Western Isles council rejects official sex ed in favour of Catholic teaching

The Western Isles has been hit by a fresh row over the influence of churches on public policy after councillors voted to endorse a Catholic manual on teaching sex education and relationships in schools.

A large majority of councillors on Comhairle nan Eilean Siar (CnES) backed a motion “commending” Roman Catholic teaching materials, which uphold an orthodox Catholic stance against sexual intercourse outside heterosexual marriage.

The vote came after Church of Scotland ministers on Lewis said parents and teachers were unhappy about Scottish government-backed material on relationships, sexual health and parenthood (RSHP), teaching children about the human body, different gender identities and sexual relationships, pornography and safe sex.

Rev Hugh Stewart, a minister in Lewis presbytery, which lobbied councillors to reject the official materials, said it suggested children as young as three were taught about human genitalia, while the Catholic material said 10 was the earliest age for that.

Due to be translated into Gaelic, the official materials would also put children from Christian homes under pressure to “embrace” views about gender and relationships which conflicted with their morals, and were not appropriate to their age and stage of development, he said.

“It is one thing for a child or young person to be educated and objectively informed, it is another to require them to ‘embrace’, which infers a tacit support for, a view that contradicts their own morality or faith position,” he said.

Councillors angry about the vote denounced the decision as “dark and dangerous”, but council officials insisted the motion did nothing to change policy since it still allowed teachers to use a variety of guides based on their judgment and local policy.

Cllr Angus McCormack, CnES’s education convenor and a former maths and guidance teacher at the Nicolson Institute in Stornoway, the Western Isles’ largest secondary school, said: “All these councillors are doing are expressing an opinion which is driven by their own personal beliefs.”

Cllr Norman Macdonald, who attacked the vote as “lunacy”, said current policy already required teachers to check with their headteacher and parent council if they wanted to use controversial materials, and allowed parents to remove children from class if they disapproved.

LGBTQ campaigners in the Western Isles fear the vote will nonetheless put schools under heavy pressure to shelve or delay more progressive, inclusive lessons about gender and relationships, and embolden people critical of official teaching material to complain.

Once dominated by conservative and highly orthodox Presbyterian churches, including the Free Church of Scotland, the Western Isles still observes sabbatarianism, which forbids work and play on Sundays. The current council is all-male.

Swimming pools and sports facilities, including golf courses, are closed on Sundays, but gay rights activism has become more visible. The first pride march in the Hebrides was held in 2018 in Stornoway, the largest town on the islands, where the local arts centre An LLantair, staged a LGBT history month in 2017.

One Hebrides Pride activist, who has three children at school, told the Guardian: “I’m now facing the prospect of attempting to provide this education for my children myself at home. I’d much rather my kids be taught the Scottish government-approved RSHP curriculum at school, by a trained and qualified teacher.

“My anxiety over the RSHP decision is not just about how my children will be taught right now, it’s also a long-term concern about how they’ll be taught throughout their school years, both in primary and in secondary.”

McCormack said he expected nothing would change: “There was a time when [public life] was very largely dominated by the church, but that’s no longer the case. I think that teachers will bring a realistic curriculum to their children and make sure that they’ve all the information that the need to live in our present-day world.”


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