Lessons in teaching equality

School equalities teaching including material on LGBTQ+ relationships has been a catalyst for parent protests in an impoverished working-class and predominantly Muslim area of Birmingham – seized on by the government, Christian and Islamic fundamentalists and others for opportunistic ends. It raises an important issue: how to involve marginalised, discriminated against communities in a programme that includes gender and sexuality equality alongside tackling widespread poverty and deprivation. MARTIN POWELL-DAVIES writes.

After over a decade of intensified attacks on workers’ living standards, and without the labour movement organising decisively to oppose them, it is almost inevitable that the growing anger and alienation within working-class communities can be misdirected towards chauvinism and division. It is the task of socialists, without ever conceding to discriminatory views, to find a way to overcome those divisions and help bring workers together in the united struggle needed to solve the problems we face.

These dangers have been only too obvious in the protests that erupted in Birmingham earlier this year outside two primary schools. Both have developed teaching programmes designed to help educate young people about equality and diversity, including same-sex relationships. However, some local parents have objected that children are being taught ideas that they see as being inappropriate and unacceptable.

While the controversy has hit the headlines in Birmingham, the issue could be one that emerges in other cities too. Similar protests have been held in Nottingham. After all, the two schools were only teaching the kind of ‘relationships education’ that many primary schools will also have in place and, under new government regulations, becomes a compulsory requirement from September 2020.

Is it inappropriate teaching? Well, the curriculum programme that received most of the publicity, ‘No Outsiders’, can be easily accessed on the website of Parkfield Community School in Saltley, Birmingham, where they were developed, led by Andrew Moffat, its assistant head teacher. Most education staff looking at these materials would be impressed by their content and the proposed learning intentions. Under the heading, ‘No Outsiders for a Faith Community – Everyone is Welcome In Our School’, the resources include well-known books that help young children discuss and celebrate differences, like the story of Elmer, the multi-coloured patchwork elephant. Other lessons encourage children to challenge racism and discrimination, and to make ‘outsiders’ feel welcome.

However, in contrast to the new regulations, which remain vague about the exact requirements on teaching primary school children about LGBT+ relationships, the No Outsiders programme includes teaching content about children with same-sex parents. For this it uses ‘And Tango Makes Three’, a children’s book about two male penguins that raised a female chick together in a New York zoo. This has been censored in Hong Kong, Singapore and some US states. Another suggested resource is ‘Mommy, Mamma and Me’, another children’s book about a toddler with two mothers. This was highlighted by some of the protestors because, in their view, it unnecessarily introduces young children to the idea that some people are LGBT+.

Of course, this is where the controversy lies. While, to an education professional, No Outsiders looks like a well-constructed curriculum model, to local parents who have not been involved in the development of the materials, it could look like an attempt to impose ‘outsiders’ beliefs on their community, particularly to the disadvantaged and predominantly Pakistani communities that these inner-city schools support.

Caught in the crossfire, local head teachers have complained that the Conservative government’s refusal to set down clear statutory requirements has left them unsupported. Firmer legislation would help make sure that all children had access to fully rounded health, relationships and sex education. Partly in response to the controversy in Birmingham, this year’s conference of the National Education Union (NEU) backed an urgency motion calling for the government to make lessons about LGBT+ relationships mandatory in primary and secondary education.

However, while stronger regulations would enable heads to point to their legal responsibilities for teaching what they know might be unpopular with some parents, relying on legislation does nothing to address underlying prejudice or to help win parental support for an inclusive curriculum. Neither can the list of protected characteristics within the Equality Act help resolve the divisions that arise when people who identify with a particular characteristic – in this case, religion or belief as against sexual orientation – perceive they are in conflict. That requires a different approach.

What the protests raised

The Birmingham protests began at the start of 2019, soon after a Parkfield school parent started a petition complaining that No Outsiders contradicted Islamic faith. Demonstrations then took place outside the school with some parents withdrawing their children from lessons. There are now fears that a growing minority of children across the city are being permanently ‘homeschooled’, withdrawing them entirely from receiving a full curriculum and the support of fully qualified teachers and school staff.

