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Wednesday 17 April 2019

tortoise take • opinion

Schools you can believe in

By Ceri Thomas

In Birmingham, a cat’s cradle of an argument has been playing out. Like most deep and bitter rows, almost everything about it is disputed and its threads are tangled. It touches on the state and the family, equality and faith, multiculturalism and citizenship, and it reopens an issue which most social liberals and progressive politicians thought was safely in a box: is it right for schools to teach children values which run counter to the beliefs of their family?

Let’s recap. Until the early part of this year, Parkfield Community School was low on the radar; a state school doing what education inspectors considered to be an outstanding job in a poor area of England’s second-biggest city. More than 97 per cent of the school’s 4-to-11 year-old children are Muslim.

On the rare occasions when the media paid attention to Parkfield it was for one reason: to celebrate its success in delivering a programme called No Outsiders, portraying a range of heterosexual and same-sex relationships, without offending parents. The Guardian ran a gushing article in 2016: “‘We respect Islam and gay people’…the gay teacher transforming a Muslim school.” It was the story of the near-miraculous success of a school pursuing an equality agenda with the consent of a traditional Muslim community. And for nearly three years it had the ring of truth; but then, suddenly, it didn’t. More than 300 Parkfield parents reportedly signed a petition in January this year demanding an end to No Outsiders, and two months later 600 children were temporarily withdrawn from the school in protest.

There are plenty of plausible explanations for the stark shift in mood between 2016 and now, but three front-runners: either the school didn’t have the full consent of parents to run No Outsiders in 2016, and it has taken until now for them to find the courage to say so; or parents did consent in 2016, but now they’ve changed their mind; or perhaps most parents still consent but their voices are being drowned out by activists or social media bullies. The fourth explanation – maybe the real front-runner – is some combination of the above.

But whichever of those explanations seems likeliest, there’s a common factor: something has changed, and the question of consent is at the heart of it.

The bust-up at Parkfield revolves around gender, identity and the family. It has been a rallying point for those who want that old political unit, the traditional mum-dad-and-two-kids family, to make a comeback in public policy.

It’s worth remembering how central it was a generation ago. The words of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in her Conservative Party conference speech after the 1987 general election victory make the case succinctly: “Children who need to be taught to respect traditional moral values are being taught that they have an inalienable right to be gay.”

It was a high-water mark of a sort. Within just a few years, those words would have been unsayable by any mainstream UK political leader. The direction of public policy was set towards greater concern for equality. It didn’t happen without trepidation – it wasn’t until 2010 that the Equality Act coalesced many of the changes and cemented them in law – but the trajectory was unwavering. It was fixed by decades of hard-won legislative agreement with much pain on all sides, not by a sudden spasm of political correctness.

But even in 2010, same-sex marriage was a bridge too far. It took an act of political bravery by David Cameron, burning through a stock of his political capital in the process, to drive it through parliament three years later. But note the contribution to the debate in the House of Commons from one of the few Muslim MPs, the Conservative Rehman Chishti:

“…the Minister will know that 5 per cent of the UK population is Muslim. What proportion of the Muslim community responded to the consultation? How many were for it, and how many were against it? My understanding is that not a single mosque responded by supporting the redefinition of marriage.”

Note, too, the rather high-handed snap-back from the minister responsible for shepherding the legislation through parliament, Maria Miller: “My Honourable Friend will know that this issue is not about numbers.”

In truth, at that point, it was – and the numbers were on Maria Miller’s side. In the six years since, support for same-sex marriage in the UK has remained high, drifting upwards slowly. The flags of faith and family are being carried by populist crowds elsewhere in Europe – in Hungary, in Poland, to a lesser extent in Italy – but they’ve barely fluttered in Britain even in the Brexit gale.

The only substantial group in British society standing against the drift in favour of same-sex marriage, according to opinion polls, has been British Muslims.

