LEICESTER, United Kingdom – Catholic school leaders in Northern Ireland fear that new government rules undermine “the parent’s or carer’s right to have their children educated in accordance with their ethical, religious, and philosophical convictions.”

The Catholic Schools’ Trustee Service (CSTS) is calling on parents to express their concerns by responding to the Department of Education’s new “Relationships and Sexuality Education Consultation,” featuring curriculum guidelines which, according to critics, highlight access to abortion.

In 2021–2022 – the last year with available data – there were 442 Catholic maintained schools with 124,000 pupils, representing around 35 percent of students in Northern Ireland.

The CSTS published its response to the Department of Education’s on Friday, claiming it undermines the rights of parents and the teachings of the Catholic Church.

The trustees argue that the new legislation places significant new power in the hands of the Board of Governors and Principals, directly undermining the rights of parents; and that it compromises the rights of trustees to promote a faith-based education within the largest education sector in Northern Ireland.

The Catholic group also says it is very concerned that the new law would impose on schools a “particular ideological view” of abortion and the prevention of early pregnancy.

“The expectation that schools should become engaged in the delivery of an allegedly neutral curriculum which highlights access to abortion shows no understanding of the foundational principles of Catholic education,” said Bishop Donal McKeown, the chairperson of the CSTS.

“Our vision of education asserts the rights of parents and carers to have their children educated in accordance with their ethical, religious and philosophical convictions,” he added.

In its statement, CSTS asserts that the new legislation undermines the parent’s or carer’s right to have their children educated in accordance with their ethical, religious, and philosophical convictions, “as is recognized through international human rights legislation.”

Legislative topics of such sensitivity should have remained, the trustees say, a matter for a locally elected assembly to consult upon, debate, and agree a way forward that best meets the needs of the people in Northern Ireland.

“It is incomprehensible that, in bringing forward such legislation, it was determined that no formal consultation was required,” the CSTS says.

The CSTS also notes that the incorporation of the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) report directly into UK law, “was legislatively unusual and makes drafting guidance all the more complex.”

“Interpreting what is ‘scientifically accurate’ on sexual and reproductive health brings into play key existential questions on when life begins,” the organization says.

“There is no ethically neutral or value free approach to the question of when human life begins,” McKeown said.

“Furthermore, any education in ‘sexual health’ cannot be seen as a free-standing issue separate from the bigger picture of helping young people grow into mature adults in a highly sexualized world,” he said.

“A healthy discussion of sexuality has to be part of a curriculum that promotes mental health and well-being.  That is exactly what a faith-based relationships education program seeks to do,” he added.

In its statement, the CSTS also expresses concern that the imposition of the legislation “has disturbed schools, carers, and others, and has already led to calls from many parents or carers to have their children and young people withdrawn from all aspects of Relationship and Sexuality Education.”

The organization says it is “unclear how this imposition by the Secretary of State can accommodate the rights of those who chose a Catholic school.”

“What rights does a Catholic school have in promoting its overall vision of life to parents who have chosen to exercise their right to determine their child’s education by sending them to a Catholic school? It is clear that the road ahead, if this approach is not modified, will be one of continual legal challenge as Catholic schools cannot, in conscience, engage in the promulgation of abortion rights or provide information around accessing such services,” the statement continues.

The CSTS also says it hopes the Department of Education will recognize the strength of feeling on these moral subjects and will provide reassurance to schools, parents and the wider public.