October 25, 2023 - 7:00am

“Interfering” parents, rejoice! Education Secretary Gillian Keegan is writing to schools to tell them parents should be allowed to view what their children are learning in relationships, sex and health education (RSHE). 

Until now, there has been some uncertainty about this, with a number of resource providers suggesting this would be a breach of copyright law. In a letter to schools, Keegan has stated that such concerns are trumped by a parent’s right to know. 

Of course, as some of us might have suspected, this doesn’t solve the matter entirely. What if sex education materials get into the hands of the wrong kind of parents? What about prudish, behind-the-times parents? What if they don’t like what they see, and then kick up a fuss?

This is not an unwarranted concern. One parent’s idea of keeping children in a state of ignorance is another’s idea of protecting them. Maintaining the balance between respecting cultural beliefs and ensuring a child does not grow up without access to vital information is difficult. In an ideal world, teachers should not be pressured into keeping some children in the dark.  

Yet in recent years this has been made more complex by the so-called culture war raging over “new” interpretations of sex and gender. The boundary between informing children and indoctrinating them has become increasingly blurred. Sex education is political, and while we might not want our children to be ignorant, fear of being seen as “that parent” — the bigot who “just doesn’t get it” — should not become a reason for remaining ignorant ourselves. 

As the partner of a teacher, I’m conscious of how difficult the situation is for them. I suspect the vast majority of teachers are not ideologues, desperate to tell children that “sex isn’t binary” or that “there are 72 genders”. Like most of us, they’re incredibly busy and just want to do what is right. As the Safe Schools Alliance documents, organisations such as Stonewall and Allsorts have been effective at presenting themselves as the “new” authorities on all things sex, sexuality and gender-related. 

At the same time, the image of the bigoted parent — a conception which fails to differentiate between, say, “thinks homosexuality is sinful” and “knows sex is binary” —  isn’t just used to encourage educators and children to withhold information. It’s also used to warn the rest of us off becoming that bigot who asks to see what their child is being taught. 

Many of those who say they abhor shame are quite happy to shame the overly-curious parent. Why would that be? Parents, like teachers, are not perfect. They are human, and varied, but one thing they generally do is perform a safeguarding role. There is something inherently concerning about the idea that they shouldn’t see the materials to which their children are exposed. Those which normalise breast-binding, for instance, pose a genuine risk. If teachers cannot speak out, perhaps some parents will. 

The “interfering” parent stereotype inhibits necessary involvement in children’s lives. As teenage girls, many of us might have been told “do what I want, or else you’re a prude”; as mothers of teenagers, we now hear, “look away, or else you’re a bigot.” This is a continuation of the same ritual. Who’d want to be the kind of parent who looks at their kids’ sex ed materials? Those of us who do are meant to think we are morally defective, as ever. 

Allowing parents to view materials and, potentially, to question them matters. Perhaps I sound like “that parent” when I write this. I’ll write it all the same not because I am interested in shaming others, but because I refuse to be shamed out of taking an interest in what we tell our children. It’s reassuring to know that, from now on, doing so should be a little easier.

Victoria Smith is a writer and creator of the Glosswitch newsletter.