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Birmingham school protests: reflections three months in

Birmingham school protests: reflections three months in

Paul Bickley shares his thoughts on the recent protests over teaching primary school pupils about LGBT relationships. 27/06/2019

There are two elements about the Anderton Park Primary School protests in Birmingham which have not been much commented on. The first is that a Muslim community, who as a religious minority benefit from the protection of the Equality Act, are protesting against a school which not only abides by but “fully upholds and believes in the Equality Act”. The second is that the protestors are defending their rights against prevailing opinion and the law – not unlike LGBT equality campaigners of the 1980s and 1990s. The protestors (reportedly a mix of parents and perceived provocateurs from other parts of Birmingham’s Muslim community) have been dismissed as homophobes. Their opposition are labelled ‘cultural Marxists’. An adjournment debate in Parliament on Tuesday amply demonstrated how the protests have touched a sensitive nerve – jabbed at it, in fact. But the two sides of this painful episode share more than either would care to admit.

In 1987 the Department for Education issued a circular to local education authorities on the subject of sex and relationship education. The circular stated: “There is no place in any school in any circumstances for teaching which advocates homosexual behaviour, which presents it as the ‘norm’, or which encourages homosexual experimentation by pupils.” A year later, the infamous Section 28, part of the Local Government Act 1988, was passed and the campaign group Stonewall formed in response. The legislation effectively put the DfE guidance into primary legislation, preventing the ‘promotion’ of homosexuality in schools. Both the guidance and legislation came in response the fact that some councils were beginning to encourage head teachers to present positives images of homosexuality and homosexual relationships.

In the three decades since values have changed radically. In 1987 an astonishing 75% of respondents to the British Social Attitudes survey said that homosexual activity was always or mainly wrong. In 2012, that figure had dropped to 28%, with 47% saying that it is never wrong. In 2009 Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron apologised for Section 28 (which had been repealed by the Labour government in 2003). The latest SRE guidance, which will come into force in September 2020, is unequivocal – children will be taught about all different types of family formation, at primary school level, in relationship education and not in sex education (which, in any case, is not compulsory for primary schools). There is therefore no right of withdrawal for parents. It is a sign of the rapidity of this social change that the Birmingham protestors are now considered beyond the pale for advocating a position that would have more of less reflected UK law until 16 years ago.

In view of this shift, and the ongoing and very real prejudice faced by LGBT people, including those still in education, can there be any justification whatsoever for the protests around Anderton Park primary school? The protestors, arguing that some of the materials used are age inappropriate, have been at the school gates since March, with ever–greater media attention. Whatever view one takes on the issues, the protests themselves must have been beyond grim for Anderton Park’s families, staff and – of course – its pupils.

The protestors are opposed by their local authority (who eventually brought an injunction against them), by politicians from across party divides both locally and nationally, by Muslim commentators like Nazir Ali (who had been attempting to mediate), by Ofsted, and by government ministers. Conservative leadership hopeful Esther McVey and local Labour MP Roger Godsiff voiced qualified support, in turn to be roundly condemned by colleagues and advocacy organisations. Earlier this week the Children’s Commissioner Ann Longfield told the Education Select Committee that “There can be no point where anyone, I think, parents or otherwise, start to opt out of that curriculum. It’s not something we allow for any other aspect of the curriculum and it’s something which those children have a right to be able to take part in. So I’m very clear on that, it [presumably the protests] needs to be stopped.”

Could it be any clearer? The views of the (relatively) small number of protestors, grounded in minority religious attitudes, are out of step with the law, norms of educational practice, public opinion, and political consensus. As the Stonewall campaign goes, “Some people are gay. Get over it!”

If only things were as simple as that. Let’s go back to what each side shares. It is striking that in interviews protestors have applied the language of ‘proselytism’ to describe the lessons and resources to which they are objecting. While misinformed (or misled) by suggestions that children are being shown sexually explicit, or even non–explicit materials, they are right that children are being presented with a set of assumptions about gender and sexuality which differ from their beliefs. The content of what children are taught is, in a sense, a red herring. It is formation, not information, that is at the heart of the protests. To be clear – and I need to be clear – I am not claiming that children are being ‘taught to be gay’. Rather that the parents, the school – and the government – want to shape children at the level of first principles, values, and philosophical perspectives.

This should be obvious to any parent or teacher.  My primary school age children come home not just with information but with perspectives and opinions. From issues like global migration, to climate change, to homelessness they are not just informed, they are also formed. This is not a perspective–less formation. Certain texts are chosen as compelling and truthful, certain facts highlighted, and certain positions treated as axiomatic. Occasionally I’ve bridled at both the ‘heaviness’ of the curriculum – at what point is it age appropriate to shoulder the burdens of transnational social and political challenges – and at the ingenuousness of the positions. The underlying values are generic enough that they wouldn’t conflict with most parents, but I could easily imagine those who lean politically conservative asking a few questions.

Back to Birmingham. Proselytism is a deeply pejorative word, but the protestors aren’t wrong to sense that the state is involved in the business of deep value and perspective formation. One tempting argument may be, “Sure, and they’re the right values and right perspectives, so parents will like it or lump it.” Against this argument stands the principle, recognised by the European Convention of Human Rights, that parents have the right for their children to be educated in a way which is in accordance with their moral and philosophical convictions. (I’m not suggesting that in any legal case such an argument would necessarily prevail, just observing that it’s a recognised and important principle.) Also against the like–it–or–lump–it line is the need for actual resolution – one that sees the law and the rights of LGBT communities recognised, protected and upheld and, one hopes, religiously conservative communities continuing to believe that maintained schools are a place their children can flourish. Unless such a resolution can be found, this problem will recur elsewhere. The most likely result will be that children will be removed in increased numbers from mainstream educational settings.

It is a pity that this kind of values debate often crystallises around sexuality and gender, but then they are issues which make windows onto our deep presumptions about what it is to live an authentic life. Perhaps in the bitter atmosphere of Anderton Park the school and the parents have moved beyond being able to resolve their conflict. From the national perspective, it would be helpful to clarify what the most important policy goal here is. The state – and by extension the school – has a legitimate interest in forming children in civic virtues of tolerance and respect amidst diversity (it has to be said, the protestors have not always exhibited those virtues). However, even if the state or representatives of the state believe that particular communities hold ‘the wrong’ perspectives on particular issues, it should forbear the temptation to influence those views through the institutions of the state – provided they act within the law. It’s a fine line, but one which must be walked if conservative religious communities are not to retreat inward.

That’s a minimum, but of course there is more to be done than that. The Anderton Park protests represent a failure to build a common life amidst real diversity. If hearts and minds are to be changed, then each side must find a way out from behind their barricades.

Image: cosmaa/Shutterstock.com

Paul Bickley

Paul Bickley

Paul is Research Fellow at Theos. His background is in Parliament and public affairs, and he holds an MLitt from the University of St Andrews’ School of Divinity. @mrbickley

Posted 27 June 2019

Activism, Britain, British Values, Education, LGBT, Protests

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