No sexes please. We’re Welsh.

Martha Gwion reflects on Welsh Government’s squeamishness as it ties itself in knots instead of providing accurate, clear and safe RSE guidance to schools and teachers.

Imagine a government producing guidance on developing and delivering a curriculum to teach children and young people about sex, yet neglecting to mention the words male, female, boy, girl, man or woman in that guidance.

Imagine a government announcing that they would develop a curriculum to address sexism, early sexualisation, access to pornography, sexual harassment and exploitation, and violence against women and girls, yet neglecting to mention any of those things in the statutory code.

In Wales we don’t have to imagine this because Welsh Government have just done it. The new Curriculum for Wales Relationships and Sexuality Education Code was laid with the Senedd on 23rd November and is due to be approved by MSs before Christmas. Despite being an enormous improvement on the document that went out to consultation last summer, it still fails to meet the reasonable expectation that it should be factually accurate, safe, ideology-free and truly inclusive. It confusingly and self-consciously shoehorns ‘gender’ in when referring to matters relating to sex. And they don’t use the words male, female, boy, girl, man or woman even once.

Welsh Government maybe feel that they are stuck between a rock and a hard place. Do they placate lobbyists and proponents of niche academic theories who see RSE as a vehicle to promote just one subjective, unproven point of view at the expense of facts, or do they ensure that what children learn in this area of the curriculum is consistent with what they will be taught in science, child development and psychology? Should they embrace the creative energy of edgy iconoclasts at the cutting edge, or acknowledge that this a sensitive curriculum area and ensure that everything is in place to safeguard learners? Is it really that hard to see where their responsibility lies? Many of us in the education sector in Wales remember the abuse experienced by pupils of John Owen because boundaries were blurred and other teachers were labelled prudes or homophobes for expressing concerns. For shame on Welsh Government for forgetting so quickly that their role is to provide leadership on difficult issues and make it safer for concerns to be voiced – prioritising children’s rights and needs over adult agendas, and reality over ideology.

With such an extensive rewrite between the consultation draft and the document laid before the Senedd, it’s understandable that there are a few tweaks here and there that would help offer clarity to schools and teachers. But there are also fundamental weaknesses in the guidance and code, some elements of which are statutory, that need to be addressed big time. RSE will be mandatory in schools in Wales, so if the Minister for Education, Jeremy Miles, fails to get to grips with these flaws he risks alienating many parents who may want to withdraw their children from lessons regardless. The dogged determination to demonstrate Welsh Government’s woke credentials will also let down the very children and young people who would benefit from high quality RSE provision.

For me the key weaknesses are clear. The first issue is obviously the misguided decision to name a curriculum area that applies to 3 to 16 yr olds Relationships and Sexuality Education in the first place. The rationale given in the consultation document for dropping the ‘sex’ makes little sense – and even less so in Welsh. It’s performative. And it risks ridicule from learners and rejection from some parents.

The absence of a clear statement, as in the English DfE Guidance, is also significant. The RSE Code needs a similar statement, along the lines of:

Topics involving gender and biological sex can be complex and sensitive matters to navigate. You should not reinforce harmful stereotypes, for instance by suggesting that children might be a different sex (or gender) based on their personality and interests or the clothes they prefer to wear. Resources used in teaching must always be age appropriate and evidence based and accurate language should be used.

Terms such as ‘assigned at birth’ are not accurate and are confusing to learners. Beliefs in concepts such as ‘gender identity’, which some people find helpful in describing their feelings, should not be taught as if they were fact. Materials which suggest that non­conformity to gender stereotypes should be seen as synonymous with having a different ‘gender identity’ should not be used and you should not work with external agencies or organisations that produce such material.

While teachers should not suggest to a child that their non­compliance with gender stereotypes means that either their personality or their body is wrong and in need of changing, teachers should always seek to treat individual students with sympathy and support.

Schools are bombarded with colourful materials and resources and many organisations depend on the revenue stream provided by running sessions on some of the topics teachers feel least equipped to deliver. Welsh Government should be providing a benchmark against which such providers can be judged. The most eye-catching or memorable resources – for instance the Genderbread person, mocked in the press this weekend – do not necessarily have anything to do with biology, accuracy or reality; but they continue to be pushed by organisations who really should know better. Resources such as AGENDA, Primary AGENDA and CRUSH promote a regressive view of gender, despite seeming superficially progressive.

They reframe the developmental stage at which toddlers first become aware that there are two sexes and that there are differences between them as “having feelings about their gender identity”. They use appropriated, inaccurate but scientific sounding terms such as “assigned at birth” and suggest that it is compliance with gender stereotypes, not your body, that determines whether you are a boy or a girl. The progress made in the 70s and 80s has been turned on its head. But these resources are presented to schools as having Welsh Government approval, while being in clear breach of the guidance for schools in England. Well-meaning teachers, health educators and youth workers have been misled so action is needed. Clear guidance from Welsh Government would be a start; some kind of kitemark or vetted list of materials and providers would be even better.

My third priority is a very obvious one. If you don’t acknowledge the sexes, how can you see and address sexism? The squeamishness of Welsh Government in the code is bizarre – pornography isn’t mentioned at any point. This was to be a major focus of the new RSE Curriculum when it was first announced. It appears it is now too controversial to mention.

In contrast, Welsh Government are unflinching in their determination to popularise the Q-word (and who knows what the + is for). This is despite it being considered offensive by so many who have absolutely no wish to ‘reclaim’ a slur they associate with homophobia and even violent assault, as so many lesbian, gay and bisexual people have repeatedly explained. Will they be including any other slurs embraced by only a tiny section of a minority community (and a few hangers on – not everyone who calls themselves Q is actually LGB or T) in government policy and law? If not, what makes this case any different?

An RSE Code where girls and women are invisible apart from references to their bodily functions is more than just counterintuitive. Such coyness and aversion to naming our bodies, our reality and oppression, is antithetical to high quality relationships and sex education. Women and girls do not experience violence, abuse and oppression because they are feminine, but because they are female. Welsh Government should focus less on being different to their counterparts in England and on pleasing lobby groups, and more on doing better for our children and young people.

So, red pen in hand, what do I write? ‘Gweddol yn unig’i or ‘Nid da lle gellir gwell’? An ‘Ardderchog’ would be nice for a change and it’s no less than children deserve. Time to pull your socks up Jeremy.

i Approximate English equivalents: Gweddol yn unig = No more than fair; Nid da lle gellir gwell = It’s not good if better is possible; Ardderchog = Excellent.

Image courtesy of Metro Centric