Birmingham school suspends LGBT lessons: what are the issues at play?

Parkfield Community School in Saltley, Birmingham has been at the centre of a a fierce debate. The Assistant Headteacher, Andrew Moffat, has been teaching the No Outsiders programme which, according to the Guardian, ‘teach tolerance of diverse groups, including those of different races, genders and sexual orientation.’ Many of the Muslim parents, whose children attend the school, are perturbed by the content of these lessons and believe that they amount to the indoctrination of their children. As such, they have staged protests outside the school and around 600 children, aged between 4 and 11, have been withdrawn from the school when the lessons are due to be taught.

On one side of the debate, many look on at the protesting parents and believe they are encouraging their children to hold bigoted views. On the other side, the parents argue that they are not against LGBT+ people but simply do not want their children to be taught about such things from as young as 5. Interestingly, both sides believe there is an issue of indoctrinating children at play.

Those pushing for the lessons wonder why the parents are so concerned about their children being taught that LGBT+ people exist, when evidently they do. Those protesting the lessons are less concerned about the existence of such people and more bothered that their children are hearing of things that they had never considered before, do not need to know at this age and may be unhelpfully damaged by. They are similarly concerned that this is less about ‘awareness’ and more about ‘promotion.’

It is not my intent to go into the rights and wrongs of either position in this post. Instead, I thought it might be helpful to lay out where the key issues lie. What are the key questions at play?

Who determines what is best for children?

At the very heart of the discussion is the question of who determines what is in a child’s best interest. Should the state decide who ought to hear what and when they ought to hear it? Or, are parents the principle guardians of their own child’s well being?

Of course, the question at the heart of this is complex. There are obviously times when the state does need to say what is best for children because the parents are abusive. Likewise, there are times when we would say that the state should not be telling parents what they can or can’t do with their own children i.e. what religion (or non-religion) they should be brought up in. The question always concerns the fuzzy areas. When does parenting become abusive and when does state interference become oppressive?

Who has the right to say what children learn?

More directly at issue is what and how schools are to teach. Historically, schools reserved the right to teach as they saw fit according to government guidelines. Conversely, parents were free to remove their children from any lessons they deemed inappropriate for their child. Parents couldn’t tell schools what they must teach and schools couldn’t insist that parents make their children listen to whatever they taught.

The rights of parents to remove from lessons has increasingly been whittled away. There are now few lessons from which parents can withdraw their children. Religious Studies still remains one of few areas from which parents can withdraw their children. However, the subject has been under fire for many years, with some trying to replace it altogether with Citizenship or PSHE lessons without the option to remove children due to the removal of any religious content (except the Secular Humanist philosophy underpinning the move, of course). But there is, even now, a push for compulsory sex education and other such things. Some schools, knowing that many parents object, instead weave such teaching throughout other lessons from which parents are not free to withdraw.

Again, the issue boils down to one of freedom. Are schools free to teach what they will whilst parents remain free to remove their children from whatever they will? Or, are schools rightly given the power to insist that children ought to learn certain things despite what their parents believe?

Should schools to teach how to think or what to think?

There is another underlying question here too. What is the role of the school? Is it the job of the school to give children the tools they need to think through various issues as they encounter them or is it the role to education to help our children think rightly about any given issue? Have our schools failed if their pupils leave school with non-mainstream beliefs?

Most parents do not expect schools to teach their children how to handle every maths problem under the sun. Time simply doesn’t allow for that to happen, even should somebody think it a good idea. Instead, they expect schools to give their children the tools they need so that when they encounter maths problems that are new to them, they have some means of addressing the issue they are presented with. As a former teacher of RE, History and Politics, I wanted to do the same. I couldn’t cover every aspect and period of history but I could use exemplars from history to give pupils the skills they need to engage in the historical task concerning other periods and places that they might encounter elsewhere, long after the school isn’t there to teach them any more.

The problem for many is that they believe schools have moved away from the ethos of helping children engage their brains to work through different issues, reaching conclusions independently as they assess the facts of the matter, but are rather more concerned with teaching them what to think. It is becoming increasingly rare to hearing opposing views in the classroom on a whole host of areas. It is possible that is because our children have all reached some utopian state whereby we all acknowledge what is objectively true. But it seems more likely that is because we have put so much time and energy into making sure that everybody reaches the right conclusions (as we judge it) rather than teaching them how to think for themselves.

For some, the No Outsiders programme is more concerned about promoting a particular way of thinking so that everybody reaches the same conclusions. It is not about anti-bullying per se (which could easily be done without reference to any particular group) and more about promoting a particular philosophy. Others would argue that it is simply about educating children to the existence of wider groups of people. They insist that it would be terrible if the children grew up to believe that anything other than wholesale affirmation of all people and their lifestyle choices is a problem. The question remains: are schools to teach their pupils how to think through these issues or are they to educate them to think the right things?

Is tolerance about affirmation or not?

Much of the talk has centred on this idea of tolerance. For many today, tolerance means affirming everything about a person. It is not merely ‘live and let live’ but it is ‘affirm or face my fury.’ In the name of anti-bullying (which should agree, bullying in all its forms regardless of who it is against is heinous) our children are taught to be affirming.

But for many parents, there is a difference between affirming and tolerating. Most people teach their children that it is unkind and bullying to harangue the fat child in the class who eats too many sweets. Few parents, however, are of the view that their children should be affirming him in eating too many sweets. They are vehemently anti-bullying without feeling the need to tell them that their chronic obesity due to overeating is, in point of fact, a manifestly good thing. I am fat and don’t like being bullied about it either, but I acknowledge that it doesn’t follow that people should necessarily affirm my penchant for food that makes me fat.

The creeping concern in this case is that, in the name of tolerance and anti-bullying (which is good and proper), our children are being taught that they must affirm lifestyles that their parents do not believe are self-evidently good. The irony of the situation is made clear when the promotion of LGBT+ lifestyles in schools are deemed a matter of anti-bullying yet the Muslims who demur, and have been roundly slagged off in the process, are apparently not being bullied regarding their own particular lifestyle choice to eschew these lessons. One suspects the only thing holding back the full force of media opprobrium (though there has certainly been some) is that these parents are Muslims – predominantly South Asian – and thus they are wary of siding with one minority against another. Should this have been white Evangelical Christians, one can’t help but think the reporting would be a little different in tone.

Incidentally, the papers have noted that Mr Moffat left a previous school over a similar issue. Some will interpret that as clear evidence of the widespread presence of anti-LGBT bigotry. Others will interpret this as a pattern rather making clear that there is a level of promotion at play that is quite unsettling to many parents.

But the four questions above are broadly where the issues lie. It will be fascinating to see how this plays out. The school at the centre of the controversy has already said that no further No Outsiders lessons will take place until a resolution is reached with the parents. The parents have suspended their protests in response to the lessons being withdrawn. In the world of competing rights – particular a world in which we now choose to privilege rights when we believe a minority group has been previously disadvantaged – it is hard to see who will win out when two supposedly disadvantaged groups, both of whose rights some are keen to privilege, come up against one another.