Dozens of academy schools have signed up to teach the ‘importance of marriage’ as part of their deal to get government funding.
The Government has quietly changed the previous guidance on relationship education, which previously emphasized that care should be taken ‘to avoid stigmatisation of children based on their home circumstances’. Instead, in an appeal to the Tory right, schools have been given a green light to say ‘marriage is best’.
Thirty per cent of children in the UK live with one parent. They, along with children with unmarried parents, gay co-parents or any other family set-up that doesn’t fit the Government’s preferred model can now be told that their families are second-rate. Just as many of the religious organisations now running state-funded academies believe.
The clause also requires schools to avoid using ‘inappropriate teaching materials’ for sex and relationship education. But it says nothing about what ‘inappropriate’ means — and it will clearly be interpreted by some academy funders as anything they disagree with. On top of this the Government has ditched even Labour’s inadequate plan to end parents’ right to withdrawn fifteen-year-olds from sex education.
The new clause is part of the model funding agreement presented by the government to academies and free schools when they opt out of local authority control. Although in theory schools could ask for an alternative agreement, a random sample of the deals signed so far, excluding those of religious schools certain to agree with the clause, did not find a single one without it.
The reality is that marriage is an institution in decline. And the government’s plans to promote it stigmatise young, working-class mothers above all.
Since 1981 the number of marriages conducted each year in the UK has fallen by a third. The year 2009 saw the lowest number of marriages since 1895. In England and Wales 46% of babies were born outside marriage in 2009, up from 38% in 1999. Seventy-four per cent of babies born to 20-24 year-old women, and 95% of babies born to under-20s were born outside marriage. These are overwhelmingly the children of working-class women, who are more likely to have children than their middle-class counterparts, and who do so earlier.
The Government’s proposal labels these women as inferior parents. In fact, it labels as inferior any parent whose relationships don’t fall into its narrow, moralistic definition of what constitutes a good family unit.
The academy clause has a chilling echo of the infamous Section 28. Introduced by the Tory government of the 1980s, it banned local authorities from “promoting the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship” and “promoting homosexuality” more generally.
No-one was ever prosecuted under Section 28. But the implicit threat to councils — which received (and receive) most of their funding from central government — led many to self-censor. Further education colleges banned lesbian and gay groups. Austin Allen, a teacher, was sacked after telling students he was gay, though a union campaign won him reinstatement.
The academy clause is likely to have a similar effect. It will be a stick for the moralistic right to beat schools that dare to take a progressive, evidence-based approach to sex and relationship education. Many, perhaps most, will avoid any material that might offend. It will only take one vocal parent to complain that the school isn’t teaching the ‘importance of marriage’ properly to tie up school staff in a protracted dispute.
While Section 28 made gay people its target, the new pro-marriage moralism is vaguer. But it’s no less pernicious. A look at David Cameron’s record on gay rights shows how the ground has shifted. In 2003 when Labour finally abolished Section 28 he voted to keep it. A year earlier, he had backed an amendment to the Adoption and Children Bill that would have specifically excluded gay couples from adopting (it was defeated).
Later, though, he changed tack. In 2009, before the General Election, he apologised for Section 28. By this year’s Conservative Party conference he had become a supporter of gay marriage.
The lines of the new moralism are now drawn not between straight and gay, as they were by Section 28. They are drawn between the state-sanctioned, “stable”, “committed” married couples and everyone else.
Never mind that we might want to organise our relationships in a different way, or that we might not want to pretend that relationships are for life. In a big recent survey of marriage trends in America, only 28% of respondents thought there was ‘only one true love’ for every person. Why — if that’s the case — is the Government so set on promoting marriage?
First, because the Government wants to shift the blame for the poor prospects of working-class children. The target can’t be greedy bankers or exploitative bosses or rapacious landlords or any of the Tories’ other friends. The Government wants to be able to say that if children do badly in life, if they drop out of school or end up rioting, it’s not because their parents are poor, but because their mothers are unmarried. And worse — they want children to internalise that message.
Second, the family is the system through which, in capitalist society, the next generation of workers is created. If families — and in practice mostly women — didn’t do this job for free, the state would have to provide far more for children than the pitiful benefits it currently pays. The UK has a particularly poor record on support for bringing up children. Here, a couple on average wages spend 27% of their income on childcare. Across the thirty-four countries of the OECD, that figure is 12%. In Sweden full-time childcare for the first child costs £114 a month — and for subsequent children even less. But the Government’s priority is... marriage.
Marriage is an institution that gives state recognition, and thereby privilege, to one form of sexual relationship above others. Socialists should oppose it. But while it continues to exist, we should insist that its special status is not used to stigmatise children.
And though there are many other reasons to oppose the creation of academies, if an academy goes ahead campaigners should fight to ensure that this clause is struck out of its agreement with the Government.
Spot the difference
Sex and Relationship Education Guidance, July 2000
“Pupils should be taught about the nature and importance of marriage for family life and bringing up children.
“But the Government recognises that there are strong and mutually supportive relationships outside marriage.
“Therefore pupils should learn the significance of marriage and stable relationships as key building blocks of community and society. Care needs to be taken to ensure that there is no stigmatisation of children based on their home circumstances.”
Free School Model Funding Agreement and Academy Model Funding Agreement, July 2011
“The Academy Trust shall have regard to any guidance issued by the Secretary of State on sex and relationship education to ensure that children at the academy are protected from inappropriate teaching materials and they learn the nature of marriage and its importance for family life and for bringing up children.”