Sunday, March 05, 2017

UK: Ministers set to announce plans for compulsory sex education lessons in schools for four-year-olds

Ministers are set to announce plans for compulsory sex education in schools for children as young as four, The Daily Telegraph understands.

Prime Minister Theresa May backs an overhaul of the sex education system to recognise threats to children from social media and sexual images on the internet, Number 10 said today.

Asked if the PM was concerned that teaching in classes had not kept pace with threats from the internet, the spokesman said:  “There is a threat online and that threat we would all recognise has grown.

“That does mean that now is the right time to look at how we can ensure children have the access they need to the teaching in those subjects.”

It comes after a group of 23 Tory MPs, including five former ministers, backed a change to the law that would see Sex and Relationship Education (SRE) made a compulsory in the National Curriculum.

The change would see teenagers being what consent means in sexual relationships and how to protect themselves from sexting and online exploitation in compulsory classes.

Currently only council-controlled secondary schools are required to teach children about sex in biology classes. There is no such requirement on academies or free schools which make up the majority of secondary schools in England.

Ministers have faced mounting pressure from across the political spectrum to bring about the change following concerns children are being left ill-equipped to cope with the new realities of online porn, cyber bullying and sexting.

Justine Greening, the Education secretary, has already hinted that the Government wants to take action, but has yet to publish further information.

The changes - the biggest overhaul of sex education for 17 years - were proposed in an amendment to the Children and Social Work Bill which was published in the House of Commons earlier this month.

A survey earlier this week by  Plan International UK, the children’s charity found that the vast majority of parents are in favour of educating children about sexual consent, pornography and "sexting".  Seven out of ten parents also backed the inclusion of education about different sexualities.

Government officials have insisted that any SRE lessons will be “age appropriate”.


Alarmed by Trump, New England schools protect vulnerable students

Alarmed by President Trump’s increasingly hostile stances, several local school departments have sought to reassure parents, students, and teachers that protections remain in place for immigrant and transgender students.

School officials from at least seven cities and towns — as well as the state Education Department — have sent letters home to parents or posted statements in the last several weeks, after Trump’s moves to restrict immigration and limit protections for transgender students.

In Needham, Superintendent Dan Gutekanst welcomed high school students back from February break this week with a statement noting that “collectively these actions and pronouncements impact us all by sending a message that an individual is not welcome or wanted.”

“And that,” Gutekanst wrote, “is simply unacceptable.”

Letters have gone out from Revere, Brookline, Lexington, Boston, and other communities, starting last month, days after Trump’s first executive order restricted travel from seven Muslim-majority nations. The letters continued as the administration moved aggressively to deport those in the country illegally. More messages came after the president revoked federal guidelines specifying that transgender students have the right to use public school restrooms that match their gender identity.

Some Massachusetts school leaders point to a 1982 Supreme Court ruling in their letters, saying, “states cannot constitutionally deny students a free public education on account of their immigration status.” Some of the letters are written in several languages, owing to the highly diverse makeup of the student bodies in Greater Boston.

“We recognize the uneasiness and isolation many of you are experiencing due to the current political climate,” Mayor Brian Arrigo of Revere, who is also chairman of the School Committee, and Superintendent Dianne K. Kelly wrote in a Jan. 30 letter that was written in Spanish, Arabic, and English. “One of the ways we have measured our schools’ success has been by assessing how safe, welcomed, and included ALL of our students and families feel. This will not change.”

Brookline Public Schools began its Feb. 3 letter by quoting James Baldwin, the celebrated black author, essayist, and social critic: “We can disagree and still love each other unless your disagreement is rooted in my oppression and denial of my humanity and right to exist.”

The broad, vehement backlash from states and individual school districts recalls the resistance to public school desegregation in the 1960s, said Preston Green, a professor of educational leadership and law at the University of Connecticut.

In that era, there was a “massive resistance” in Southern states and elsewhere to keep schools segregated.

“It’s ironic,” he said. “It’s now the Northeast and people pushing for inclusion who are now pushing against the federal government. In fact, you’re seeing the term ‘the resistance’ being used against the current administration, and this is the educational component of it.”

The day after Trump’s administration issued a letter ordering schools nationwide to disregard orders from the previous administration regarding the rights of transgender students, Mitchell Chester, Massachusetts’ commissioner of elementary and secondary education, wrote a letter to state school officials. He said that he “would like to affirm for you that Massachusetts remains dedicated to protecting the rights of transgender students even in light of recent federal actions.”

“No one should be discriminated against based on their gender identity, and under existing state statute and regulations, protections for students and families will remain in place in the Commonwealth,” he wrote to superintendents, charter school leaders, and principals.

Chelsea Public Schools posted Chester’s letter to its website.

Governor Charlie Baker, a Republican, echoed Chester’s comments, saying last week that he was disappointed with the Trump administration’s move and reaffirming that students in Massachusetts “are going to be protected.”

Under a Massachusetts law that went into effect last year, transgender people are permitted use of restrooms or locker rooms that correspond with their gender identities. The Trump administration’s guidance leaves such discretion up to local lawmakers, US Attorney General Jeff Sessions wrote in a statement.

In Lexington, Superintendent Mary Czajkowski wrote that “it has not been my practice to comment on political events or share my own perspective on such matters.”

But that changed with Trump’s executive order restricting immigration, she wrote.

