Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Teaching about marriage

Current Sex and Relationships Guidance asks schools to teach about the nature and importance of marriage and of stable relationships for family life and bringing up children. This wording recognises a range of different family structures and acknowledges that a child brought up in a variety of contexts can be fine if some basic pre-conditions are met.

It now transpires that conditions for funding for Free Schools and Academies obliges them to teach about the superiority of marriage and its importance in bringing up children, but apparently not other kinds of relationships or families. This new SRE formulation seems to have dropped the term ‘stable relationships’.

Why does that matter?
 I think we can all think of examples of children being brought up by single or non-married parents who are happy and healthy and some who are damaged and vulnerable. We all know marriages that are destructive and that provide a bewildering and distressing context for family life as well as those that are safe and lovely. However, I will leave it for others to discuss the pros and cons of marriage itself and whether it is the societal panacea it is believed to be by some.

As an educator I am most concerned about classroom practice 
When you work in a classroom you become very sensitive to the variety of backgrounds and experiences that make up the student group. You think carefully about the words you use and how they will impact on the feelings and future choices of the young people who are sitting in front of you. If I was teaching about different kinds of relationships and different models of family life, I would be acutely aware of the fact that the young people in my class could be being brought up by married biological parents; could be adopted,  fostered or in care; could be being brought up by a single parent (single through choice, through abandonment, through bereavement); could have a gay parent or two gay parents; a trans-parent may have lost their parents; or may simply have two biological parents who co-habit, but never ‘tied the knot’. The last thing I would want to do is to stigmatise them, make them feel I am judging their family or pre-judging their future life based on their current family life. Unfortunately this is exactly what happens when people try to promote marriage above all other models of family life.

Telling these children that they are more likely to fail, because marriage is the only legitimate model for family life, that it confers some unique protection on children, and guarantees them an advantage in life, is hardly a good educational tactic is it? Whatever your moral or political beliefs about the benefits or otherwise of marriage over other kinds of relationships you have to think about whether stigmatising  a student’s life experience is going to reap educational or emotional benefits.

Most parents do their level best to create a family and home in which children feel safe and loved, are motivated and supported to do their best in life and are healthy. Parents hope their children will find a loving partner and create a loving home for their grandchildren too. Talking about how to achieve this: what makes a child feel safe and loved, how to manage the challenges of parenting, how to make decisions about when/if to become a parent, and how to get the support all parents need to make a good go of it, are all vital parts of Sex and Relationships Education. Most people would agree that children thrive with certainty, security, boundaries, and consistency. With this in mind, exploring the concept of ‘stable relationships’  seems a really sensible approach. Telling a large proportion of our children that their families are inferior, failing or illegitimate because their parents/ carers aren’t married -  or that they, as a result are disadvantaged and set up to fail -  is just plain wrong.

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