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Tuesday, 19 December, 2000, 15:40 GMT
Section 28 more symbol than substance
Sex education lessons
Schools are to receive new guidelines on sex education
Throughout all the noisy debates over the government's attempts to abolish Section 28, an awkward and often overlooked fact has been that it has never applied to schools.

But Section 28, which prohibits local authorities from promoting homosexuality, has long since become such a dividing line for attitudes towards homosexuality that the symbolic battle has taken on a life of its own, regardless of any practical application in the classroom.
Sex education lesson
School governors and heads set sex education policy - and have never been subject to Section 28

The government is once again seeking to overturn the legislation - a move which it hopes will be made easier by the passing of its revised sex education guidelines through the House of Lords last week.

The new guidelines seek to achieve a balance between family values and tolerance for same-sex relationships - promoting "family life, marriage and stable loving relationships".

But this compromise will be angrily rejected by the defenders of Section 28, who will again argue that the measure is a necessary security against the promotion of homosexuality.

Section 28 does not apply, and never has applied, to the activities of individual schools in England.

Schools Minister Jacqui Smith

Whether Section 28 is retained or abolished, there will be no direct impact on schools - although there have been claims that the legislation creates an atmosphere which makes anti-gay bullying more likely.

In the previous round of attempts at abolishing the legislation, Schools Minister Jacqui Smith spelt out: "Section 28 does not apply, and never has applied, to the activities of individual schools in England. It applies only to the activities of local authorities."

Red-herring

As local authorities have no influence over the teaching of sex education in schools, the measure has never directly affected schools - and despite its fearsome reputation, the Department for Education says that the legislation has never been used.

Head teachers' leader, David Hart, labelled the debate "unreal" and local government leader, Graham Lane described the arguments as a "charade" and a "red herring" - but nonetheless the battle has rumbled on.

Despite its repeated reminders that Section 28 does not affect what is taught in schools, the government has pursued its abolition - arguing that it is discriminatory and encourages prejudice.

This view is supported by the National Union of Teachers, which at its annual conference this year called on the government to repeal the legislation, as its retention was sending a negative message to gay pupils and teachers.

Even though teachers are not covered by Section 28, delegates talked of the "long shadow" of legislation which gave the impression that homosexuality in the classroom or staffroom would not be tolerated.

The government will also argue that the new statutory guidelines on sex education will be a more effective endorsement of family values than could have been achieved by a symbolic measure such as Section 28.

Head teachers and boards of governors, who are exempt from the requirements of Section 28, determine sex education policy, after consultation with parents - with the local authority having no rights over what is taught.

The new guidelines will place requirements on schools, which its supporters argue, will provide a clearer responsibility for sex education teachers to acknowledge the importance of marriage and family life.

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In DepthIN DEPTH
The Section 28 battle
Controversy and debate
See also:

18 Jul 00 | Education
Sex guidelines threat defeated
07 Feb 00 | UK Politics
Government suffers Section 28 defeat
20 Jul 00 | UK Politics
Kent defies Blunkett on gays
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