Parkfield school decided to withdraw No Outsiders temporarily to allow senior staff to discuss with parents, but then felt able to reintroduce the programme in the summer term after several months of consultation. The biggest and most hostile protests then emerged outside another Birmingham school, Anderton Park community primary in Balsall Heath. The spokesperson for the Anderton Park protesters, Shakeel Afsar, described in the press as a ‘local property developer’, argued that parents “weren’t consulted by [the head teacher] about her LGBTQ agenda, and are upset that they’re being ignored. Their four-year-old kids are coming home confused asking about two mummies and two daddies, and boys being girls and girls being boys. That’s too young”. (The Observer, 21 September 2019)

Opponents of Afsar point out that he is not a parent of a child at the school. However, his sister is an Anderton Park parent and he and other protest organisers were clearly able to mobilise significant numbers from the local community to rallies outside the school gates. The largest protest, on 24 May, called to “show the media that we are united and will not compromise on our faith principles”, numbered over 300.

The protest leaders deny they are being homophobic. They seek to draw a distinction between respecting someone’s right to be LGBT+ and schools teaching children that same-sex relationships should be accepted as being as valid as any other consensual relationship. That distinction, however, clearly fails to accept LGBT+ equality. Moreover, some were undoubtedly motivated by more deeply held homophobic views, including Christian fundamentalists who joined the 24 May protests. It is also clear that, whatever the motivation of the protesters, the publicity around them has encouraged homophobia. West Midlands police have described “a huge spike in homophobic hate crime reports” since the protests started.  

With children and staff having to walk past frequent noisy demonstrations, Anderton Park school successfully obtained a temporary court injunction preventing protests at the gates. However, the legal action will have only added to the discontent among the protesters and Afsar vowed that demonstrations would start again outside the ‘exclusion zone’ once children went back to school this September. The numbers so far have been much smaller but the tensions have not gone away.

Some of the placards have raised concerns that children are being sexualised at too early an age, a concern that many parents might have some sympathy with. Yet Anderton Park’s head teacher has explained that, unlike some other primaries, they have specifically chosen not to teach sex education at all. Neither is their relationships education, nor Parkfield’s No Outsiders programme, predominantly about LGBT+ equality. They teach about supportive relationships and challenging stereotypes more generally. Clearly, sex education always has to be age-appropriate but needs to be included in the curriculum, certainly at secondary school if not earlier, too. Teaching about relationships, including LGBT+ relationships, is needed throughout schooling.

Inclusive education, run democratically

Other placards raised issues that are harder to resolve. ‘Say no to undermining parental rights and authority’, was one demand that goes to the heart of the conflict. Who has the final say on what a school should teach: government, local politicians, staff and their unions, schools or parents?

Unfortunately, in Birmingham, the final decision-making has effectively often been with the unaccountable leaders of the multi-academy trusts that have been given control of so many of the city’s schools. The ethos encouraged by successive governments, that community schools can be turned into academy schools and then run by self-appointed leaders without local communities having any say, may well have contributed to the tensions that have emerged.

Socialists would argue that all schools should be democratically accountable and, to use the current jargon, that all ‘stakeholders’ should have a say in how schools are run and what is taught within them. The motion agreed at the Labour Party’s recent conference, which called for an end to academies and for all schools to be under the control of their local authority through “reformed, democratically accountable local education committees with stakeholder representation”, is an important step in that direction.

This policy could, if acted upon, be developed into building inclusive bodies that would allow genuine democratic control of schools through elected representatives of the local community, parents, staff and their trade unions, and older school students. Those kinds of committees would provide the forum for discussing areas of controversy and to gain the authority needed to arrive at decisions that would win general acceptance. That would need to include policies on sex, health and relationships education, as well as provision for students and staff with different faiths.