In that respect, Parkfield raises a wider and older question: how does a multicultural society negotiate its differences when the deeply-held views of a minority are overruled by the majority? The answer depends, as it always does, on representation and integration.

Some threads in this knotty argument are easy to straighten out. Here’s one: the role of a state school is to produce good citizens, not good Christians, Muslims, Jews or Hindus. And since British values now encompass a broad belief in equality, including an equal right to marry, schools are bound to gently imbue those values from early years onwards. Parkfield did the right thing.

That is not the same as saying that it’s right for a school to fall into a furious row with its parents over a jarring mismatch in values inside and outside the school gates. But refereeing fundamental questions of identity and national values can’t fall to teachers; it’s for politics and society at large to win culture wars and build support for important values, especially those like sexuality, gender and identity which have been in rapid flux in Britain.

The battle-lines at Parkfield have been too tightly-drawn – unfairly drawn – around the school.

Why? Because of failures in representation, the best mechanism we have for obtaining consent about society’s values; and integration, the best we have for embedding them.

The UK does not give British Muslims enough seats at the table. One in twenty of the country’s population is represented by one in forty of its MPs. In every important respect, Britain’s Muslims are distant from power: disproportionately poor; less well-educated; less likely to get a job than people as a whole. After Brexit, the country knows that communities which feel under-represented and overlooked are less inclined than they used to be to knuckle down and accept their lot. That may be part of the Parkfield story.

The clue to the other significant strand has already appeared in this text in a figure frequently quoted but rarely commented upon: the more-than 97 per cent of Parkfield’s pupils who come from Muslim backgrounds. In a world of cautious relativism some things are still worth saying clearly, and this is one: no non-religious state school just a few miles from the centre of one of the world’s most diverse cities (Birmingham is more diverse than London) should be 97 per cent anything. It is not a sign of a healthily integrated place. The UK has known all about the dangers of segregation in its cities, particularly of its Asian communities, since it investigated the causes of a long summer of race riots in northern English towns in 2001. In those towns were parallel communities leading lives that never touched and, for a time, especially after the London Tube bombings in 2005, it seemed a matter of urgency to unite them. But whatever will to change existed has come up short. Birmingham is just one of a number of cities where segregation has increased not diminished.

The pulling apart is now happening in a landscape where access to public services is a daily fight; where immigration is fiercely contested; and where identity and values drive votes. Yes, people are frustrated with the state; yes, they must (and do) retain the right to worship and believe. But the failure to commit wholeheartedly to integration has left a rather wonderful neighbourhood school in Birmingham in an unfortunate position, straddling fissures which run right across the country’s political landscape.

Underneath the disagreements, behind the demonstrations which are still taking place at the school gates, is a rising demand for equality. Not just economic equality – perhaps not even principally that – but equality of esteem. Frustrated with multiculturalism’s failure to deliver that, some people are turning towards separateness instead. The words of the Massachusetts Supreme Court in its landmark judgement about same-sex marriage in 2004, come racing front-of-mind again: “The history of our nation has demonstrated that separate is seldom, if ever, equal.”

For & against

Alka Seghal Cuthbert Parkfield School and the new intolerance. Spiked, 1/2/19

“This politicisation of primary education raises important questions. What incidents of homophobic or transgender bullying have occurred that merit such a curricular intervention? What horrors have occurred that would warrant teachers explicitly teaching primary school-aged children about homosexual relationships and transgender identity? Do they have evidence that, without programmes like No Outsiders, children would be full of hate, tearing into anyone who was different to themselves?

If, at a school, there have been instances of name-calling, mocking or even physical bullying, teachers should feel able to deal with them by applying a universal standard of rules based on good manners, polite behaviour and disciplinary sanctions. That’s pretty much a staple of being an authoritative adult, or at least it has been until recent times.

