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British evangelicals want to control our schools

A new crop of hardline Christian fundamentalists think they should decide what’s taught in British classrooms. They’re just as sinister as their US counterparts

Miriam Cates MP during the Conservative Party Conference. Photo: Pat Scaasi/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

The right wing Tory MP Miriam Cates’ battle against how sex education is taught in British schools goes on. According to the Telegraph, more than 70 MPs now support her Relationships and Sex Education (RSE) Transparency Bill, which will allow parents to view the contents of their children’s RSE lessons, emboldening them to complain about things they don’t like.

An op-ed by Cates in the paper last month stated that the motivation behind the bill is the presence of supposedly “dreadful materials” which “encourage children to discuss ‘sexual pleasure’ and describe extreme sex acts”. It can also be viewed as part of an interest in gender and sexual culture war topics that led the Penistone and Stocksbridge MP to assert last month that internet porn was encouraging men to become trans women.

Cates’ stance on sex education – and that of her supporters – is presented as the reasonable concern of normal parents. But an investigation by The New European can reveal that her advisers on the bill include Family Education Trust (FET), a charity with long-standing links to hard right Christian groups who oppose LGBT marriage, reject compulsory sex education and which shares RSE-related misinformation online. The New European approached FET, but the organisation did not respond to enquiries.

Cates, who was approached by The New European but offered no comment, has praised the FET in the Commons and the organisation’s own financial audit says it provided “a briefing for Miriam Cates MP on the subject of age-inappropriate sex education materials which was used by Mrs Cates in a parliamentary debate”.

FET describes itself as “a national educational trust which researches the causes and consequences of family breakdown [and has] no political or religious affiliations.” Originally formed in 1971, it started life as The Responsible Society and was designed to counter the influence of the so-called “permissive society”, which it thought promoted divorce, children born out of wedlock, abortion and pornography. By 1999 the charity had changed its name to the Family Education Trust and its stated goal was then “to carry out or promote research into the social, medical, economic and psychological consequences of sexual behaviour and to publish the results of such research”. 

One year later the mission statement also changed and, according to their current website, FET exists to “influence the public policy debate… by responding to government consultations and inquiries, engaging in dialogue with government ministers and officials, briefing MPs and peers and speaking out in the national press and media.”

Despite claiming no political or religious affiliations, most of the trustees and advisors named on their website refer to themselves as practising Christians, and one is a member of the Synod. Among their sponsors is Viscountess Brentford, a high-standing member of the Church of England who previously sat on the Crown Appointments Committee which appoints bishops. Previous sponsors include Robert Whelan, assistant director of the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) and Dennis O’Keeffe, of both the IEA and the TaxPayer’s Alliance, another member of the Tufton Street network of think thanks that often promote views associated with the libertarian hard right.

Their current director Peter Williams is the former director of anti-abortion non-governmental organisation Right to Life. A proud Catholic, he has stood against the idea of compulsory sex education in schools for more than ten years. In 2013 he was banned from speaking at an event held by UCLU’s Catholic Society because of alleged homophobia. Williams referred to the ban as an “utterly repugnant chilling of speech” adding: “Simply suggesting that a lifestyle is ethically problematic is not going to cause someone distress… to treat people as if they are so over-sensitive that they will get into physical distress because someone is suggesting their chosen lifestyle and their chosen beliefs are wrong, is fundamentally anti-intellectual and fundamentally insulting.” The New European approached Williams for comment on these matters, but he gave no response.

This sentiment and the suggestion that the LGBT community poses a threat to the family (by FET’s definition of it) is a thread which runs throughout FET’s material and forms the basis for their objections to teaching LGBT issues as part of RSE. One of their trustees, Tony Rucinski regularly tweets his objections. A former CEO of the Board of Community Health Councils, Rucinski is also director of the International Mission to Jewish People, which actively seeks to convert Jews to Christianity. In a recent Tweet  he referred to LGBT discussions in RSE lessons as “indoctrination”, adding “we need an expanded version of section 28, banning all such ‘education’ for pre-16s.” 