A socialist education system would also need to strike a balance between mandatory content set out nationally for all schools to follow – making sure that no school could opt out from its responsibilities to teach a broad, balanced, inclusive curriculum – and flexibility that would allow for input and variation on a local basis. There can be no fixed formula – the balance would need to be developed and adapted in practice through democratic debate.* Nonetheless, there can be no equivocation on all children being taught relationships education, including same-sex relationships.

Deprivation and social exclusion

Of course, Birmingham’s inner-city communities have no reason to trust any policy coming from this Conservative government, whether on schools or any other issue. Behind the window-dressing of supporting ‘equalities’, Tory cuts to schools, health services, jobs and living standards have only created ever-rising inequality. It has been the most disadvantaged and discriminated against sections of society, whether it be women, LGBT+ workers or impoverished black or Asian communities like those in inner-city Birmingham, who have been hardest hit.

It is no coincidence that Parkfield and Anderton Park, as well as having children overwhelmingly from Muslim families, are also situated in two of the most deprived wards in England. Birmingham city council figures estimate that the average adult income in the area is less than £12,000 a year. These predominantly Pakistani heritage parents also have further reasons to be suspicious about what the Tories have to say, especially about education.

They will know from history that the supposed ‘British values’ of ‘tolerance’ and ‘mutual respect’ have been quickly dispensed with whenever imperialist interests were at stake. They have experienced how the government’s supposedly counter-terrorism ‘Prevent duty’ has too often been attached to stereotypical fears about Muslim communities. (See: Preventing free speech on campus, Socialism Today No.232, October 2019) Specifically, in this area of Birmingham, they will have seen how that prejudice was evident in the way politicians reacted to the wildly exaggerated Trojan horse claims of an ‘Islamist plot’ to take over local schools in 2014.

Those who have studied the actual evidence are confident that the letter supposedly revealing the plot was a hoax. The case against the senior staff charged with wrongdoing eventually collapsed in 2017 when it became clear that key evidence had been withheld from their defence. However, this was long after the damage had been done.

The misreporting was used by the government to help justify making Prevent a statutory duty on schools in 2015. The then education secretary Nicky Morgan falsely claimed that “what we saw in the Birmingham schools at the heart of the Trojan horse affair [was] a concerted effort to limit young people’s world view and spread poisonous views”. It is not surprising that many British Muslims saw Prevent being used to stigmatise their faith as being prone to ‘extremism’, and that this grievance will have been particularly deeply felt in Birmingham.

Unfortunately, this does not seem to have been sufficiently understood by Andrew Moffat, the author of the No Outsiders programme. Moffat, an openly gay teacher, is clearly motivated to use his undoubted skills as a teacher to challenge inequality. He admits that, when first developing materials ten years ago, he made mistakes: “Number one, I just based it on LGBT, it was single issue. And number two I hadn’t engaged with the parents”. Moffat, therefore, correctly framed his later No Outsiders materials on challenging inequality more broadly. The meetings he has held with parents after the initial protests this year also seem to have helped answer some misapprehensions.

However, when asked why, after four years of using the materials at Parkfield, the protests suddenly began in 2019, Moffat has no real explanation. Some critics have pointed to the links made in Moffat’s publicity material between the No Outsiders programme and the Prevent agenda as being a contributory factor. Moffat’s original No Outsiders resource book, as published in 2016, was subtitled ‘Teaching the Equality Act in Primary Schools’. However, his latest 2018 book, ‘Reclaiming Radical Ideas in Schools’, while also containing materials promoting diversity, does so in the context of promoting ‘British values’ and meeting the Prevent duty. That is a mistake.

Cutting across reaction

The Birmingham protests have shown that LGBT+ equality is not fully accepted by everyone in the local Muslim community. However, nobody should fall for the divisive agenda that tries to portray this as being a prejudice that is inextricably linked with Islam. As with all faiths, conservative and more progressive approaches can coincide. Beliefs can change, influenced by events and class consciousness in wider society. Faith communities are certainly also not the only places where homophobia can be found. The question for socialists is how best to tackle it, wherever it arises.

