At the start of June Chris Heaton Harris announced that was imposing compulsory new Relationship and Sex Education (RSE) on post primary schools across NI.
His legislation will require schools to teach “scientifically accurate” lessons with a particular focus on contraception and accessing abortion. The plans are based on recommendations for NI drafted by a UN committee based in New York.
The Northern Ireland Office (NIO) said the lessons should be taught "in a factual way that does not advocate, nor oppose, a particular view on the moral and ethical considerations of abortion or contraception".
By contrast, in England there is a statutory requirement for RSE to take into account a school's ethos and the religious background of pupils.
In late June a House of Lords committee criticised his “controversial” plans, for failing to undertake a full public consultation, as is done in England.
Mr Heaton-Harris defended his approach, however at the end of August it was announced that a Department of Education public consultation would take place. Howqever it focuses only on parental opt-out rights from the contraception and abortion aspect of RSE.
The consultation was launched today and will run from 1 September to 24 November 2023. Mr Heaton-Harris then requires the Department of Education to publish its RSE regulations and guidance by 1 January 2024.
However the Presbyterian Church sharply criticised the Secretary of State for his "unrealistic" deadlines.
A spokeswoman said: “The Secretary of State’s deadline of 1 January 2024 for the introduction of his revised RSE curriculum to post-primary schools is a further example of his unrealistic and insensitive approach to these matters, given that school leaders are already facing enormous pressures including those caused by reduced funding."
She added: "Young people should also have the opportunity to explore their own personal morals, values and beliefs including the moral and ethical considerations around sensitive issues like abortion and the prevention of early pregnancy."
The new consultation is "the first, and apparently only" opportunity for teachers, governors, parents and stakeholders to have their say on the new law, she said.
The church called upon the Secretary of State to "reconsider his timetable" so that the Department can conduct "a truly meaningful consultation”.
DUP Education Spokesperson Diane Dodds MLA noted that the consultation is focussed only on the parental right to opt children out of certain aspects of the lessons.
"This change in the law relates to an emotive, sensitive and controversial issue, yet there was no opportunity for the public in Northern Ireland to have their say when the legislation was brought forward by the Secretary of State," she said.
DUP MPs opposed his legislation but the Government "railroaded" it through Parliament, she added.
TUV leader Jim Allister said the wording of the new legislation gives "serious cause for concern" because its frames access to abortion as “a right”; in his view this means the lessons would be "advocating" abortion with "no semblance of neutrality".
He also warned that using any parental opt-out may not be easy, as the wording of Mr Heaton Harris’ legislation could see lessons on contraception and abortion being integrated into non-RSE lessons such as Biology, RE, History, English and Drama.
The consultation can be see here: https://www.education-ni.gov.uk/consultations/relationships-and-sexuality-education-rse-consultation