It was only a year ago that Birmingham was in a Sex Education crisis. One moment saw Labour MP Jess Phillips confronting parent Shakeel Asfar, asking: “I don’t agree that you get to pick and choose which equality you can and can’t have. I’m afraid our equality laws protect us all”. These words were spoken in the midst of a 300-strong, eight-week-long protest outside Anderton Park Primary School over the teaching of LGBT+ topics.
Few would wish a repeat of this episode, which also included threatening emails, anxious children, and an imam apparently shouting that “paedophiles are in there”. Somewhere, communication had broken down, and aggression had taken its place.
Concerns over sex education are by no means confined to the Islamic community, and even if only a few parents are incensed enough to protest, most have an opinion on what is being taught in the classroom. Now, this September, new Relationships and Sex Education legislation comes into effect across England, and so it is vital to discuss this contentious topic as the 2020 school year looms, taking into account its journey all the way from conception.
Reproductive biology has been part of the science curriculum since before 1999, at which point it was decided that Relationships education was to be included, making up the ‘R’ in RSE (changed from SRE in 2017). Isabel, 23, an RSE charity volunteer who I spoke to, said “We teach about friendships, familial relationships – RSE puts relationships first. They’re always intertwined, and although you can have one without the other, the teaching of one helps the teaching of the other”.
Since then, the classroom has continued to reflect society’s progressions, teaching about different cultures and lifestyles as they become increasingly accepted and prevalent. LGBT+ is amongst these topics, and many parents find it their biggest issue. A Mrs Naeem was quoted in The Guardian as asking “Do you know how hard it is to explain to a four-year-old why she doesn’t have two daddies?”.
Whilst varying identities, sexualities, and family configurations get more space in the upcoming curriculum, parents may have a tougher time withdrawing their child from classes. Relationships and human biology remain compulsory; if parents request withdrawal from sex education, the government deem it “good practice” for the headteacher to discuss with and inform the parents before making a decision, one which only lasts until three terms before the child hits 16, at which point the choice is their own.
Chester, 28, whose child will start nursery this year, agrees that “sex education absolutely has its place in schools . . . I think think it’s essential that kids from Key Stage 2 upwards are taught about homosexuality, transgenderism, intersex, non-binary people, and other groups. There should be a brief introduction to queer theory because it exists so prevalently in the world”. He emphasised, however, that such topics are to be taught when children are “ready . . . in a way that is not going to confuse them”. I asked Chester to clarify his concerns here:
“I think it is very important to make a distinction between teaching young people about healthy sexual relationships whatever form they come in, and encouraging things like fetishism. That’s not to say they should be inherently demonised and treated in a way that they are subversive entirely . . . but I think there is a danger of confusing healthy sexual relationships, puberty, growth, and social issues, with overt kink. I’ve worked with vulnerable teenagers who, through their use of the internet, had come across sources which conflated these things, resulting in some views dangerous to themselves and others”.
So Chester recognises the importance of teaching children about legal practices and lifestyles, whilst still having concerns over the manner with which the topics are dealt. For these reasons, Chester believes that we “should absolutely maintain the right of certain groups to take their children out of education that they don’t think is fitting with their religious customs”, citing “religious freedom and freedom of speech”.
Isabel offered some arguably opposing points, however, saying: “LBTQ+ is not inherently sexual. Two men having a child is not inherently sexual. Same with transgender people – it’s about identity, not sexuality. We’re not teaching kids to be transgender, people are transgender of their own accord – we’re just saying, “if you are this, that’s ok”. We don’t teach about kinks and fetishes. The closest we’ll get to that is if a young person shouts something out, and we move it away from shaming and we’ll say, “well, some people do…”. We tell them if it’s two consensual adults, then it’s ok.”
There is a rift between these two viewpoints, both of which are less extreme than many: last October, Warwickshire County Council suspended the website of their ‘Respect Yourself’ campaign following numerous complaints. Beside an apparent failure to address the risk of the ‘porn inspired’ practices described (believe me, some were quite extreme), there were accounts of young people with addictions to masturbation and pornography, one piece advising that, “there are no scientific studies that give evidence to suggest that watching porn is any more likely to turn you into a sex addict than watching a violent film is likely to turn you into a serial killer. In fact there is more evidence to suggest the opposite”.