As with those taken in by far-right, racist ideas, socialists needed to distinguish between out-and-out reactionaries and alienated workers who are searching for answers – and who will look for solutions from both right and left. The wrong approach risks driving these workers further towards reaction. Some LGBT+ campaigners from the local Asian community have shown a better understanding of what is needed to overcome the suspicion held by many of these alienated parents against what can seem like the privileged liberal middle-class lecturing them about equality.

Khakan Qureshi, from Birmingham South Asians LGBT, who has spoken out about the rise in homophobia that has accompanied the protests, explained that the dispute is “damaging for both of my communities”. He correctly added that “this is made out to be a Muslim v gay issue when, actually, this prejudice and fear exists all over England. No one talks about how class or socioeconomics affect these attitudes”. (Observer, 21 September)

In the same article, another local LGBT+ campaigner, Saima Razzaq, explained how the wrong approach could simply widen the alienation felt by these marginalised communities: “The answers have to come from within our community… It has to be done sensitively, and we have to have those conversations as Muslims, British Pakistanis, as people from Birmingham. It can’t be done through the white saviours who are holding counter-protests at the school. That’s not helping, it reeks of a colonial mindset to me. Did they not think how that looks?”

Razzaq had earlier explained that “this community are still bruised from Trojan horse and it is a very deprived area. People need to be sensitive to these issues”. She added that “pointing fingers from a white middle-class collective is not going to go down well”. (Independent, 30 March 2019)

Class-based unity

Socialists would add that those conversations need to be had as workers coming together to defend ourselves as a class, and jointly overcoming the divide-and-rule policies designed to prevent that unity. That also means that workers need to rely on our own organisations, especially trade unions, to intervene and support negotiations, not allowing the agenda to be set by unaccountable careerists or establishment politicians.

Shakeel Afsar has used the protests in part for self-promotion, alienating some of his support when he posed for publicity shots with right-wing commentator Katie Hopkins in June. Local Labour MP Roger Godsiff angered his party colleagues by publicly backing the protests. Jess Phillips, Labour MP for a neighbouring constituency, gained publicity for opposing them. As her constant undermining of Jeremy Corbyn has shown, however, Phillips is a pro-capitalist politician whose opposition to inequality will never embrace the socialist policies that are really required to tackle it.

The only way that these prejudices can be addressed is by arguing for equality from the point of view of the needs of working-class communities, rather than from an abstract moral standpoint. The roots of discrimination and prejudice, racism and sexism are rooted in class society. Socialists need to explain how a wealthy minority can only maintain its rule over the exploited majority through fostering division, but that, through united collective action, workers can fight that exploitation. The recent successful struggles of the Birmingham bin workers and home carers provide concrete local examples that socialists and trade unionists can point to.

We have to patiently explain that the poverty and discrimination faced by the inner-city communities of Birmingham and elsewhere can only be fought against through united struggle, and that is why it is in none of our interests to allow the wealthy to divide us on the basis of religion, sexual orientation or any other grounds. Of course, to permanently end exploitation, that united struggle has to succeed in winning a socialist society where democratic decision-making would be at the heart of a socialist plan of production.

The prejudice fostered by capitalism means that the kind of division that has been seen around these Birmingham schools will sometimes cut across and set back collective struggle. Regrettably, there will be some poisoned by the ideas of identity politics, focusing on what they see as their own competing oppressions rather than the need to forge a united struggle to overcome oppression and discrimination as a whole. As in Birmingham, however, the correct approach of the best campaigners will be to try and bring workers and communities together to resolve differences through open democratic discussion. Those patient discussions, combined with the experience of united workers’ struggles which the trade unions must urgently lead, can succeed in overcoming prejudice and oppression.

* An interesting historical note is that the debate about where the balance of input into education should lie, and the nature of any mandatory content, was so fervent among Bolshevik educators developing a new school curriculum after the Russian revolution that the start of the 1918 school year had to be delayed by a month!