For the past several years, the teaching of the No Outsiders programme in a number of schools – notably Parkfield Community School in Birmingham – has been spectacularly uncontentious. What changed with the recent protests?
My reading of the situation is that imminent changes in law, relating to the new relationships and health education that primary schools must teach from 2020, have galvanised certain sections of the local community. It appears that socially conservative elements of the local Muslim population believe that the teaching of issues around relationships and sex education belong primarily in the family home, and is not terrain that schools should be engaging with.
Within that opposition are groups who see anything other than their view – or theological interpretation – as tantamount to encouraging homosexuality and promiscuity. There’s a website called Islamic RSE, which shows exactly where such voices are coming from.
I believe the current protests at the time of writing – which started in Birmingham, but have since spread further afield – are being used as a platform for a wider campaign against what some see as inappropriately liberal relationships education.
A beautiful concept
There’s a previous episode directly related to what’s happening now which is worth highlighting. Back in 2014, a programme called Challenging Homophobia in Primary Schools (CHIPS) came under serious attack at another setting in Birmingham, Welford Primary School. The headteacher at the time, Jamie Barry, was effectively ambushed by several groups of parents from a number of religious backgrounds, and even some with no religious affiliation, who took exception to the teaching of CHIPS.
The incident occurred around the time of the Trojan Horse episode. It was unpleasant, with some fears for the safety of staff at the school. It resulted in media coverage and the school pulling back slightly from the full version of the CHIPS programme.
My own view on what happened is that the programme was bound to offend some sensibilities within certain communities because of its focus on homophobia. The lesson learned locally is that equalities education needs to work from a broader canvas. That informed the No Outsiders programme, which is rooted in the 2010 Equality Act and its protected characteristics. No Outsiders itself is a beautiful concept – I believe the name is derived from a quote by Desmond Tutu – and until recently at least, the teaching of it had gone very well.
It’s important to note that people often refer to ‘the Muslim community’, singular. It’s no more a singular a group than any other religious or cultural community within this country. There are many different elements within the broader Muslim community, and different interpretations of Islam among different generations of Muslims. To talk of ‘the Muslim community’ is to wield a short, blunt and crude rhetorical instrument.
Ahead of the curve
The issue we have, however, is that many local people are frightened to speak out against figures who claim to represent this ‘Muslim community’. They don’t, but these are figures who command very loud local voices, and it’s difficult to get beyond that.
Had there been a genuine, overwhelming rejection of No Outsiders among the local population, then these protests would have happened years ago. No parent wants any kind of ideology forced upon their children, but that’s not what No Outsiders is about. It isn’t sex education; it’s actually saying ‘Some families have two mummies, some have two daddies. Sometimes a grandad or auntie will be looking after the kids. Some families have kids who are wheelchair users. Everyone’s a bit different.’ It’s very gentle in its approach.
I heard a wonderful phrase a while back – ‘You can’t over-communicate anything.’ If, as a leader, you sense an issue may be controversial, then get ahead of the curve. Get out there first, and notify the parents about what you’re studying, what the syllabus is covering, why you’re doing it, how it fits in with the broader education at the school and invite parents in. Let them sit with teachers and go through the relevant materials, because in the great majority of situations, those parents will be reassured.
Parents can get nervous. They can get anxious – particularly those who might be new to the education system in this country. We’re one of only very few countries in the world that legally enforces the type of protections outlined in the Equality Act, so it may well be that schools will find themselves introducing new social and educational norms to different communities. That should never be taken for granted.
However, this isn’t simply a case of schools asserting ‘We’re right and you’re wrong’; it’s more a case of saying ‘We want to work effectively between you, the family, and your child.’ These situations often require a lot of effort on the part of school leaders and class teachers. What we must do is allay fears. Let’s be invitational. Let’s consult.
What we must ultimately be aiming for is community cohesion, right across the country. That involves recognising that we’re a pluralist society – multi-faith, multi-ethnic and multi-tradition. It’s important that the children growing up here have a deep, meaningful understanding of each other’s cultures and how relationships are managed. And yes, that now includes our country’s LGBT community.
We’re not here to indoctrinate. We’re here to enable young people to be strong and make their own choices – but to make an informed choice, you need knowledge. You gain knowledge by participating in classes that take you outside of your social domain at home. I believe that there are some red lines, and things we’re doing that we shouldn’t row back from – but I also think there’s a huge amount we can do via energetic communications within our communities to keep things calm. What we ultimately need to do is communicate, communicate communicate.
Proactive consultations in 3 steps
My preferred approach to consultation involves three elements:
1. Share the information
Put the facts on the table and explain clearly what you’re planning to do in lessons, so that everyone can become familiar and comfortable with it.
2. Allow people time
Rather than introduce the change tomorrow, give people time to absorb things properly. Provide them with the relevant information and timescales, and explain that if any of the proposals concern them, they can visit the school, meet with you and talk things through.
3. Listen to your responses
As school leaders, you’ll need to give conscientious consideration to what your parents, members of the local community and whomever else respond with. Listen carefully to what they tell you.
Colin Diamond CBE is Professor of Educational Leadership at the School of Education, University of Birmingham; follow him at @anfieldexile