‘Do you think LGBT rights should be taught in schools?’ Women’s Hour has got itself into a spot of bother by trailing a discussion on same-sex education with this tease. The objection is to the question mark, which hints sinisterly at a debate. We are at very real risk of a debate on relationships education and same-sex equality thanks to a noisy coalition of religious parents. The backlash began at Parkfield Community School, an academy primary with more than 700 pupils in Hodge Hill, the most deprived constituency in Birmingham. The roll is almost exclusively ethnic minority and a majority of pupils are of Pakistani origin; the ‘vast majority’ of the children speak English as an additional language. More than a third qualify for free school meals (the average in England is 13.7 per cent). Despite its size and socio-economic setting, Parkfield is by all accounts a very good school. At its last inspection, in May 2016, it was rated outstanding in every category. The Ofsted report reads like a love letter.
Parents should be singing the praises of such a school. Instead, they are in open revolt against No Outsiders, a programme that teaches children about same-sex relationships and trans identity, and discourages discrimination. The lessons were spearheaded by assistant headteacher Andrew Moffat, author of Challenging Homophobia in Primary Schools, who resigned from a previous teaching job after parents objected to similar lessons and Moffat’s decision to ‘come out’ to the children. In a 2016 puff piece in the Guardian Moffat explained why he then chose to work at Parkfield:
‘There was no point in going to an area where it would be an easy task. I had to go where I might meet the same challenges in order to find a different way to meet them. I was determined to make LGBT equality a reality in any community. I could not afford to get it wrong a second time.’
It’s no surprise that, after going looking for trouble, trouble found him. Shockingly enough for a school located in a 52 per cent Muslim constituency, many parents at Parkfield have anxieties about No Outsiders. They disapprove of homosexuality and trans lifestyles and don’t want their children being taught that it’s a valid way to live their lives. Recently, hundreds of parents kept their children away from Parkfield in protest. For those keeping track, this was Bad Truancy, unlike skipping school to protest climate change by chanting ‘fuck Theresa May’, which is Good Truancy. Parkfield has caved and suspended No Outsiders lessons indefinitely. Now, parents at seven primary schools in Manchester have complained about similar teaching, even though none of the schools currently runs the programme.
More will join them over the next 12 months, from various religious bents and none. From 2020, relationships and sex education (RSE) will be compulsory in schools in England. Parents will retain a right to withdraw their child from sex education (mandatory in secondary schools, optional in primaries) until three terms before the child’s 16th birthday, when the decision will become the child’s to make. However, there will be no right to withdraw from RSE wholesale.
Progressives are in an unforgiving mood about events in Birmingham and Manchester. Understandably, gays and lesbians aren’t giddy at the prospect of rejoining battles they believed long won. Secularists say the curriculum shouldn’t be set by superstitious reactionaries. There has been a fair bit of snorting about ‘sky fairies’. The strongest case comes from the journalist James Bloodworth, who argues: ‘Liberals must stand firm against bigotry and insist that people are free to live out their lives as they wish. Parental pressure like that being applied in Birmingham must not be allowed to prevail.’
The freedom to live your life as you wish is Liberalism 101 but, until now, a core component of that freedom was the liberty to practise your religion and raise your children as you saw fit. Fatima Shah, one of the Parkfield parents, says: ‘We have no problem with them teaching them British values, but this is not teaching them British values, this is promoting homosexuality’. The riposte that No Outsiders simply informs children about all kinds of relationships is irrelevant. Parents at Parkfield don’t want their children to be neutral on homosexuality; they want them to know such conduct is immoral and against the fitrah of Allah. They don’t need this to be taught in schools, they just don’t want schools to undermine the moral precepts they are trying to instil at home.
We have steadily drifted from longstanding conventions about the role of parents in shaping their children’s character. Freedom of conscience is being supplanted by coercive tolerance and the family edged out as the fundamental building block of society. Mothers and fathers increasingly find themselves co-parenting with the state. Once you’ve agreed that Andrew Moffat knows better than Fatima Shah what her ten-year-old daughter should be taught about sexual propriety, you have tacitly accepted these new arrangements. Religious liberty and parental rights are not without limits. Parents cannot withdraw their offspring from science lessons to prevent them being taught about the Big Bang or the Theory of Evolution, but that distinction — moral versus theological objections — is already recognised in Department for Education guidelines.
Muslim parents are wrong to fear these lessons. Gays exist and, unless you decide to snatch away phones and homeschool, your kids are going to learn about them. Relationships education won’t turn kids gay, and even it did, the worst your children will do is accuse you of a hate crime every time you serve them carbs.
All of a sudden, progressives have gone quiet on the joys of multiculturalism; indeed, they are lustily cheering for one culture to trump another. Addressing ‘conservative religious people’, Sir Michael Wilshaw, former head of Ofsted, told the Today programme on Monday: ‘[T]hey’ve got to understand that they are living in this country, in a pluralistic society with liberal values, that strongly believes that people should be treated fairly and equally.’ Pluralism for me but not for thee. Islam is important to these parents and they want to bring up their children to be good Muslims. However comforting it is to hear young, metropolitan Muslims scorn such social conservatism, they are firmly in the minority. In a 2015 survey for Channel 4, 52 per cent of British Muslims disagreed or disagreed strongly that homosexuality should be legal in the UK. Only 18 per cent believed it should be. Muslims aged 18-34 voiced more progressive views but, even then, a strong plurality were against legality.
A society that sets competing rights and interests against one another in an intersectionality Thunderdome should expect this kind of conflict. On Monday, a new multi-faith lobby, the Values Foundation, was set up to represent parents with concerns about RSE. ‘Sometimes it is necessary in politics to inform one group of people that they are wrong,’ Bloodworth writes. It is: progressives are wrong to believe that they can champion secular egalitarianism and multiculturalism at the same time; that their victims coalition can happily contain Muslims who don’t want their children knowing gays exist and gays who insist Muslims shouldn’t decide what their children get to know about fundamental moral questions; that parental rights and the rights of the child won’t continue to collide, with the state assuming more responsibilities once reserved to the family.
Liberalism recognises these tensions and legislates — or, importantly, refrains from legislating — accordingly. There are occasional skirmishes on the margins but the boundaries between public and private life, between individual rights and compelling state interests, are jealously policed. Progressivism pretends that no tensions exist and no boundaries are necessary. Parkfield and the emboldened conservatism it symbolises is where that fiction leads.