This is not a battle between bigoted mothers and broadminded teachers. As it happens, the Muslim mothers have said they do not hate gay people. One told the Birmingham Mail that ‘gay people should be treated with mutual respect’. They just also think that it is inappropriate for their children to learn about sexuality at school.”

Dame Louise Casey The Casey review – a review into opportunity and integration

(Extract from the foreword)

“At the start of this review, I had thought that I knew what some of the problems might be and what I might report on. Discrimination and disadvantage feeding a sense of grievance and unfairness, isolating communities from modern British society and all it has to offer.

I did find this. Black boys still not getting jobs, white working-class kids on free school meals still doing badly in our education system, Muslim girls getting good grades at school but no decent employment opportunities; these remain absolutely vital problems to tackle and get right to improve our society.

But I also found other, equally worrying things including high levels of social and economic isolation in some places and cultural and religious practices in communities that are not only holding some of our citizens back but run contrary to British values and sometimes our laws.

Time and time again I found it was women and children who were the targets of these regressive practices. And too often, leaders and institutions were not doing enough to stand up against them and protect those who were vulnerable.

I know that for some, the content of this review will be hard to read, and I have wrestled with what to put in and what to leave out, particularly because I know that putting some communities under the spotlight – particularly communities in which there are high concentrations of Muslims of Pakistani and Bangladeshi heritage – will add to the pressure that they already feel. However, I am convinced that it is only by fully acknowledging what is happening that we can set about resolving these problems and eventually relieve this pressure.

None of this is easy. But too many leaders have chosen to take the easier path when confronted with these issues in the past – sometimes with good intent – and that has often resulted in problems being ducked, swept under the carpet or allowed to fester.

I approached this review with an absolute belief that we are a compassionate, tolerant and liberal country. But social cohesion and equality are not things we can take for granted; they require careful tending, commitment and bravery from us all.”

Stephen Daisley In Defence of the Parkfield Community School parents

“The lessons were spearheaded by assistant headteacher Andrew Moffat, author of Challenging Homophobia in Primary Schools, who resigned from a previous teaching job after parents objected to similar lessons and Moffat’s decision to ‘come out’ to the children. In a 2016 puff piece in The Guardian Moffat explained why he then chose to work at Parkfield:

‘There was no point in going to an area where it would be an easy task. I had to go where I might meet the same challenges in order to find a different way to meet them. I was determined to make LGBT equality a reality in any community. I could not afford to get it wrong a second time.’

It’s no surprise that, after going looking for trouble, trouble found him. Shockingly enough for a school located in a 52 per cent Muslim constituency, many parents at Parkfield have anxieties about No Outsiders. They disapprove of homosexuality and trans lifestyles and don’t want their children being taught that it’s a valid way to live their lives. Recently, hundreds of parents kept their children away from Parkfield in protest. For those keeping track, this was Bad Truancy, unlike skipping school to protest climate change by chanting ‘fuck Theresa May’, which is Good Truancy. Parkfield has caved and suspended No Outsiders lessons indefinitely. Now, parents at seven primary schools in Manchester have complained about similar teaching, even though none of the schools currently runs the programme.

More will join them over the next 12 months, from various religious bents and none. From 2020, relationships and sex education (RSE) will be compulsory in schools in England. Parents will retain a right to withdraw their child from sex education (mandatory in secondary schools, optional in primaries) until three terms before the child’s 16th birthday, when the decision will become the child’s to make. However, there will be no right to withdraw from RSE wholesale.

Progressives are in an unforgiving mood about events in Birmingham and Manchester. Understandably, gays and lesbians aren’t giddy at the prospect of rejoining battles they believed long won. Secularists say the curriculum shouldn’t be set by superstitious reactionaries. There has been a fair bit of snorting about ‘sky fairies’. The strongest case comes from the journalist James Bloodworth, who argues: ‘Liberals must stand firm against bigotry and insist that people are free to live out their lives as they wish. Parental pressure like that being applied in Birmingham must not be allowed to prevail.’”