An estimated 600 children were withdrawn for the day from a primary school in Birmingham last week. A rather disturbing video has since been circulating on social media, showing scores of Muslim parents with their young children in Birmingham, shouting “shame, shame, shame”. What has caused such a reaction? Parkfield, a primary school in Saltley, teaches a programme called No Outsiders which is designed to encourage children to be “happy and excited about living in a community full of difference and diversity”. It covers issues such as race, gender, ability, sexual orientation, gender identity, age or religion. One part of the programme, on LGBT rights, offended some Muslim parents who saw it as a promotion of homosexuality. It prompted Fatima Shah to withdraw her 10-year-old daughter from the school, saying children were too young to be learning about same-sex marriages and LGBT rights in the classroom. “We are not a bunch of homophobic mothers,” she said, while holding a leaflet with the heading: “Is it okay for your child to be gay?”
This is “indoctrination, not education” the protestors insisted. Normally it might be amusing hearing hardline religious people complaining about indoctrination with no sense of irony. Except this situation is not funny at all. It is worrying. People are entitled to their religious beliefs and they are entitled to teach those values to their children. However, they should not expect a state-funded school to stop teaching subjects because it goes against their religious beliefs. Where does it end? Do we stop teaching evolution?
The debate is being framed around parental choice and liberalism, as though schools are now denying parents the right to teach their children what they believe. This is not the case at all. Conservative religious groups – Muslim, Jewish and Christian – have united and co-opted the language of liberalism and human rights to defend their views. But if homophobic behaviour isn’t tolerated, why does religion get a free pass? Schools minister Nick Gibb said it was important for schools to take the religious beliefs of their pupils into account when they decide to deliver certain content to ensure topics were handled appropriately. This is bigotry of low expectations. Would he have said the same if a group of white, non-Muslim parents withdrew their children from the school because they were “opposed to an agenda that says being a Muslim is OK” and did not want them learning about Islam or visiting a mosque? Of course not.
The overwhelming majority of pupils at Parkfield are of Muslim background. If we are to accept certain subjects should not be taught to them, are we not ghettoising these children further? They already live in a Muslim-majority community, their friends are all Muslim, then they go to the mosque after school and only interact with other Muslims. School should, therefore, be a sanctuary of learning for them, where they can ask questions while not being judged and do so from a different perspective that they are normally used to.
So imagine how a gay child at that school must be feeling (statistically, there will be a few at Parkfield), surrounded by parents telling him or her that not only is it not okay to be gay but they can’t be Muslim either. Who can they turn to for support and guidance?
On seeing the video of the protests, Birmingham Yardley MP Jess Phillips said:
“I feel heartbroken…it is so damaging for both LGBTQI community but also harms the Muslim community and does not represent our city at all.”
She went on to say: “I will challenge the intolerance, which is too weak a word, it’s bigotry and hatred and I am deeply hurt by it.”
She may want to have a word with her colleague Shabana Mahmood, the MP for Birmingham Ladywood. In a Commons debate, she defended the protesting parents, stating:
“None of my constituents is seeking particular or differential opt-outs at secondary school level. It is all about the age appropriateness of conversations with young children in the context of religious backgrounds.”
The video of the protesting parents and the incendiary leaflets suggests otherwise.
It was five years ago this month that the Trojan Horse plot came to light, which alleged that hard-line Islamists were trying to take over some Birmingham schools. A leaked document claimed dirty tricks were being used to oust non-Muslim staff in order to Islamise state schools, prompting four separate inquiries.
We have clearly not learnt any lessons from this saga at all. There is a failure from the Government, which is promoting faith schools on the one hand and simultaneously preaching about integration on the other. We have seen what has happened in Birmingham before; are we going to sit back and let it happen again?