Access to knowledge: Parents, Children and the State
There is nothing new about parents objecting to their children receiving information about sexuality and sexual health. The famous Gillick case involved one woman’s personal crusade to prevent her daughters being given advice or contraception without her knowledge. Not only did she fail in her objective, her name has forever become associated with the positive assertion of young people’s rights, through the introduction of the term “Gillick competence” into the legal lexicon. Squeezing a very complex and controversial legal framework into a nutshell, this signifies the capacity of children to make independent decisions about their own life, when they attain sufficient maturity to do so. In terms of legal theory at least, when a minor is able to fully understand the implications of a given issue, and weigh up the pros and cons of differing responses, he or she may make that their own choice on the matter. As a result, parental responsibility terminates necessarily for the issue in question.
This means that adults with parental responsibility* do not have the final say in all decisions, until the moment when this disappears in a puff of smoke on their child’s eighteenth birthday. Instead, the right gradually tapers off, as the young person attains the ability to make independent choices about more and more aspects of their life. How this works in the real world is rather trickier, because in practical terms family life is necessarily a matter of negotiation. Children cannot realistically apply to court over disputes around screen time, clothing choices, holiday destinations or chocolate consumption, nor would judges intervene even if they could, as it is not the role of the State, via the judiciary, to micromanage families. Furthermore, there are very difficult questions around 16-18 year olds, who exist in a kind of legal twilight zone between minority and majority, not to mention a moral quagmire about whether under 18s are permitted to reject life-saving medical treatment. However, the basic principle is crystal clear: applaud it or hate it, parental responsibility in the UK exists for the benefit of children, not parents.
This should be remembered when we are confronted with news stories about parents expressing anger about their children being given access to knowledge. Recent headlines have reported on conservative Christian and Muslim parents protesting outside a school against teaching children about same sex couples and gender identity. They argue that these lessons involve material which is incompatible with their religion, and should not be taught. Ofsted have adopted a robust stance in response, but have been keen to stress that the teaching is focused on understanding diversity in society. The aim of these lessons is to encourage children to recognise that communities include people with a range of experiences, characteristics and beliefs, and help them to respond positively to difference when they encounter it. Therefore, to imply that pupils will receive a wide range of confusing and detailed messages about sex, as some of the campaigning families have done, is to grossly misrepresent the position.
It is unquestionable that twentieth century experiences of orchestrated State indoctrination by totalitarian regimes, such as the Hitler Youth movement, led to explicit guarantees of freedom from such oppression within the European Convention on Human Rights (in particular Art 2 of the Protocol 1). Nevertheless, this does not and should not equate to the right of parents to demand that all aspects of State education be in line with their personal beliefs and ideals. An a la carte menu of public schooling would be unworkable in practical and financial terms, but more significantly, it would be incompatible with children’s rights. It is crucial to stress that the freedoms guaranteed to parents to raise their family in accordance with their beliefs, culture and values (enshrined in particularly in Arts 8 and 9) do not, and must not, outweigh the rights of children to develop as individuals, obtain information and make their own choices as independent human beings.
As we have discussed before in this blog, the United Kingdom has a very liberal position with regard to parental choice and education. Privately financed schools have almost total freedom when it comes to setting their curriculum, and receive fiscal support in terms of tax-breaks. In many areas, faith schools are funded by the tax-payer, and finally, anyone who wishes can opt out of school-based education altogether, teaching their children at home, without the need to demonstrate any qualifications, submit to regular inspections or file reports. In light of all of this, worries about State indoctrination in British soil are hardly credible.
One of the driving ideals behind publicly funded state education is to level the playing field, and give all children a chance to fulfill their potential, regardless of their family background. It is not realistic to pretend that any educational program will be neutral in terms of values, and within a liberal democratic State, it is appropriate and necessary to teach future members of that society about the principles upon which it is based. Needless to say, they will be free as adults to personally accept them or reject them as they see fit, but clearly parental protest is not a reason to deny some children knowledge about the world in which they live, and the neighbours with whom they share it. It is (fortunately) inconceivable that we would pander to families objecting to their children being given positive messages about racial diversity, and there is no legitimate reason why gender or sexuality should be treated any differently.
Rightly, parents have many opportunities to influence their children, for good or ill, but they do not have a monopoly on this, and as a society, we also have a responsibility to the children growing up in our midst. Parents do not have, and must not have, the right to treat children as an extension of themselves, and filter external information and ideas, as this fundamentally undermines the rights and interests of the children themselves.
*Not all parents have parental responsibility, and not all adults who have parental responsibility for a child are actually parents. The label is confusing, but it is a statutory one (Children Act 1989 s2) so we are stuck with it.
Why are BAME girls less likely to get the HPV jab? (BBC News 4/3/19)
Osted says schools should teach pupils about same sex couples (BBC News 21/2/19)