Who decides what children should be taught?

I have already commented on the protests by Muslim parents outside Parkfield Community School in Birmingham. Since then, similar protests have been taking place outside Anderton Park School. You can read my comment here.

Some of the key issues I noted have now come up in intramural discussion between Esther McVey and Justine Greening. I highlighted four question as the centre of these protests:

  1. Who determines what is best for children (parents or schools/state)?
  2. Who has the right to say what children learn (parents or schools/state)?
  3. Should schools teach what to think or how to think (or both)?
  4. Is tolerance about affirmation or not?

These are really where the discussion centres.

Esther McVey has now come out with a clear line on at least one of these questions and, implicitly, with a line on the other. Here is what she said:

She argues that parents know what is best for their children. So, on the first question, she offers a clear cut answer. On the second, she offers an implicit answer too. Though schools are free to teach what they will, she affirms that parents should have the right to withdraw their children if they wish. So, parents can decide what is in their children’s best interest and – though a school can determine what it teaches within its own walls – parents are free to remove children from such teaching as they see fit.

Justine Greening – the first openly gay female cabinet member – tweeted in response:

The problem here is that Greening is answering an altogether different question than the one at stake. Greening insists you cannot pick and choose on human rights and equality. That much is certainly true. But since when was it a human right to have your particular ideology taught in school? Since when was it a human right to have your particular sexual relationship taught in schools? Nobody else has this enshrined either into human rights legislation nor the national curriculum.

It is ironic that Greening argues that we can’t pick and choose which equalities we want whilst seeking to enshrine in schools an ‘equality’ that nobody else has been granted. Far from wanting to pick and choose, an awful lot of parents don’t want their children learning about sex from the age of 5 at all – irrespective of which particular sexual relationship in which it is taking place! It is not a question of equality, this is a question of promotion.

There are two questions that rest at the heart of this. First, why should schools teach about relationships anyway? The argument being pushed is that these lessons are merely teaching about the existence of other forms of relationship. Whilst most children are not thinking about such things anyway, surely one of two things will happen. Either they will encounter children with two dads or two mums and discover such relationships exist – rendering lessons dedicated to the existence of such families unnecessary – or they won’t encounter such people at all, at which point one wonders why they need to be told of their existence in this way?

But the second, that led to the headlines, is why parents shouldn’t be able to decide whether this is something they want their children to learn about at this stage. McVey was clear that, in primary school, this was a matter for parents. I took that to mean that, in secondary school, this would no longer be a matter for parents. Whether that is where you draw the line or not, there is a principle at play. Who determines what children ought to learn about and when?

Schools should be free to teach what they will in their institution while parents should be free to withdraw their children if they see fit to do so. The state may teach what it will teach while parents may withdraw where they choose to withdraw. What does not seem equitable is the promotion of ideological positions by the state for which parents, irrespective of their agreement or concerns, are forced to let their children participate.

This has little to do with equality because it actively privileges one ideological view to the detriment of all others (including those of the parents themselves). Equity would demand freedom for the school to teach what it will and for the parents to withdraw their children if they will. Otherwise we are not dealing with equality but the ideological imposition of a totalitarian state. Those who are prepared to impose their ideology on parents here will no doubt seek to impose their ideology elsewhere, irrespective of the will of those who elect them. In the days of politicians actively seeking to ignore the democratic mandate of a referendum, what is an ideological imposition here and there?

Esther McVey is entirely consistent on this principle while Justine Greening seems quite consistent with hers too. How you answer this might have other, very real ramifications.