The introduction of mandatory relationships and sex education (RSE) in English schools was always going to be controversial. When the government consulted with the public, 40% of the responses were from people of faith. Overall, 58% of respondents disagreed with the content of relationships education in primary school and there was considerable opposition to teaching about LGBT relationships. Socially conservative Christian, Jewish and Muslim parents made their opinions known. But were they heard?
The Department for Education’s guiding principles remained unchanged and schools were left to determine how to implement the teaching. The government seemed to think things would somehow sort themselves out and headteachers could navigate their own path. The DfE was unwilling to discuss how the guidance would play out in complex multi-faith, multi-ethnic schools and communities. This was a dereliction of duty by ministers.
Six months on, we have a damaging, polarising imbroglio. Ugly protests in Birmingham against teaching about LGBT relationships at primary schools have spread to Nottingham, and teachers in other cities will be worried.
It gets worse. When Emma Hardy MP called on the schools minister Nick Gibb to correct publicly some of the lies being told about the lessons, he told the Commons: “It is a matter for the school to decide on the curriculum … and when it does it will have the full support and backing from the Department for Education.”
This was disingenuous at best, as officials had already exerted “extreme pressure” in “frantic” phone calls to Hazel Pulley, the chief executive of Birmingham’s Parkfield school’s academy trust, to suspend its “No Outsiders” programme.
The protests are wrong and have been almost universally condemned for the use of homophobic slogans and harassment outside schools. Yet some of the language used to describe the situation has also not been helpful. Those who ask questions about the teaching of LGBT awareness in primary schools are not all “homophobic”, or behaving as “bigots” or “extremists” – just some of the labels being thrown around. And neither is this solely a “Muslim issue”. The protests reflect wider concerns from some Christians and Jews too.
Digging deeper, we find communities who feel they have been backed into a corner and judged as not compatible with 21st century British values. Some mainstream Muslim school leaders in Birmingham feel marginalised.
Polarisation is not a sustainable position. Heads have to work closely with their communities but they also need strong backing from the government, given the strength of feeling that has been expressed.
Meanwhile, since 2014, Birmingham’s education system has been recovering from the Trojan Horse episode, when pupils were exposed to intolerant and non-inclusive teaching. The recovery has been based on the Unicef Rights Respecting Schools award, adopted by more than 250 schools. This has worked enormously well because it has enabled nursery-aged children through to sixth formers to understand their place in family, community, school and the world.
Learning about the 42 children’s rights is a sound basis upon which children can grow towards making informed choices about their own lives. The convention on the rights of the child and its articles are silent on sexuality (although clear about sexual exploitation), but rich on freedom of thought and association and the right to education that embraces all faiths and none. LGBT awareness can be incorporated by building in dialogue around mutual respect and care for children from all kinds of families.
This approach enables pupils to understand all aspects of their identity and is now widely respected in Birmingham. It also has a strong national footprint.
It is vital for primary school children to learn about equality and diversity, including LGBT relationships, in an age-appropriate way. Unicef gives us the foundation for a way forward that includes all children, all families and all faiths. When work on this comes to fruition in a relationships curriculum bound by the convention on the rights of the child, the government should fully, explicitly and enthusiastically support it.