 2002 the Government scrapped the infamous SAT exams for Key Stages 1, 2 and 3 and also stopped publicising school performance data to generate league tables. With Wales continuing to edge towards an international model of education, such as the PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment), it is likely that we will continue to see a difference between the Welsh education system and the rest of the United Kingdom. However, even with all these changes in place, Wales continues to fall behind the assessment scores of other UK nations in the core subjects: Reading, Science and Maths.
Despite the scepticism, government ministers have assured that removing the opt-out choice from parents is entirely compatible with the 1998 Human Rights Act and insists that no human rights will be compromised. Ministers have explained that the decision will ensure all children are given access to the same important information, as well as bringing the status of religious and sex education lessons in line with other mandatory subjects. The changes will also give a new focus to ‘wellbeing’ and ‘expressive arts’ and give schools more independence on how these subjects are taught to their pupils. However, there have already been concerns from teaching unions who fear that the current funding for schools will not be enough to facilitate this. The new curriculum is scheduled to be implemented in schools from September 2022.