Right to withdraw children from sex education classes

Under s. 405 of the Education Act 1996, any parent has the right to withdraw a child from sex education at a maintained school up to the age of 19, except to the extent that the subject is covered in a science lesson that forms part of the national curriculum. On 5 November 2009, the Labour government announced that a proposed new bill, the Children Schools and Families Bill would include a provision that would remove a parent’s right of withdrawal once a child had reached the age of 15 years. The next day, the Family Education Trust made a FOIA request for all correspondence, notes and reports on this issue. This was refused. The proposed legislative change was abandoned when the Coalition government came to power in May 2010. The requester made the same request again, seeking only information created prior to May 2010, i.e. under the last government. The Department for Education again refused, continuing to rely on s. 35(1)(a) of FOIA (formulation or development of government policy). The requester’s appeal to the Tribunal concerned the public interest balancing test only. The appeal in Family Education Trust v IC and Department for Education (EA/2011/0244) was dismissed.

Three points are of interest as regards the public interest in maintaining the exemption for the formulation and development of government policy.

First, the appellant argued that there had been a lack of transparency about this decision. The Tribunal thought this a valid type of argument in general: it could “envisage cases in which public dissatisfaction with the rigour or comprehensiveness of a public consultation may add weight to the public interest in having information disclosed”. This did not, however, have purchase on the facts of this case.

Secondly, what of the fact that the relevant provision had been abandoned during the “wash up” of outstanding legislative business immediately before the May 2010 election? The appellant said this meant no ‘safe space’ was then needed, as policy development on this issue was no longer live (this was raised as a public interest argument, but it seems to me it could equally well be an argument against the engagement of s. 35(1)(a) in the first place). Again, on the facts this point did not have force, as the issue remained live after the election. The Tribunal did, however, add this note of caution:

“It does not follow, from our conclusion on this aspect of the case, that the period during which the “safe space” must be protected will be without limit. Some elements of the public debate on sex and relationship education may be perennially controversial but, in the event of a further information request being made at any time in the future, it will be necessary for the Department to consider the state of policy development at that time.”

Thirdly, the Department also argued that there was a public interest in protecting from disclosure contributions made by those consulted on policy matters in this area. The Tribunal gave this factor less weight, “in that those submitting views with the intention of influencing policy decisions by government should in most cases accept that the consultation process will be conducted in public view. We nevertheless accept that a degree of protection may be required in the context of a particularly contentious issue, such as the right of withdrawal and that, had we been inclined to order to disclosure generally, it might have been appropriate to make special provision for some elements of the consultation process.”

Robin Hopkins