Rucinski has also questioned the idea that children are born LGBT and staunchly opposes both same-sex marriage and compulsory RSE. In an appearance on GB News this year, he told presenter Calvin Robinson that “man-woman marriage” was essential to the “good of the country” and that “marriage is at the heart of our culture war”.

Along with a number of FET’s other trustees, Rucinski is a member of the Coalition for Marriage (C4M). A Christian moralist group which seeks to change the laws that recognise LGBT marriage, their director is Andrea Minichello, well-known for her links to the fundamentalist group Christian Concern, which has strong ties to the Conservative Party. More recently, Christian Concern has posted on its website, thanking Cates for her work on the RSE Bill.

In July this year, FET director Williams spoke to Rucinski in an interview for the C4M website about the teaching of LGBT issues in RSE, claiming that “institutional capture of… the entire education sector… has led to self-identification becoming widespread within schools. In an alarming cluster of cases, children are identifying not just as different genders, but as ‘furries’ or animals!” 

The argument that LGBT-inclusive sex education is leading to children identifying as animals has been widely debunked, but this type of scaremongering misinformation has become pivotal to FET’s continued success, as evidenced by the number of times their media officer has been quoted in such articles in the Daily Mail. As a further example, a post on FET’s Twitter account last month suggested that a cartoon teaching children about masturbation was actively “encouraging children under the age of consent to have sex”. Unsurprisingly, there is absolutely no evidence to support this either. 

Concerns about RSE lessons leading to underage sex is another area in which FET appears to be basing its argument on long-debunked claims. In a YouTube video from last year, FET advisor Dr David Paton claimed that teaching children about consent with the phrase “only you know when you are ready to have sex” was apparently encouraging them to engage in sexual activity before they were legally of age. 

In the same speech, he claimed that compulsory RSE was ineffective because, although the UK had seen a reduction in teen pregnancies, other countries which did not have compulsory RSE had also seen a reduction. He then went on to claim, rather shockingly, that grooming gangs were less of a threat to child safeguarding than RSE, stating that “Professional attitudes to underage sexual activities directly contribute to sexual abuse.” 

A 2018 UNESCO study states that “There is absolutely no evidence that sex education encourages young people to have sex earlier. In fact, sex education makes it more likely that first sex will happen later, when a young person feels ready. And – most importantly – first sex is more likely to be consensual, meaning it’s wanted and agreed to.”

FET is very keen on telling everyone what is wrong with RSE, but it takes a deep dive of their website to find out what it does consider appropriate. The online shop hosts a number of publications and pamphlets that promote the Christian traditional family. One of their key texts (written in 1990) claims that “it is not too late to stem the tide of sexual experimentation among the young”. Later paragraphs state: “The squadrons of pushchairs to be seen in any city centre, wheeled about by young girls depending on state benefits to survive in a cold and lonely world, testify to what the commercialisation of sex education has done.” 

FET’s response to this horror appears to be limited to the two links on their website aimed at students. One leads to a defunct American website called “Love Matters”, which promotes abstinence and “Pro-Life Celebs [who] help save students from sexual sins and abortion”. The other sends readers to the oddly-named Abstinence Clearing House, which can only be accessed via a VPN and promotes “Abstinence Programs, Speakers and Materials”.

While abstinence and “purity” are a cornerstone of the US Christian Right, there is no evidence that having total control over your children’s sexual exploration has any effect whatsoever on teenage pregnancy rates. There is, however, comprehensive evidence that teaching RSE leads to a reduction in sexual violence, fewer teen births and enables children to recognise and report inappropriate sexual contact. Likewise, a recent article in the Times Educational Supplement highlights the misinformation at the very heart of Cates’ campaign, explaining that all teaching materials are already made available to parents on a majority of schools’ websites. 

The dedication of Cates et al to portraying long-standing education techniques as a sudden, unexpected attack on our children has become central to the Christian right’s infiltration of the Conservative Party. Over the last two years, a number of conservative youth groups have sprung up, with close ties to both the Christian right in the UK and the alt-right in the US. Dedicated to portraying progressivism as a slippery slope towards “cultural Marxism”, these extreme theocrats could gain influence in a post-defeat Conservative party that finds itself in search of new political ideas on which to base its comeback. As such, they provide a grim view of the future for the right wing in Britain

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