South African parents have reason to be concerned about content in the Comprehensive Sexuality Education (CSE) learning material promoted by the Department of Basic Education (DBE) — but they can also take heart that they have the power and the opportunity to take action on the matter for the good of their children and other young people.
So said Ryan Smit, an attorney and executive director of Cause For Justice (CFJ) in a talk at Shofar church in Port Elizbeth last Sunday in which he shone light on two key issues in the CSE debate that have been misunderstood because of ignorance and misinformation. CFJ has been researching the CSE issue over the past 18 months and Smit has studied the lesson plans and engaged extensively with all stakeholders in the debate.
The two key issues highlighted by Smit are:
- The department’s learning material contains factual information focused on protecting young people but it also includes content that is not based on medical or biological science but drives a radical feminist gender ideology and gender fluidity or gender spectrum theory.
- Parents — and not the state — are legally the highest authority on the education of their children and have the final say on their learning material, whether they attend public schools or private schools. The department’s CSE material is therefore not compulsory but just one of a number of options
In an interview Smit said: “For a long time I have had a fear that people of faith would look at the material [the department’s life orientation CSE lesson plans and educator guides for Grades 4 to 12] and not see the dangers and risks upfront in the material. And lo and behold, this is what is happening; many people don’t have the knowledge and discernment to see the risks of the actual content as a whole.”
Since last year Christian voices have been at the forefront of public opposition to the government’s plans to roll out its new lesson plans at public schools without consulting many key educational stakeholders. The DBE has defended its lesson plans vigorously, accusing opponents of not having studied the plans, spreading fake news about the material and of being insensitive to a crisis of teenage pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases among young people. Mainstream media and even some Christian leaders have endorsed the department’s narrative.
The department’s CSE learning material is based on UNESCO’s International Technical Guidance on Technical Education, whose focus on the sexual autonomy of children has been rejected by the UN General Assembly itself, which says the focus in sexuality education should be on what is in the best interests of children and their sexual health, said Smit.
“I am all for teaching about safe touching and protective behaviours and such things that are in the state’s material. But that autonomy ideology is definitely in the lesson plans. It contains elements that are ideological in nature and based on views of what your gender and your sexuality mean and decisions around that, which are not biologically and medically-based, but come through social sciences. I refer to it as a radical feminist ideology and it coexists with this notion of gender existing on a spectrum or being fluid — and that is not supported by medicince or biological science but carries a very specific agenda.
“So, I say there is a serious cause for concern and a reason why parents should have an issue with it.”
Commenting on trends in developed western nations, he said: “If you look at the arc of this ideology — when it is allowed to fully bloom, what we see at international level is girls’ sports being eradicated because boys are being allowed to participate; you see boys in girls cloakrooms and bathrooms which is not necessarily in the best interests of girls who feel very uncomfortable and that their privacy is being affected. Then, also, sadly, you see the reality of children going through sex-change operations, even before puberty — being put on puberty blockers and that kind of thing.
“I am not being a conspiracy theorist or crying wolf on something. This is reality, this is where it leads and it is definitely not in the best interest of children.”
Getting to his good news for parents, Smit said “the amazing thing about South Africa’s school system” that was enacted in 1996 is that it has placed parents in control.
SA’s white paper on education 1995 which he said is the bedrock on which the SA Schools Act and whole schooling system was built, says: “Parents or guardians have the primary responsibility for the education of their children, and have the right to be consulted by state authorities with respect to the form that education should take and to take part in its governance. Parents have the inalienable right to choose the form of education which is best for their children, particularly in the early years of schooling, whether provided by the State or not, subject to reasonable safeguards which may be required by law. The parents’ right to choose includes choice of the language cultural or religious foundation of the child’s education, with due respect to the rights of others and the rights of choice of the growing child.”
With the respective rights of parents and other school system stakeholders in mind, he said Cause for Justice has developed a 7-point plan of action which parents can use to exercise control in the area of life orientation/sexuality learning material.
The plan is:
- Parents should take up their responsibility to teach their children on sex and sexuality — and acknowledge that by failing to do so, they have “invited” the DBE to step in. With teen pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases rising, the state has a reason to be concerned and to act.
- Good alternatives to the state’s CSE lesson plans should be developed/identified. Cause For Justice has identified the following excellent alternatives: Life At the Crossroads , Smart Life and the TLT (Training Tomorrow’s Leaders) programme .
- Parents should, through their school governing bodies, get their schools to drop the CSE material and adopt suitable alternatives. The department, which previously pushed the idea that its material was compulsory, recently announced it would allow schools to choose their materials. This announcement was actually “a bit of spin”, said Smit, because the department’s material was never legally compulsory. [get link to spin announcement]
- Parents can assist with training teachers, education students and parents to teach alternative content programmes. Excellent material is not useful if teachers are not geared to implement it and busy teachers will need help to learn and implement new programmes. CFJ has linked up with training organisations this year to take students, teachers and parents out on retreats where they could become acquainted with the new learning material.
- At schools which adopt CSE parents can take children out of classes and provide alternative teaching at other venues or at home. Smit said that at a meeting with the department he was assured that they have a process in place where individual parents can remove their children from a specific class, subject or portion of a subject. Those requests are dealt with on a case-by-case basis. Parents adopting that option should read the CSE learning material and present a well-founded case for removing their children. Smit said a weakness of this option is that it does not address your children getting secondary exposure to the offending material through other children who were exposed to it.
- Parents — especially through the Church — can help to roll out alternative material to other schools and communities who may not know about other options. The Church has to ask itself whether it cares enough about other people to connect them with excellent alternatives such as Life at the Crossroads which is biblically-based.
- A final option is for schools to just carry on doing what they have been doing with life orientation up until now. A concern about this option is that it doesn’t address the issue that the state got involved because parents failed to take up their responsibility to teach their children about sex and sexuality, said Smit.