UK government abdicates responsibility for protests against LGBTQ education
Parents have obviously always taken a keen interest in what their children are being taught at school, but the subjects of relationships and family seem to have sparked an escalating debate about what is appropriate.
As protests at schools continue – with protesters expressing concern that primary school students are being taught about the existence of LGBTQ relationships – the UK government has issued new guidance to schools.
What’s the context?
It was back in January of this year that tensions began to rise at a number of primary schools in Birmingham. Parents were raising concerns that their children were being taught about the existence of LGBTQ people and about same-sex relationships.
What’s the LGBTQ issue?
No Outsiders, a program devised by Andrew Moffat at Parkfield Community School, uses a range of storybooks which show a number of diverse families, including those with same-sex parents. Under pressure from concerned parents – who mostly identify with the Muslim faith and community – a number of schools stopped teaching the No Outsiders program.
Protests by parents
Much of the focus has been on Anderton Park Primary School in Birmingham. Protesters set up a picket line outside the school and requested that parents withdraw their children from the school while lessons that included LGBTQ content continued. There were also clashes between parents and LGBTQ advocates.
Jess Phillips, one of the Members of Parliament that represents Birmingham, visited Anderton Park Primary School where she engaged with protester Shakeel Afsar, who is opposed to the school’s teaching. Afsar, who does not have any children at the school, told Phillips she was being “intolerant” towards the protesters and claimed they had respected the results of earlier mediation in the long-running dispute. But Phillips dismissed his claims, telling him the protests were damaging the reputation of the “peaceful and loving” Muslim community in the area.
What’s the UK government doing about it?
The BBC reports that the UK government has recently issued advice to local authorities on dealing with protests outside schools over LGBT-inclusive teaching.
The 21-page document lays out how councils should support teachers to minimise disruption.
The document suggests councils could consider enforcement action if pupils are withdrawn from school because parents do not agree with what is being taught.
It also suggests if demonstrations are happening outside school gates, head teachers should consider liaising with police in case protesters are breaking the law.
Teachers who have seen the document told the BBC of their frustration at not being consulted beforehand. They said they continued to feel unsupported as they tackled such a sensitive and emotive situation.
The Department of Education has advised schools to consult with parents on their education programme, but added it was “right” that schools should reflect parents’ views. The advice is aimed at “encouraging parents to talk to their school about concerns, rather than protest at the school gates, and will also help authorities to consider options if protests do materialise”.
This seems to be a complete abdication of responsibility by the UK government. It places the onus on schools to navigate these discussions with concerned parents, and legitimises concerns being raised about school curriculum including information about the existence of LGBTQ people.
An inconsistent approach
From the available documentation and the guidance from the UK’s Department of Education, it’s not particularly clear what LGBTQ content is included within the curriculum for students in UK schools. What does seem apparent is that there’s not a great deal of consistency in the LGBTQ content that they may be accessing.
As the curriculum in England currently stands, LGBTQ-related content falls within a subject called Sex and Relationship Education – often shortened to SRE.
Secondary schools that are overseen by their Local Government Authority are required to provide Sex and Relationship Education to their students. Academy Schools – schools that operate independently of their Local Government Authority – are not required to provide Sex and Relationship Education to their students. According to 2018 data from the National Audit Office, 72% of secondary schools are Academy Schools. Parents have the right to withdraw their child from Sex and Relationship Education.
The current guidance from the Department of Education – published in the year 2000 – contains the following information in relation to Sexual Identity and Sexual Orientation:
- It is up to schools to make sure that the needs of all pupils are met in their programmes. Young people, whatever their developing sexuality, need to feel that sex and relationship education is relevant to them and sensitive to their needs. The Secretary of State for Education and Employment is clear that teachers should be able to deal honestly and sensitively with sexual orientation, answer appropriate questions and offer support. There should be no direct promotion of sexual orientation.
- Sexual orientation and what is taught in schools is an area of concern for some parents. Schools that liaise closely with parents when developing their sex and relationship education policy and programme should be able to reassure parents of the content of the programme and the context in which it will be presented.
- Schools need to be able to deal with homophobic bullying. Guidance issued by the Department dealt with the unacceptability of and emotional distress and harm caused by bullying in whatever form – be it racial, as a result of a pupil’s appearance, related to sexual orientation or for any other reason.
This is useful guidance, but for those schools that are either required to or who opt to deliver Sex and Relationship Education to their students, it’s clear that there’s a lot of discretion as to how LGBTQ content is navigated. In a progressive school, with the right teacher, an LGBTQ student could learn a lot about who they are and how they fit into the world, but it seems likely that this would be the exception not the rule.
That’s how things currently stand, but there are changes planned.
An update to the relevant legislation in 2017 requires that the Department of Education make Sex and Relationship Education compulsory for all secondary schools. The Department of Education has confirmed that it will be implemented by September 2020. The Department of Education has confirmed that the subject should be relevant to all pupils, whatever their developing sexuality or identity.
Where that leaves us is that while the compulsory nature of Relationships and Sex Education will mean that more students will receive sex education, and in theory that sex education should be relevant to them, there’s really no certainty as to exactly what young LGBTQ people will be learning and there won’t be any consistency in the information that they’ll be receiving.
We probably need to assume that schools in the UK won’t be able to equip young LGBTQ people with the information that they need about PrEP, or U=U, or anal sex. We also probably need to assume that schools in the UK won’t be able to equip young LGBTQ people with the knowledge about the contribution that LGBTQ people make to the world, about the power of LGBTQ people, and how to embrace your LGBTQ identity.
As a community, we have a responsibility to step up and make sure that all of this information is available to young LGBTQ people – in an appropriate form and context. It takes a village to raise a child.
What action can you take?
One queer advocate is taking direct action by giving schools an invaluable resource in how to proactively include LGBTQ people in the curriculum.
Olly Pike is donating his LGBTQ-inclusive children’s books to primary schools across the UK.
Pike’s latest book is Kenny Lives with Erica and Martina. The story is about a boy with two mums who convinces his protesting neighbours that being different is OK.
The title of Pike’s book is a deliberate echo of Jenny Lives with Eric and Martin by Susanne Bösche – a children’s book that was published in 1983. The negativity surrounding the story by Bösche contributed to the passing of Section 28 – a UK law that prohibited schools and teachers from discussing homosexuality or same-sex relationships. This damaging law wasn’t repealed until the year 2000 but the current debate is resurfacing all the fears of that era.
Pike is appealing for donors to help print and distribute 23,000 copies of his book – one for each primary school in the UK.
“I don’t think children are given enough credit for how smart and understanding they are…” said Pike. “They aren’t born prejudiced, and I always find that they are collectively appalled by injustice. Part of being a kid is learning to understand the different types of people in the world around them – and specifically, in modern Britain, this means
even though we are all different, we are all equal.”
One of the speakers at the book’s launch event described Pike as a wolf in unicorn clothing. It doesn’t particularly sound like a compliment, but it was intended as one. Pike may be small and softly spoken – he jokes that when he visits primary schools he’s sometimes mistaken for a pupil – but his determination and resilience is ferocious.
Pike is on a mission. Recent data indicates that almost half of LGBTQ pupils still face bullying at school, more than four in five have self harmed and more than two in five trans young people have tried to take their own life.
Books such as Kenny Lives with Erica and Martina can play a powerful role in creating a world that’s safe for queer kids.