Religious schools move against LGBTQ-inclusive curriculum in UK schools
Parents have obviously always taken a keen interest in what their children are being taught at school, and the question of how discussion of sexuality and LGBTQ people is presented to young people has long been a point of contention – particularly in the UK.
What’s the latest?
The BBC are reporting that two Orthodox Jewish secondary schools in London have been accused of pressurising parents into taking their children out of sex education lessons. Evidence has been obtained that the state-funded schools wrote to parents explaining how to withdraw pupils from mandatory relationships and sex education classes, which begin in 2020. One school specifically referred to a wish to stop the teaching of LGBTQ issues.
One of the schools involved – Lubavitch Senior Girls’ School in north London – wrote to parents asking them to help “prevent” the requirement for relationships and sex education classes. The classes become mandatory in September 2020, but parents have options to withdraw their children from the classes.
Another school, Yesodey Hatorah Senior Girls’ School, said in a statement: “The vast majority of our families expect sex education to be given privately, within the family, at home. They do not expect their children to be given sex education in a school classroom. It is therefore very important that we let parents know that their child will be given sex education at school – unless they opt out.”
Layla Moran, the Liberal Democrats’ education spokesperson, called for the Department for Education to “have its own investigation into these schools”.
“They clearly don’t want to teach these subjects. That is counter to the guidelines, but it is also counter to the spirit of the Equality Act which is the very same act that protects religious freedoms…” said Moran.
What’s happening in Birmingham?
Following legal action, demonstrations against LGBTQ-inclusive education have been permanently banned outside the Birmingham primary school that has been at the focus of anti-gay protests.
According to reporting by the BBC, a High Court judge ruled in favour of an exclusion zone to remain around the Anderton Park school. The protests had an averse effect on pupils, residents and staff, leading to 21 teachers being treated for stress, Mr Justice Warby said. Campaigners accused the city council of trying to silence debate.
In submissions in relation to the legal action, protest leaders claimed that the LGBTQ-inclusive curriculum contradicts their Islamic faith and is not “age appropriate”. The court heard details of allegations made about the school on social media, and how a visiting imam had claimed to parents there were “paedophiles” inside the school. Other false claims included that the school had a “paedophile agenda” and staff were “teaching children how to masturbate”.
“None of this is true,” Mr Justice Warby said as he announced the ban on further protests. “None of the defendants have suggested it was true and the council has proved it is not true.” The lessons had been “misrepresented by parents”, he said, adding the school does not promote homosexuality and seeks to weave the language of equality into everyday school life.
The injunction named lead protester Shakeel Afsar, who does not have children at the school, his sister Rosina and Amir Ahmed, all of whom contested the need for a legal injunction. Mr Afsar said he was “bitterly disappointed with the decision of the court”. He branded the court “one-sided”, pointing out that the judge, the council’s barrister and key witnesses had been “white”, compared with the “diverse” protest supporters. “We can continue to protest in the same area that we have been protesting in since June this year,” he added. “These young children are not being taught the status of law.”
Speaking after the ruling, head teacher Sarah Hewitt-Clarkson said staff would be “over the moon”. “We knew it was misrepresented and that was the frustration when you are trying to go about your daily business as educators and when people say things about you that are not true, that is very difficult,” she said. “It has been awful, but my staff are unbelievable and parents are unbelievable and the children of Anderton Park are incredible human beings and we are a strong school and every single person is part of that strength.”
Birmingham City Council said it was “really pleased” with Mr Justice Warby’s decision. “This was always about protecting the school and community from the escalating levels of anti-social behaviour of the protests,” Dr Tim O’Neill, the council’s director of education and skills, said. “Birmingham is diverse and inclusive – these are its strengths – and we must all come together to ensure all children get the best education possible.” He said “fringe elements” had been attracted to the protests with the aim of “stoking division and hatred”.
The National Association of Head Teachers, which has supported the school, welcomed an end to the “noisy and aggressive protests”. “This judgement makes it abundantly clear that the school gate is no place to hold a protest,” a spokesperson said. It was also welcomed by the Department for Education, which has previously faced criticism for a perceived lack of support for the school, but said it wanted to “encourage positive dialogue”.
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.
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.
Lessons of history: Section 28
Section 28 is a reference to a specific piece of legislation in the UK – the law was in force from 1988 until 2003.
The name Section 28 is because the specific provisions that impacted LGBTQ people were found in Section 28 of the Local Government Act that was enacted by the UK Parliament in May 1988.
The stated purpose of the legislation was to “prohibit the promotion of homosexuality by local authorities” – Local Authorities are Local Councils, who provide all the services at the local level in the UK.
One of the reasons that Section 28 was introduced was that it was a reaction to the publication of a book called Jenny Lives with Eric and Martin – written by Susanne Bösche. The book tells the story of a family where the parents are a same-sex male couple, and it aimed to give children information about different types of family relationships.
