Submission to UK govt consultation on sex and relationships education in schools

A few months ago I submitted a response to the UK government’s consultation on sex and relationships education in schools. For a comprehensive discussion of the consultation documents, the End Violence Against Women coalition’s response is worth reading in full. However, in reading this there was one aspect of the consultation document that rang some bells, and so, drawing on my research with Kim Allen, I submitted the following response:

I want to discuss in particular paragraph 56 (on page 15), which focuses on ‘virtues’. This language draws on the language of ‘character education’, which is particularly associated with the US, where it was developed, and where there is a strong association between abstinence-based sex education and character education. However, over the past fifteen years, and particularly since 2012, there has been a growing investment in ‘character’ education across the UK political landscape. Along with Dr Kim Allen from the University of Leeds I have written an article tracing the policy networks – including funding streams – that have supported this rise in support for character education in the UK (Allen and Bull, 2018). Our research reveals that much of the evidence in support of character education in the UK comes from university research centres that have received significant funding from the US-based Christian neoconservative John Templeton Foundation (JTF). JTF’s main funding streams are oriented around what it calls ‘the big questions’, which include ‘voluntary family planning’ as well as ‘character virtue and development’ (John Templeton Foundation, 2017a). Since 2012, the JTF have poured millions of pounds into investment in research and policy advocacy in character education in the UK, much of it through the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues (University of Birmingham). The Jubilee Centre was officially launched on 16 May 2012 in the House of Lords by Jack Templeton (then-President of the JTF). It had, as of June 2017, received in excess of £16 million of JTF funding, comprising over 98% of its grant income[i].

The link between character education and abstinence education is not usually explicit in the UK, however, this link is still apparent. For example, a key figure in the Jubilee Centre’s US network is academic Thomas Lickona, a prominent advocate for character education. A developmental psychologist, Lickona has published widely on character, including the ‘Eleven Principles of Effective Character Education’ (Lickona, 1996). Lickona is transparent about his socially conservative political and religious position; in his keynote address to the Jubilee Centre in 2014 Lickona discussed ‘character-based sex education’ arguing for ‘abstinence education as a natural ally of the character education movement’ (Lickona, 2014: 9).

I therefore have serious concerns as to why the language of ‘virtues’ is being used in policy on sex and relationships education. It may indicate that advocates of character education inside or outside government are involved in policy development in this area. However, regardless of how this language came to be in the document, there are problems with using such a framework for teaching relationships education. First, it teaches children that if they are in an unhealthy relationship it is likely to be their fault for not having sufficient ‘courage’ or self-control. Second, it fails to address gendered patterns of sexual violence and abuse, teaching pupils to use the language of individualised ‘virtues’ to explain experiences that are likely to be shaped in a large part by gender. Finally, character education has been criticised in the US, Canada and Australia for serving a conservative political agenda, by promoting governments, schools, and adults as sources of legitimate moral authority while ignoring or hiding difference or conflict (Boyd, 2015: 162; Jones, 2009: 39; Winton, 2008: 311). This fails to give children the tools to raise questions about unhealthy or unwanted behaviours that they might experience from adults.


Allen, K., & Bull, A. (2018). Following Policy: A Network Ethnography of the UK Character Education Policy Community. Sociological Research Online, 23(2), 438–458.

Boyd, D. R. (2016). Character Education from the Left Field. In Becoming of Two Minds about Liberalism (pp. 273–295). SensePublishers.

Bull, A., & Allen, K. (2018). Introduction: Sociological Interrogations of the Turn to Character. Sociological Research Online, 23(2), 392–398.

John Templeton Foundation. (2017a). ‘Funding Areas’. (accessed 4 August 2017).

Jones, T. M. (2009). Framing the framework: discourses in Australia’s national values education policy. Educational Research for Policy and Practice, 8(1), 35–57.

Lickona T (1996) ‘Eleven Principles of Effective Character Education’. Journal of MoralEducation 25 (1): 93–100. doi:10.1080/0305724960250110.

Lickona T (2014) ‘My 45-Year Journey as a Moral and Character Educator: Some of What I Think I’ve Learned’. Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues University of Birmingham, June 25.

Winton, S. (2008). The appeal(s) of character education in threatening times: caring and critical democratic responses. Comparative Education, 44(3), 305–316.

[i] A Freedom of Information request was placed by the authors to the University of Birmingham requesting ‘full information on the funding provided to the Jubilee Centre since its inception in 2012’. The return, dated 12 June 2017, provided the following breakdown of grant income: John Templeton Foundation (£5,623,418 and £6,076,326); The National Liberty Museum (£50,000); Society for Educational Studies (£9453); and the Department for Education (£168,246 + VAT).  Following the receipt of this, the Centre was awarded with a further grant worth $5,747,960 (approx. £4,358,678) ( ).

Submission to UK govt consultation on sex and relationships education in schools

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