Friday 26 November 2010

A Lie is not the 'other side of the argument' it is just a lie

Here is the main substance of a presentation given by Lisa to the Westminster Health Forum on Teenage Pregnancy 16th March 2010

There has been a lot of discussion about issues around faith and SRE in the last few weeks as a result of the SRE passage through Parliament and I really wanted to make the case here that ethics and evidence are not two separate things, they have to be addressed in parallel and that means that people addressing factual information have to think about the context for it and people addressing faith issues have to, HAVE TO be giving evidence-based information.

We don’t believe that anyone should appoint themselves as a filter or a censor of evidence-based information around sex and relationships education. We believe that all young people should be able to access absolutely accurate information. They expect the professionals and adults in their lives to provide that and we should all be committed to doing that. I think there is sometimes an idea that in certain aspects of SRE, certainly the aspects Education For Choice addresses i.e. pregnancy decision-making and abortion, that it's all so controversial and political that there isn't evidence-based information, it’s all just a matter of opinion. But that's nonsense - the fact is that there are good quality and peer reviewed studies from all around the world that provide us with accurate information.

In terms of faith and values, I don’t really need to say much. Lots of people feel it’s a really important part of what they do, and who they are, but it’s also really fascinating. Young people are really interested in all these kinds of questions. They want to know what other people think and where they get their views from. They want the opportunity to explore those - to compare views, to ask themselves – where do my ideas come from? From me? Are they my personal opinions, or from my family, my community, my peers? How do those views impact on me and my ability to make decisions about my life? Those are things that everyone is really interested in and I don’t think that health professionals who go into schools should be shy and kind of try and veer away from those kind of discussions, because they are really interesting and really useful.

I am not going to talk in any length about the barriers to quality education, but clearly there are problems. There are teachers who have lack of time, lack of skills or confidence who sometimes resort to using outside speakers who aren’t suitable, who aren’t bringing evidence-based information and who are there to promote a very particular perspective, that’s not helpful for young people. There is sometimes a lack of clarity about the need for evidence-based information or where they can access that. We find that there is a lack of understanding of the term balance and that is something I will talk a little bit about because in the DFES guidance on SRE in the year 2000 which was actually very good guidance, it was recommended that schools do not approach topics within SRE like abortion in a really polarising way in which you give two sides of a very extreme argument, that is not helpful for young people’s health and it is not something that makes young people feel safe within a classroom situation.

There is another aspect to this discussion about balance, and this is a bit brutal but I hope you will forgive me. This is a quote from my favourite television series of the 21st century (The Wire) and I think it really sums it up – ‘a lie is not the other side of an argument, it’s just a lie’. We cannot give people misinformation and say, well that’s just my point of view. We can say 'this is my point of view and these are the facts associated with it', but we have to be clear what the difference is between the two and I think we can do that in a really simple way.

Look at this. If I was a politics teacher I would be very happy for the students in my class to leave the room all agreeing that Gordon Brown is a very handsome man. We might all disagree with that, or we might all agree with that, or we might have different opinions, there is no factual framework, there is no criteria for handsome against which we can judge that. It really is just a matter of opinion. But if my politics students leave the room believing that Gordon Brown is the King of England, I have failed as an educator, they are wrong. There’s actual facts and evidence that tell me that he isn't the King he’s the Prime Minister (or was at the time this was written).

So how does this relate to SRE. I will give you an example. If a student leaves my classroom believing that abortion is wrong, that is completely fine. There is no objective criteria by which I can say to that student abortion is right or abortion is wrong, it’s clearly a matter of personal opinion and values. However, if a student of mine leaves the classroom believing that abortion will make her infertile, that is misinformation and I have failed as an educator.

Doing exercises like this with a class of young people in SRE is a really good way to help them untangle the difference between something that is based on opinion or values, and something that is based on fact and it is a really, really important thing that we need to do.

I am just going to finish by saying, don’t be shy of exploring values if you are a health educator and please, please do not fall short of giving accurate evidence-based information if you are a faith educator.


  1. I just received this feedback on the article above by email.

    'Just had to say what a superb presentation this is - and thanks for circulating it. Thanks Lisa - I'm going to use your Gordon Brown example when I do training! (I'll say where I got it from).'