This advice is potentially misleading for youngsters born into an era of porn addiction, a subject strangely missing from the curriculum. Although currently under review, the website was, for campaign groups Safe School Alliance and Click Off, a prime example of sex positivity going too far, or at least in the wrong direction. Yet who can doubt the confusion of puberty, and the detrimental effects of guilt and shaming? As both my interviewees would agree, people must become aware of these subjects when, as Isabel puts it, they “generate more answers than questions”. But when is that? It depends on a number of factors – age, cultural background, and personal circumstances, to name just a few – and each and every one has been a point of disagreement.
Echoing Jess Phillips’ claims that some parents are attempting to “pick and choose” from the Equality Act, this nationwide controversy highlights the difficulty of maintaining equality laws when groups protected by those very laws are clashing. A bulletin from the Warwickshire campaign Respect Yourself seeks to remedy this issue:
There are nine protected characteristics of Equality Act – but here is a question – what order do they go in… which characteristics trump which…? There is no correct order – they are all equal – hence the name. This is an essential point to make – as just because a person has a particular religious belief – that being gay is wrong, for example, this does not have any more value than a persons right to marry, fall in love or have a relationships with someone of the same sex.
This is tough to wrap one’s head around when parents or communities feel that the curriculum is at odds with their beliefs. Of course any customs deemed illegal in the UK are excluded from the debate, but a law-abiding citizen with no penchant for hate crime could understandably feel marginalised, attacked even. The sentiment is perhaps summed up better by the House of Commons Library: “The Government stated that schools should encourage pupils to respect other people, even if they do not agree with them”. A utopian idea! And one to be agreed upon by most, and even touted by many religions. But we all know this to be easier said than done in the wake of such clashes. With this glimmer of hope in mind, let’s examine what this respectful environment could look like in practice, and how all parties concerned can hope to bring it about.
The stage is being set in some unlikely places: when I looked up Sex Education on the website of the Muslim Council of Britain, the UKs largest and arguably most powerful Muslim council, the page was headlined “Constructive Engagement”, a phrase which feels like a far cry from the Qu’Ran-bashing parents and megaphone-wielding imams that were present in the Birmingham protests.
The MCBs page encourages all muslims to:
Engage constructively with the school policy making process.
Develop effective RSE policies and teaching material for Muslim faith schools.
Empower parents to discuss RSE topics at home.
They cite the following 2020 guidance, whilst encouraging affirmative action at their end:
In all schools, when teaching these subjects, the religious background of all pupils must be taken into account when planning teaching, so that the topics that are included in the core content in this guidance are appropriately handled. Schools must ensure they comply with the relevant provisions of the Equality Act 2010, under which religion or belief are amongst the protected characteristics. [Emphasis added by the MCB]
What with so many of the curriculum’s topics being disapproved of by Islam’s core teachings, MCB’s approach here seems level-headed and optimistic. They also quoted the guidance which states that:
All schools must have in place a written policy for Relationships Education and RSE. Schools must consult parents in developing and reviewing their policy. Schools should ensure that the policy meets the needs of pupils and parents and reflects the community they serve.
This new guidance gives schools measures of both freedom and responsibility. Florence, 33, a member of the Senior Leadership Team at an independent school for children with autism and high anxiety, tells me that “When Government guidance on RSE is released there is usually a consultation process, and often a significant percentage of the respondents is made up of parents”.
She points out, however, that the phrase “schools must consult parents” is an update, and a welcome one at that. “It would be unwise for parents to only have the chance to express their opinions at a national guidance level and it would be unwise for schools to have no chance to positively influence parents’ perspectives on the various aspects of the RSE curriculum”.
