I am a daily listener to the Guardian’s ‘Today in Focus’ podcast, which looks at one or two stories in more depth than is gifted in the news bulletins of the week. In a political climate dominated by Brexit, internal Tory and Labour wrangling, and of course ‘The Donald’, its hard for smaller stories to cut through the noise, and the podcast allows these small but significant stories some breathing space.
A few weeks ago, I was troubled to hear about parent protests erupting at a primary school in the Alum Rock neighbourhood of Birmingham, over whether children should be taught about the 2010 Equalities Act, and specifically whether children as young as four should be learning about LGBT rights.
The 2010 act is probably one of the most important pieces of legislation in the last 20 years, as it consolidated and updated the existing laws surrounding discrimination. This obviously includes clarifying discrimination against the LGBTQ+ community as unlawful.
For those who don’t know one iota about the story, the crux of it is this. The Assistant Headteacher of Parkfield Community School, Andrew Moffat, introduced a programme called ‘No Outsiders’ aimed at creating an inclusive and non-discriminatory space to discuss the 2010 act with the children, and exposing them to the different backgrounds and lifestyles that people lead.
Moffat has been nominated and shortlisted for several global educational awards for his rollout of the programme and his championing of equality in his teaching, and it has been a success across many different schools across the country including Parkfield where it had been ongoing for four years without complaint.
It was only brought to the attention of the parents at the predominantly Pakistani Muslim school, when a young girl came home one day and proclaimed to their mum that they wanted to be a boy. This led to some outrage amongst the parents, who proceeded to set up the ‘Parkfield parents community group’ on Whatsapp and began to lobby the school for answers, as to why their children had been being taught about LGBT rights in school.
After many weeks of what can only be described as a standoff between the school and the 400-strong parents group, who had seemingly bombarded the school with letters, petitions and threats to the teachers, the school suspended the lessons (despite Ofsted ruling that there was no evidence of wrongdoing on the schools part).
The parents case against the school basically boils down to the fact that they were not informed as to what their children were learning about in regards to the ‘No Outsiders’ programme, and that tolerance for homosexuality was fundamentally against the teachings and practices of Islam, and that the school had no right to be contradicting this practice in school.
However, the standoff did become ugly. Just some of the comments made by the protesting parents include accusing the school of “blurring the line between education and indoctrination”, “aggressively promoting homosexuality with a positive spin” and teaching the kids that its “okay to be both Muslim and gay”. Despite their gesticulations to the contrary, these assertions can only be described as wildly homophobic, intolerant and by their very nature, in contradiction to the 2010 Equalities Act.
So, as you can see this debacle touches upon a whole number of delicate and controversial issues. The first is the apparent conflict between the law of the land, and specific religious belief. With this, its important to remember that Parkfield is not a ‘Muslim school’, it is a state comprehensive primary school in a community where 98% of the population are Muslim, and specifically majority Pakistani Muslim. Therefore, as the Chief Executive of Parkfield Hazel Pulley has said herself, the pupils will be educated to the law of the land which in this instance includes the tolerance of the LGBT community and every individual child’s right to be whoever they want to be.
What the conflict at Parkfield has highlighted is the lack of parity of esteem within our education system. Our school system breaks down into state-funded schools, academies, ‘free schools’, religious-specific schools, privately funded schools and other independent schools. In essence, this allows for different children across the country to be taught different things and to learn and think about the world in different ways. Looking at Parkfield, if the parents got their way and all teaching surrounding equality was suspended and subsequently banned, the children at Parkfield would be growing up in ignorance to their rights as a British individual. Those children would grow up believing that they must repress their individuality and deny themselves the freedom to express who might be underneath, whereas children at another school who were learning about LGBT rights would grow up in the knowledge that they will be accepted by society as a gay man or woman.
The second issue this case raises is integration. As a staunch internationalist and socialist, I believe wholeheartedly in the benefits of diversity and multiculturalism, so it saddens me to see a community where 98% of its inhabitants are from one near-homogenous group, and I can only think to blame the clear lack of promotion of integration and mixed communities. I understand that when people come to this country, they might feel more comfortable surrounded by people who share their culture, religion, language and background but for second, third or fourth generation immigrants to the UK who now freely and rightly enjoy British citizenry, the lack of integration is worrying and only leads to a further polarisation. How do you solve that? I’m not sure, but its certainly something that shouldn’t fall by the wayside.
However, all of this points to an even bigger issue at the heart of not only British society, but at the heart of liberal, representative democracy. And that is the question of whether a tolerant society should tolerate the intolerant? In my mind, the parent groups at Parkfield and several other Birmingham and Manchester schools are openly purporting homophobia, fifteen years after the repeal of Section 28 which banned the discussion and promotion of homosexuality in public spaces including schools, introduced under Margaret Thatcher.
I can understand the Muslim community’s concerns surrounding transparency about what their children are learning at school, and maybe more parent consultation was needed prior to the programme’s introduction, but this is a state primary school teaching kids about the law surrounding LGBT rights.
Now, unfortunately we don’t live in a secular society where religion is totally separated from the institutions of the State. Our State is steeped in Christian imagery and practice, Bishops and Archbishops of the Church of England (not even to mention the Royal Family), are included in our legislative procedures, and our society and its politics have been historically centred around the church, meaning that the line between public and private practice of religion is itself blurred in our society. I believe this gives free rein for religious groups to openly defy the law of the land, and impose their beliefs onto the education system – something clearly exemplified by the conflict at Parkfield.
At the end of the day, these children are British citizens who have the right to practice their own religion if they so choose. But, as British citizens they must also be protected under our law which clearly states that they have the right to be whoever they choose to be, and unfortunately safeguarding does come into this. The parents believe that their children are being “indoctrinated” by the school, but isn’t that exactly what these children are going through under their parents? They have accused the school of “influencing their children’s morality”, but isn’t that exactly what they are doing behind the closed doors of their homes? Aren’t these parents imposing their religion beliefs onto their children, and then using that as an excuse to threaten public schools?
Unfortunately, I think it is exactly what they’re doing and at the end of the day, it shouldn’t be tolerated. When it comes down to the protection of a community’s religious beliefs versus the protection of every single individual member of that community, including children, and their right under the eyes of the law to be whoever they choose to be, I’m afraid I come down on the side of the latter.
It is a difficult one, and there are no easy answers. That’s why I found this story fascinating, because of the sheer amount of issues, conflicts and dilemmas it brings up. What I do know is that an education system rolled out across the country that champions the rights of each individual child, which promotes respect, tolerance of difference and co-existence between those differences in communities, is surely what a progressive society should be aiming for.