At the time, the UK Prime Minister was Margaret Thatcher, who said: “Children who need to be taught to respect traditional moral values are being taught that they have an inalienable right to be gay. All of those children are being cheated of a sound start in life.”
The impact of the law meant that there wasn’t able to be any discussion or acknowledgement of LGBTQ people or queer sexuality in schools across the UK. Queer kids were bullied and victimised, and teachers felt that they risked losing their jobs if they tried to address the issue or intervene to support LGBTQ kids.
Opinion: Religious freedom can’t mean queer invisibility – by Patrick Cash
I was about six when I learnt what gay meant. I was chatting animatedly with some friends on a playground bench, when another boy ran up and excitedly asked the question:
‘Are you gay?’
Everyone went silent, as I considered my response. There was something about his look that suggested a trick question. But, having read Enid Blyton’s The Famous Five, I recalled that ‘gay’ meant happy in their idyllic 1950’s netherworld.
‘Yes,’ I replied.
The moment I saw the boy’s eyes light up I regretted my answer. The crowd of children around me, delighted I’d been their canary, were similarly on edge to learn what I’d just admitted.
‘You like men!’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Like kissing them and stuff!’
The kids burst into hysterical laughter. I blushed with shame, and stared at the boy in shock. I couldn’t believe such a thing existed. Every narrative I’d experienced until that age, from fairytales at bedtime to the gospels in mass, taught solely that man belonged with woman. Films on TV showed that inalienable truth, pop songs on the radio celebrated it like joyous hymns to heterosexuality. I’d certainly never heard anything different in my rural Catholic primary school.
When I went home that evening and confusedly asked my Irish father, overwhelming oracle of my young world, to confirm that gay people existed, he sighed, and told me, beer on his breath, solemnly that they did indeed, but to be gay was a very bad thing. They would never go to Heaven (I doubt he was au fait with the Charing Cross super club). I nodded and accepted this viewpoint: it made sense in my early-90’s North Somerset world where nobody was gay. The concept was the work of the devil, who tempted Jesus in the wilderness.
None of this – my lack of exposure to the existence of gay, the condemnation of my father, nor my own loyally inherited dislike of gay people – stopped me becoming gay, myself. When puberty hit, my sexual thoughts about men rose with a vengeance. The code was already written into my genes. What it did ensure, in my secondary school that still laboured under Section 28, was that I felt incomparably lonely. I spent my teenage years terrified I’d be disowned if anybody found out.
My experience shows Section 28 never worked. At six, I already knew what gay meant: the playground is far more advanced than the curriculum, it always has been. But because the state, and my faith, sanctified homophobia through the cowardly accomplice of silence, my classmates learnt gay to be a bad thing – enshrined into their slang by adolescence – and I was conditioned to hate myself. What an education. It’s taken years of work to overcome my internalised homophobia.
When LGBTQ people hide their true selves in the shadows, throughout their most formative years, the psychological damage can be real. Matthew Todd writes eloquently about this subject in his book Straight Jacket. I myself suffered from a rocky relationship with alcohol for much of my twenties, and it’s the reason I write often about issues disproportionately affecting the gay community, like chemsex, susceptibility to HIV risk, and struggles with emotional intimacy.
These issues do not pop up fully formed in some gay wilderness vacuum; they are symptomatic of a scarred community’s mental health, scarred from growing up in a society that made them invisible.
This can’t happen again. The situation of the Birmingham schools targeted by faith protesters is shocking. The ‘No Outsiders’ lessons used a book featuring two mothers and a child to teach pupils, in a non-sexual sense, that gay people exist and some children have same-sex parents. My LGBTQ friends who have recently had children would be delighted at such progressive policies. They teach our next generation to be tolerant, to embrace difference and celebrate diversity. Good qualities.
I ask you to sign the Humanists UK petition to support tolerance over homophobic hate in our schools. I say ‘our’ to include all citizens, gay or straight, Muslim or non-Muslim. It would be counter-productive to allow this debate to descend into gratuitous Islamophobia. I’d hope the Muslim Council of Britain can light the way for respecting tolerance on LGBTQ issues. The phrase ‘incompatible with Islam’ is fallacious for, as with any religion, there are gay members of Islam.
Scott Siraj Al-Haqq writes in his book Homosexuality in Islam how the homophobia supposedly codified in Islamic tradition is arguable, and modern leaders could pave the path for acceptance. There are LGBTQ Muslim groups all over the world. Eradicating the homophobic Muslim stereotype would remove a rhetorical weapon that far-right groups use against Islamic cultural integration. Religious freedom can not mean writing LGBTQ existence out of the curriculum.
Lastly, there are parallels here with Section 28. It began with the children’s book Jenny Lives With Eric and Martin, describing a child living with two dads. These books don’t exist to make children gay: they’re there to instil empathy that could, in twenty years’ time, produce a UK society that is a world leader in terms of courage, generosity and honour. Something to look forward to considering the haphazard chaos in which we currently labour. Don’t be silent. Stand up. Be counted for good.
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.