Gregory Campbell says parents could collectively withdraw pupils from abortion lessons
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The DUP MP asked Chis Heaton-Harris what would happen in these circumstances as the British Secretary of State brought new regulations at Westminster to make access to abortion a compulsory component of the curriculum for adolescents.
Mr. Campbell asked: "What about in circumstances that could well happen in Northern Ireland, such as when not only an individual parent but parents in a school collectively decide that they do not want their children, plural, to take part in such lessons?
"What would the Department and the education authority’s position be when a sizeable number of people collectively decide not to take part?”
Mr. Heaton-Harris replied: “It would be exactly the same as in England. The education would take place for those who want it to take place.”
The exchange took place on Monday as a Delegated Legislation Committee considered Mr. Heaton-Harris’ Relationships and Sexuality Education (Northern Ireland) (Amendment) Regulations 2023, a statutory instrument that will update the curriculum in the North to include lessons on abortion for young people.
The Secretary of State explained: “This statutory instrument has the following effects. It amends the Education (Northern Ireland) Order 2006 and the Education (Curriculum Minimum Content) Order (Northern Ireland) 2007 to make age-appropriate, comprehensive and scientifically accurate education on sexual and reproductive health and rights, covering prevention of early pregnancy and access to abortion, a compulsory component of the curriculum for adolescents.
"It places a duty on the Department of Education to issue guidance by January 1, 2024 on the content and delivery of the education that is required to be provided and places a duty on the board of governors and principal of every grant-aided school to have regard to the guidance.
"The Department of Education is also required to publish a report by September 1, 2026 on the implementation of the updated curriculum in grant-aided schools and to lay the report before the Assembly.”
Mr. Heaton-Harris addressed Mr. Campbell’s concerns over the potential for parents to withdraw their children from lessons featuring abortion services.
“The Government recognise the sensitivity of the topic and that some parents may wish to teach their child about sex education or to make alternative arrangements for sex education to be provided in line with their religious background or belief about the age at which their child or children should access it.
"In recognition of that, the regulations also place a duty on the Department of Education to make regulations about the circumstances in which a pupil may be withdrawn from education on sexual and reproductive health and rights, or elements of that education, at the request of the parent.
"That follows the approach taken in England and Scotland,” he stated.
The amendments to the curriculum will become law on July 1, 2023, in time for the 2023/24 academic year.
Mr. Heaton-Harris said he was bringing forward the secondary legislation to implement a 2018 recommendation by the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women that the Government ‘make age-appropriate, comprehensive and scientifically accurate education on sexual and reproductive health and rights, a compulsory component of curriculum for adolescents, covering prevention of early pregnancy and access to abortion in Northern Ireland, and monitor its implementation’.