A row has erupted between the Catholic Church and the Scottish Government over the provision of sex education in schools.

It follows proposed changes by the government contained in its recently published updated draft guidance on relationships, sexual health and parenthood (RSHP).

The Church has expressed deep reservations about the content of the new guidance, saying that it has removed its explicit and historic right to determine the sex education curriculum in Catholic schools.

In a strongly-worded statement responding to the proposed changes, the Scottish Catholic bishops said: “The Bishops’ Conference of Scotland is both disappointed and confused at the decision by the Scottish Government to delete all reference to Catholic schools in its ‘Guidance on the Delivery of Relationships, Sexual Health and Parenthood (RSHP) Education in Scottish Schools’ document.

“We strongly request the re-insertion of the paragraphs relating to Denominational Education from the previous iteration of the guidance, which would reflect both the legal protection for schools with a Religious Character, and the previously supportive position of Scottish Government for Catholic schools.”

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Sources close to the Catholic hierarchy say that the updated guidance on relationships and sexual health for schools has been heavily influenced by the LGBT+ lobby with an entire section of the document devoted to its interests.

A church source said: “this would present a serious problem for our schools. Our teaching is rooted in traditional Catholic theology which promotes loving relationships between men and women within the framework of the family. Of course our schools have always informed pupils about same-sex attraction and the rights of non-binary people, but we will only endorse what has always been the Church’s teaching in this area.”

“The removal of any explicit reference to Catholic parents’ protected rights to have their children educated according to their faith, is deeply concerning.”

BACKGROUNDER: Why Catholic leaders fear change to sex education rules

The Scottish Government has rejected the Church’s claims. A spokesperson said: “The role of denominational schools is already recognised in the Relationships, Sexual Health and Parenthood (RSHP) guidance – Catholic schools in Scotland play a crucial and valued role in the education system.

“The Scottish Government consulted with more than 30 organisations for the purposes of the draft guidance, including the Scottish Catholic Education Service and representatives of other major faith groups.

“The draft guidance makes direct reference to denominational schools, recognising that religious authorities with a role in education provide additional and complementary guidance on RSHP education. It also takes into account an inclusive approach to all faiths and makes clear that educational practitioners should ensure that RSHP teaching and learning is delivered sensitively and respectfully to faith groups 

“If parents or carers feel that the content is not appropriate, they can discuss the withdrawal of a pupil from all or part of a programme of lessons.”

The Church described Government claims that the Scottish Catholic Education Service had been consulted as “disingenuous”. Its source said: “A proper consultation is where the views of a participant or stakeholder are taken on board. Ours were wilfully ignored. It is striking that the term Catholic School is not used within this document and the phrase ‘denominational schools’ only once.”

Currently, Catholic schools represent approximately 20% of the school estate in Scotland. Supporters of Catholic education point out that as Catholics make up around 16% of the population of Scotland the numbers of those attending show that they’re popular in other faith groups, especially the Muslim community.

Critics have previously suggested though, that in a predominantly secular country such as Scotland the existence of publicly-funded faith schools is an anomaly.

In 2019, Tom Wood, former deputy chief constable of Lothian and Borders Police, argued that in dealing with sectarianism there was a need “to look at the roots of the problem and question what divides us. And if we do that then we simply cannot escape questioning our system of religiously segregated education.”

In the devolved era, the Catholic Church in Scotland has enjoyed a cordial relationship with the SNP. This was ratified in 2018 when, in a major speech marking the centenary of Catholic education, then First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said: “We value the contribution that Catholic schools make to modern Scotland. We want that contribution to continue in the years ahead.”

In 2021 though, cracks began to appear in that relationship over the Scottish Government’s Gender Recognition Reform legislation. The Church issued a lengthy and detailed document outlining its concerns about the self-ID aspects of the proposed law