“Relationships, aspirations, sparkle” reads the sign outside Anderton Park School in the English city of Birmingham. The words encapsulate the school’s ethos, and are to the outside eye completely harmless. But to those waving signs and chanting slogans opposite the picturesque red-brick building, the motto – or one third of it, at least – points to an issue of utmost acrimony.
Relationships – specifically of the same-sex nature – are being “forced” upon young pupils via the school’s curriculum, argue the protesters, the vast majority of which are Muslim. LGBT content, however educational, is at odds with their Islamic faith, they argue, and should not be taught to primary school aged children.
But now, after months of fiery demonstrations and national news coverage, the school-gate protests have been banned. “Too serious to tolerate” was the risk to children, who everyday were exposed to the demonstrators’ “increasingly unacceptable” behaviour, said Birmingham City Council, who brought the legal action. The protestors are undeterred, however, and have vowed to fight the “disproportionate and unjust” ruling in the courts.
Their favoured chant, “our children, our choice”, pinpoints the root of the issue. The UK parliament voted this year to make relationships and sex education (RSE) compulsory in English schools. And while LGBT themed content is not specifically required in primary level education, curriculum guidance encourages primary schools to teach children about different families, including those with same-sex parents.
Anderton Park’s headteacher, Sarah Hewitt-Clarkson, has devoted 0.5% of her annual teaching timetable to fulfilling this, using educational materials that reflect diversity and inclusivity. In practice, this means that some of the school’s youngest pupils learn from books where characters may have two parents of the same sex. As headteacher, she’s overseen this sort of education for years – but now the situation is at breaking point. Around 80% of the school’s 700 pupils are of Muslim faith, and as the demonstrations intensified Hewitt-Clarkson estimates that as many half of her pupils were withdrawn from lessons by parents.
But protestors argue their cause is just. Vociferous in their denial of homophobia, they claim only to be exerting legitimate parental rights in safeguarding their children from age-inappropriate material. To this end, they have three demands: a suspension of the school’s current RSE programme (including reference to LGBT relationships), a guarantee that any future syllabus will be both age-appropriate and religiously sensitive, and a more comprehensive consultation with the school. Shakeel Afsar leads the protests and has vowed not be “silenced” by the court order, using social media to rally support: “I will stress to parents – don’t back down. If you feel you are right, invoke your rights”.
Regardless the democratic merit of the movement, hostility and bitterness have taken root in its wake. Clashes between protestors and LGBT-inclusivity campaigners required police intervention, and threats to teachers are reportedly commonplace. Hewitt-Clarkson, who faces daily calls to resign, has even been labelled a paedophile by demonstrators.
On the flipside, protestors claim they are being treated worse than fascists. But it’s the effect on pupils caught in the crossfire that’s most worrying. Exposure to the protests has been understandably upsetting to the young children, parents say, and classroom friendships are said to be breaking down as a consequence.
Desperate to resolve the deteriorating situation, authorities have parachuted in a community mediator – former chief prosecutor Nazir Afzal. Nearly two months of cross-party talks have seen no breakthrough, however. Disinformation on the part of ‘manipulative’ protestors is hampering the process, Afzal argues. “I have seen them walking around with materials and documents which they have pulled off the internet which they wrongly and maliciously say the school is teaching”, he said, adding that he had scrutinised the school’s curriculum and found “no specific LGBT content, no reference to gay sex”.
The protestors have found support from some official corners, however. Weighing in on the situation for the first time, local MP Roger Godsliff said he felt that the lessons in question were not always age-appropriate, and that the youngest school children – aged four and five – were too young to learn about LGBT families and equality. But it’s the government, not the school at fault, he said. The UK’s Equality Act stipulates that certain ‘protected characteristics’, including sexual orientation and gender reassignment, must feature in a child’s education – but doesn’t make clear when and how they should appear.
Hewitt-Clarkson agrees that legislative ambiguity has exacerbated the problem. Requiring teachers to fold LGBT and other inclusivity-minded elements into their syllabus, but giving them discretion over the content and timeframe leaves them vulnerable to criticism. “It’s a mess: one I am being left to deal with on my doorstep with screaming people,” she said.
But the dispute may not be confined to only her doorstep for very long, experts have warned. With RSE teaching becoming mandatory next year, the legislative catalyst for Birmingham’s parental unrest may have a similar effect elsewhere in the country. “There are many large Muslim communities in other English cities and towns and we have seen some small outbreaks of [similar] dissent,” said Colin Diamond, professor of educational leadership at the University of Birmingham. “This is not exclusively a Muslim issue. There are strands of conservative Christian and Jewish elements too,” he added, speaking with InsideOver.
Indeed, there are reports of letters opposing the lessons landing on the doorsteps of schools in Birmingham, Bradford, Bristol, Croydon, Ealing, Manchester, Northampton, Nottingham and Kent – the latter being sent from Christian parents. At a time of political turmoil and Brexit-induced government paralysis, there are worries that this social, religious and moral showdown could spread unchecked. And ultimately it won’t be the placard waving parents, the beleaguered teachers or the pensive politicians who’ll suffer most – it will be the children.