“I feel it is important for me to emphasize again, that everyone belongs in Lexington Public Schools,” she said in a Jan. 31 letter. “Regardless of language, race, ethnic background, religion, gender identity, sexual orientation, disability, national origin, immigrant status, and any other manner in which individuals may identify — Lexington Public Schools remains fully committed to safety, equality and inclusivity for all .”

Trump’s order on immigration has been halted by the courts. He is expected to issue a new order Wednesday.

Explaining their correspondence to students, parents, and staff, the Brookline Public School Committee and Superintendent Andrew Bott said in a letter that they felt it “important to reiterate our policies and practices” as “critical national issues related to education emerge.”

“We acknowledge that this is a frightening and uncertain time for some of our community members, and we want to affirm that all students and families are valued, welcome, and important members of our inclusive and pluralistic community,” said the letter.

School officials in Cambridge issued two separate letters — one after the administration’s immigration ban, and another after federal protections for transgender students was revoked — telling Cambridge students and staff that they are valued and supported. Both letters provide resources for families with questions or concerns.

The district also plans to hold two “Know Your Rights” seminars in collaboration with the Cambridge Human Rights Commission and Cambridge Commission on Immigration Rights and Citizenship.

“Bigotry and intolerance have no place within Cambridge Public Schools’ educational environment and workplace,” Superintendent Kenneth Salim wrote in a letter posted to the district’s website on Saturday.

And Boston Public Schools created its own website, BPS: We Dream Together, that offers information on immigration in 15 languages.

“BPS stands in solidarity with all of you!,” Superintendent Tommy Chang wrote in a “Letter to the BPS Community” posted on the website.

He also issued a statement Thursday, the day after federal transgender protections were rescinded, saying that “transgender and gender nonconforming students” in Boston “will remain protected from discrimination, bullying, and harassment.”

The stance that the state and school districts are taking is not insignificant, said Green, the UConn professor.

“It’s a very big deal,” he said. “They are speaking out, in their positions as citizens and as employees. They are taking major stands by making these statements.”


Lurch to left raises concerns for campus free speech

British universities suffer from “group-think” with a strong left-wing or liberal bias among academics and an under-representation of conservative views, a report claims.

It argues that the trend poses a threat to higher education because it raises the possibility of future clashes with right-of-centre governments that may strip universities of funding. There is an increased risk of unconscious academic bias and a possible threat to free speech.

The study comes after universities found themselves on the losing side of the Brexit debate, in which vice- chancellors, academic and student leaders campaigned overwhelmingly to remain in the EU last year, despite several being based in cities or regions that voted heavily to leave.

The analysis, published by the Adam Smith Institute, a free-market think tank, sought to look at the political opinions of British university academics over the past five decades and charted a threefold decline in support for the Conservatives in the period.

Although the underlying data is sketchy and not directly comparable, higher education experts said that the broad trend appeared to be correct and urged a wider debate on the issue.

The author Noah Carl, a research student at Nuffield College, Oxford, looked at results from an online survey of university staff published by the Times Higher Education magazine before the 2015 general election, which found that 46 per cent said they would vote Labour and 11 per cent backed the Conservatives. Another 22 per cent said they would vote for the Green Party and 9 per cent for the Liberal Democrats, with the rest backing other smaller parties. The online survey, in which 1,019 university staff took part, was self selecting and may have included some non-academic university staff.

The author compared these findings with a book written in 1995 by AH Halsey, an Oxford professor, called Decline of the Donnish Dominion which reported surveys of academics’ political views across three decades. These found that 35 per cent said they supported the Conservatives in 1965, falling to 29 per cent in 1976 and 18 per cent in 1989. Different survey methods will have been used and the university sector has grown since, so they figures cannot be directly compared but give an indication of past voting patterns.

The author concluded that discrimination may be a factor and said it was harder for universities to be places where perspectives and arguments were challenged if scholars shared a similar ideological outlook.

Mr Carl said: “It cannot have escaped the notice of anyone who has spent time in British academia, especially in the social sciences and humanities, that there is a sizable left-liberal skew. One rarely encounters a fellow academic who supports the Conservatives, and I have never met one who supports Ukip.”

Ben Southwood, head of research at the Adam Smith Institute, said: “Conservatives have left the academy. You find a fair few libertarians — people with economically right-wing but socially liberal views — but hardly any who admit to being socially conservative.”

Their broad conclusion was endorsed by Nick Hillman, former special adviser to Lord Willetts, the universities and science minister between 2010 and 2014, who is director of the Higher Education Policy Institute.

“Although the picture is sketchy, the evidence that exists does suggest there is an imbalance in political views at our universities compared to the past,” Mr Hillman said.

“It is unsurprising that the cultural wars of the 1980s, which led to big cuts at specific universities and saw politicians attacking particular courses, left a permanent mark.

“In the past, when the political left have been in crisis, as in the late 1970s, more right-wing views have made headway on campus. That doesn’t seem to be happening so much this time around and there are some problems as a result.

“For example, on the day after the referendum, some pro-EU universities were shocked to find that they are in areas of the country that are deeply Eurosceptic and they have started to question whether they have sufficiently deep local roots.”

A spokesman for the University and College Union, which represents academics, said: “This sounds like a reds-under-the-beds scare story from a right-wing think tank. Whatever their politics, lecturers encourage debate and the challenging of perceived wisdom.”


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