Midlands Zone columnist Stephen Spinks delves deeper into the on-going debate...
Several weeks ago, a highly divisive argument erupted in the quiet corners of Parkfield Community School in Birmingham’s Saltley district, the outcome of which has hit national headlines, been subject to debate in parliament, and opened up a much broader conversation with parents and community groups alike. At the heart of the row is the right to teach primary school age children of all faiths the importance of same-sex relationships...
We are not talking detailed sex education here, like you get at secondary school, but rather lessons about what constitutes a modern family. The lessons’ focus is simple: some pupils may have two mums or two dads. This is discussed and celebrated through books like Mommy, Mama And Me and King & King, and delivered in a safe and inclusive educational environment.
WE MUST TEACH TOLERANCE
The primary focus of these lessons is to teach tolerance of a diverse group of people of all genders, sexual orientations and races. By their very nature, the lessons are carefully written, beautifully balanced and highly inclusive - something many would agree is welcome, as teaching the next generation about respect on the basis of difference can only help strengthen and positively build our modern, diverse society.
Yet at the centre of this controversy lies a simple but seemingly highly divisive question. Are these lessons age-appropriate?
The lessons, devised by Parkfield’s assistant headteacher, Andrew Moffat (pictured below), and taught under the title of No Outsiders, form an exciting programme that has been adopted by schools right across the UK. It’s part of the programme entitled Challenging Homophobia In Primary Schools.
Moffat, himself gay and in a civil partnership, has been awarded an MBE for his tireless work in promoting equalities through education. He was also shortlisted for the prestigious World’s Best Teacher Award. His bravery and hard work in driving the No Outsiders programme has been welcomed by many and applauded by many more - in marked contrast to the days of Section 28, when conversations like this were strictly prohibited.
DOGGED BY CONTROVERSY
Yet in being brave and taking a leap of faith, Moffat has been dogged by controversy, having resigned from another Birmingham school, Chilwell Croft Academy, after a similar dispute with conservative Muslim and Christian parents. Sadly, the row that has recently erupted at Parkfield means that Moffat is once again having to tread the same uncomfortable path.
Things started off well enough. But then one of the parents, Fatima Shah, withdrew her 10-year-old daughter from one of the five annual No Outsiders lessons, citing the material as age-inappropriate. Mrs Shah then spoke to the media, stating: “We are not a bunch of homophobic mothers…we just feel that some of these lessons are inappropriate.
Protesters outside Parkfield School
Some of the themes being discussed are very adult and complex, and the children are getting confused… They need to be allowed to be children, rather than having to constantly think about equalities and rights.”
Before long, up to 400 concerned parents from mainly conservative Muslim backgrounds had signed a petition calling for the lessons to be dropped from the curriculum.
At the start of the month, parents claimed that more than 600 pupils between the ages of four and 11 were withdrawn from the school for a day in protest, although the school itself has not confirmed the numbers. Parents of course have the right to do this. What has followed are ad hoc protests outside Parkfield which have seen difficult and impassioned views being exchanged. Banners have been unfurled reading ‘say no to promoting of homosexuality and LGBT ways of life to our children’, ‘stop exploiting children’s innocence’, and ‘education not indoctrination’.
MP CALLS FOR TOLERANCE AND ACCEPTANCE...
The Academy has responded by asking parents to end the protests. Local MPs have also got involved. Shabana Mahmood (pictured below), the MP for Birmingham Ladywood, whose constituents include parents from the school, came out asking for tolerance and an acceptance that schools should think about the more orthodox faith communities within their cohorts as part of their work about inclusiveness.
Mahmood was careful to state that she and the parents of Parkfield are not averse to same-sex lessons, but only when age-appropriate. Presumably this means from secondary school age - 11 upwards.
Speaking in the House of Commons, Mahmood said: “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.”
Mahmood herself is a supporter of LGBTQ rights, having voted in parliament for same-sex marriage.
Yet is this a sustainable position? Surely any age is an appropriate one at which to learn about family make-up, parenting, love and respect in any context? Scratch the surface and you can’t help but think there is a deep-rooted intolerance to LGBTQ people driving this reaction.
MOVING WITH THE TIMES...
As same-sex marriage and adoption have become part of the mainstream way of life, schools need to move with the times to safeguard all children in their educational set-ups. As a gay man, had I grown up having been taught from a very young age that same-sex families were to be celebrated, I would have grown in confidence that I was the equal of my straight cousins. I’ve known I like boys from as far back as I can remember, my first strong memory being at the age of six. For young gay Muslim and Christian children in particular, these lessons must be a lifeline if they themselves are being brought up in some very conservative households and without experiencing any recognisable positive LGBTQ scenarios in their daily lives.
The idea that teaching about same-sex families is inappropriate before the age of 11 is one with which I most sincerely beg to differ. The emotional destruction that many of us have endured growing up as children could have been significantly reduced or even avoided if a programme like No Outsiders had been taught in the 1980s and ’90s.
Of course, not all parents at Parkfield agree with the protest. Many parents, Muslim, Christian and non-religious alike, have openly supported the school’s decision to teach these lessons.
OFSTED SHOW SUPPORT
The chief inspector of Ofsted, Amanda Spielman (pictured), also supported Parkfield, saying it was imperative pupils knew about “families that have two mummies or two daddies”.
To back this up, in the second week of March, Ofsted carried out an inspection of Parkfield, under the direction of Ofsted inspector Peter Humphries, over concerns about the effectiveness of the leadership and management of the school, including its governance. Following the inspection, Ofsted was overwhelmingly supportive of the school’s leadership and teachers, a fact which meant Parkfield’s ‘outstanding’ rating was in no way in jeopardy.
INCLUSIVITY IS KEY
More importantly, Humphries found that the children had a healthy and broad understanding of inclusivity on the basis of disability, race, age, gender and sexual orientation. The Ofsted inspectors acknowledged that there was a ‘small but vocal minority’ who openly objected, but this was due to the parents’ lack of clarity about the school’s vision and policies, which he recommended were addressed.
Mohammed Aslam, a concerned parent from the school, responded to the Ofsted report by claiming that the ‘small minority’ of parents did not reflect the actual reality on the ground, and that their views had not been properly considered within the report.
FINDING A WAY FORWARD
The No Outsiders lessons, which had previously been suspended in the wake of the row, were scheduled to resume after the Easter holidays. On the day of Ofsted, school representatives, parents, education chiefs including the regional schools commissioner, and the Excelsior Multi Academy Trust, which runs Parkfield, held discussions to find a way forward. Currently, no longstanding resolution has been reached, and so No Outsiders has been suspended until a compromise can be found.
SO WHERE DOES THIS END?
Many within the LGBTQ community would say that Andrew Moffat’s diligent and steadfast work to promote equality should be further applauded. While being truly inclusive means all parties taking the time to listen to all people of all races, genders, sexual orientations and faiths, this debate remains highly polarised. As discussions move forward, it will be interesting to see what the final resolution will be.
Surely the fact that these pupils already demonstrate a healthy inclusive awareness is testament to the great success of this programme. Let’s hope that this good work is not lost on our primary school children - not only the youngsters caught up in the present situation, but also those who follow in the future.
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