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Faith Schools: What Really Goes on Behind Closed Doors?

05/07/2013 11:08 BST | Updated 03/09/2013 10:12 BST
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'Allah created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve. Do not be like the people of Prophet Lut (PBUH). Do not approach your own when Allah has created the opposite gender.'

Those are the words spouted by an eminent London imam.

So how far can schools go in teaching tolerance for gays and lesbians? It is the latest battleground in the culture wars.

I have personally found it difficult to obtain information from faith schools about how they teach sexuality. Most have asked that I put my request in writing to the board of Governors, a long winded process that ended in disapproval.

One school put me in touch with the local imam and I would rather not repeat what was said.

Is this what children are being taught in our faith schools, in Britain, in the twenty first century?

Faith schools, as secondary, are recommended to teach the national curriculum, but that element is dropped in the case of religious education (RE). The truth is, we simply don't know what is being taught in those classes and we have no real way of finding out.

A recent 'National School Survey' by Stonewall has alarmingly revealed that: almost two thirds of young gay people at secondary school, some 150,000 people, have experienced homophobic bullying. In faith schools that figure rises to three in four.

Comments by pupils include: on being bullied ' The response from friends was supportive, but the teachers did nothing about it.' Paul, 16, Catholic secondary school ( North West)

' I go to a Catholic school - I would more likely get told off for being a lesbian.' Susan, 16, single sex Catholic school ( South East)

It gives us a reason to be concerned about the discrimination that exists behind those closed doors.

RE classes are a chance for pupils to learn and understand about the diverse world religions. A dilemma occurs when you allow faith schools to teach according to their beliefs, once that happens, the lid of Pandora's Box is never far from being opened.

Peter Kearney, spokesperson for the Catholic Church, told BBC Radio 5's Dominic Laurie,

' We would believe that same-sex relationships are profoundly harmful both physically, biologically, mentally, emotionally and I have to say spiritually to those involved. No society should facilitate or encourage anyone to enter into a same-sex relationship.'

It gets worse. At a recent meeting of 500 imams and Muslim leaders they are quoted as saying:

' We have serious misgivings about the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill, which seeks to legalise gay marriage. We are concerned that this radical change to the institution of marriage will impact on what is taught in schools. Muslim teachers will be forced into the contradictory position of holding private beliefs, while teaching a new legal definition of marriage. Muslim parents will be robbed of their right to raise their children according to their beliefs, as gay relationships are taught as something normal to their primary-aged children.We support the numerous calls from other faith leaders and communities who have stood firmly against gay marriage and instead support marriage as it should be, between a man and a woman.'

Many faith schools, and individual teachers, exercise empathy and discretion when dealing with LGBT issues: for example, homophobic bullying. But some of them don't and when that happens the government has left the children with no protection.

The education secretary, Michael Gove, is championing what he sees as a solution for Britain's education problems - free schools and academies. One third of these are to be managed by religious groups or individuals. What's astonishing is that these schools won't have to follow the national curriculum at all, teachers in religious schools will have carte blanche to teach any subject in whatever way they wish, free from prying eyes.

It seems that Mr Gove is a contradiction himself:

' In my drive to give every child the chance to flourish, my most important allies are teachers. I cannot thank them enough for what they do. And there is no more effective solvent of prejudice than the wisdom and knowledge our teachers impart daily.

But some teachers are concerned that equal marriage legislation may require them to teach views which go against their beliefs and open them to threats - either in the workplace or the courts - from those who hold diverging views.

I want to reassure those teachers today because so many of our best, and wisest, teachers are people of deep religious faith. Some of the schools I most admire are faith schools and their success is inextricably bound up with their religious ethos. If I thought any legislation, however well-intentioned, would make life more difficult for great teachers and great schools I wouldn't support it. I have complete confidence in the protection our law offers freedom of conscience and speech.'

On the one hand he is saying that he wants children to flourish,but on the other, he doesn't want teachers to feel they have to go against their own religious beliefs.

It's a grim development. A great breakthrough has been made with the ' Marriage (Same-Sex Couples) Bill' being advanced through Parliament and society in general becoming more tolerant of gay and lesbian relationships, but some religious teachers are instilling children with the same sense of shame and self-loathing they suffered thirty years ago.

Acceptance and understanding of others can be taught from a young age, surely we are missing an opportunity in teaching all of our children this regardless of race, religion, gender or sexuality.

As an adult, the government will protect you from prejudice, but as a child it leaves you defenceless.