Serious questions have been raised about the impartiality and non-political nature of UK schools after claims emerged that some may have encouraged students to sign a petition against same sex marriage.

The Department for Education is investigating after it emerged that the Catholic Education Service sent a letter to all Catholic secondary schools, arguing against the legalisation of gay marriage, which is currently being debated in the UK. The letter describes marriage as “a lifelong commitment between a man and a woman” and argues that “neither the Church nor the State has the power to change this fundamental understanding of marriage itself”.

Equal rights campaigners have been angered by the rhetoric of the letter, which sets out a “Catholic vision of marriage”, which it subtly implies necessitates the participation of both a male and female partner in order to be successful. But its referral to the importance of marriage as enshrining the production and education of children has been deemed offensive by many activists, as gay adoption is legal and common in the UK.

The letter also inadvertently angered many others by referring to “an instinctive understanding that the stability of a marriage provides the best context for the flourishing of their relationship and for bringing up their children.” Many might interpret this as outright criticism of unmarried cohabiting couples, single parents and unmarried mothers and fathers, as it explicitly suggests that their children are likely to suffer as a result of their choices.

The main objection to the letter, however, centres not on its contents, but on the fact that it was sent to schools at all, as, by law, politically one-sided arguments are not allowed to be promoted to children by teachers or schools. The idea is that schools should provide a ‘safe space’ for education and development free from the risk of political influence, prejudice or bias. But the Catholic Education Service has tried to circumvent this problem by claiming that “the Catholic Church’s view on the importance of marriage is a religious view, not a political one”. This is a tricky area, as Catholic schools have indeed always been allowed by law to teach sex and relationships education that is in line with the teachings of the church, including stressing the importance of marriage.

The furore over schools teaching potentially harmful or prejudiced ideology to children has recently centred on Michael Gove’s pet ‘free school’ scheme, as the government’s ‘laissez-faire’ attitude towards these schools has raised fears that they would be allowed to indoctrinate children with extreme religious and social beliefs. In fact, a similar row erupted in February, when a booklet condemning homosexuality was handed out at Catholic schools in Lancashire. The fear is that the Equality Act of 2010 (which protects students from discrimination on the grounds of their protected characteristics, including sexual orientation) does not extend to the contents of the curriculum, meaning that potentially deeply damaging attitudes such as homophobia might be legally ‘taught’ in the classroom.

Those concerned about this politicisation of children in education have been further enraged by the claim, reported by, that one school actually went as far as to stage a presentation about the issue and “urge” pupils to sign the anti-gay marriage petition. The article also includes a quote attributed to Greg Pope, the deputy director of the Catholic Education Service, in which he admits asking schools to “draw attention” to the petition.

There are fears that this politicisation of vulnerable students at a time in their lives when they are arguably most open to influence, particularly from trusted authority figures such as teachers, could extend further under the new free school regime. Not to mention the potential knock-on-effect on the marginalisation and persecution of pupils in schools whose sexual orientation does not conform to the attitudes being promoted in RE lessons. It is surely problematic to conform to an Act that protects children from discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation on the one hand, and yet allow the teaching of homophobic ideology on the other, as the two must inevitably be inextricably linked. It seems some greater clarification will be needed from the Department for Education to prevent such issues from taking centre stage on the curriculum again in the future.