Florence went on to opine that, whilst parental involvement in the educational system is important, a greater benefit is, “helping parents to understand the content and the purpose of the content” and “supporting parents to manage difficult conversations at home”. It’s true that, despite the expanding Sex Education curriculum, British law still treats parents as the primary educators of their children, and such responsibility begs support. However, where a parent feeling humbled and a little awkward around the subject may seek out or readily accept such support, one feeling marginalised and outraged may not.
Whoever’s job it is to make the first move here, schools are being required to do so. Florence is optimistic of the effects this could have, but when schools must consider faith, culture, religion, and the family’s personal circumstances, she describes this as a “big ask” and brings up the question “what is the role of the school and is it sufficiently funded for this role?”. For her, the school’s most important function is learning in all its aspects: “academic learning, equally or more importantly it means the teaching of good social skills, empathy, equality, tolerance and the transition from childhood to adulthood in an interdependent society”.
If schools are not “sufficiently funded”, they may turn to charities like Isabel’s, which offer free services and are made up of people motivated and passionate about delivering sex education. Our parent Chester, amongst many others, takes issue with some charities and their goals, believing that “there needs to be a higher level of accountability for the way which charity interacts with policy, directly affecting young people potentially in vulnerable situations”. Charities differ wildly, however, and Isabel tells me how her organisation creates a different lesson plan for every school. “Even if we borrow a powerpoint, we will tailor it. We have a phone conversation with the school or youth group beforehand”.
That said, Isabel points out that improvements can be made in the diversity of staff. An example would be the gender imbalance in charities largely run by women, Isabel having seen that “When two women are teaching, the young men can switch off”. This is one of various areas for improvement when it comes to the actual delivery of the subject itself.
Outside of the learning environment, youngsters get up to their own devices. Chester said “the majority of learning, especially in my case, was peer to peer . . . even if it’s just being privy to very crude and adolescent jokes”. Whilst admitting “it’s not a good way to glean information”, Chester correctly points out that “It’s difficult to avoid sex education at a wider level just through the prevelance of sexualised imagery”.
So Florence’s questioning of whether a school is sufficiently funded for its role could equally apply to government, parents, charities, and even to siblings and classmates. When we speak of resources, we speak not only of money, despite its importance, but of education, confidence, tolerance, and integration into a community, all resources with which most would hope that their children grow up with an abundance.
Is this yet more work for schools? Arbitrating between parents, understanding their communities, relaying this effectively to charities or teachers, all whilst providing a safe and informative environment for children, are not small feats. Even Chester’s crude but eye-opening jokes and Isabel’s worries about gender imbalance could be placed on schools shoulders. These things are arguably underpinned by wider societal issues, and schools play a pivotal role in remedying these with each new generation. We can talk of responsibility on all fronts, and these responsibilities must not be underplayed, but the legislation addresses schools directly, and it’s they who are being expected to break these cycles of ignorance and disagreement, to bring about some harmony in the face of all this dissonance.
I can see it now, the embodiment of that utopia: a deliverer of sex education, a person with calmness, confidence, knowledge, and compassion, is meeting with parents. They get on well with the community and do a sterling job in keeping this in mind when delivering the curriculum, which in theory preaches both equality and education, both religion and secularism, both family and school, on equal footings.
Myself and all three of my interviewees have seen what an excellent youth worker looks like. They can turn a potentially awkward or traumatising situation into an eye-opening experience. They can bring together two young people with apparently opposite views, backgrounds, or cultures, in harmony with good humour, tolerance, and calm discussion. It’s not always perfect, and in a society where individual freedom is key, one can’t expect nor attempt to please everyone all the time. But hope is there.
Such fantastic work is harder if the curriculum is less flexible, and the government’s attempt to foster community-based education rather than a blanket iron fist allows such staff to breathe, to work alongside those who otherwise they’d be in disagreement with, and to mould themselves around their communities. But with this responsibility comes potential for the opposite, for teaching staff who are stressed, tired, underpaid, and dismissive, or for parents who are ill-informed, anxious, and angry. This is about money, hard work, personality, community, and outreach. Although an optimist myself, this legislation will put British institutions and British public to the test a little. It’s goal should be applauded, but the difficulties of getting there must not be underestimated.