Photos by Rhiannon Adam
Andrew Moffat never thought a lesson plan could be this controversial.
But when the primary school teacher decided to educate children about diversity and LGBTQ rights, parents at his Birmingham school protested loudly. Beyond Brexit, the controversy in the Muslim-majority community has been one of the biggest national news stories in the UK this year.
Moffat was caught completely off-guard by the protests, which began in January when one mother pulled her 10-year-old daughter out of the Parkfield Community School, telling the Birmingham Mail newspaper that the children were too young to be learning about same-sex relationships in the classroom.
Moffat, a finalist for one of the most acclaimed educational awards, the $1 million Varkey Foundation Global Teacher Prize, had designed his No Outsiders program around a series of children’s books that promote equality across all sections of society.
But angry parents accused him of “changing the moral position of family values” and “converting children with a heterosexual background towards believing that homosexuality is fine.”
To address the controversy, Moffat sat down with HuffPost UK to talk about what it was like to be at the centre of the storm.
The conversation has been edited for clarity.
How did No Outsiders start?
I’d been teaching for eight years and I was doing lots of work on emotional literacy. I was doing lots of work on picture books and then a group started called No Outsiders, which was funded by the Economic Research Council [Britain’s oldest economics-based think tank]. It was a two-year academic project about how to teach about sexuality in primary school and it was the first time anyone talked about doing this. [The ERC] put a call out to primary school teachers, and so I joined that group. So that’s where it all came from.
No Outsiders ran for four years without complaint. Were you surprised at the level of reaction to the program this year?
Yes, the whole school was shocked. It came out of nowhere, especially because we‘ve had four years of fantastic support from parents. Over the course of four years, we’ve had 38 No Outsiders workshops where parents have come in and looked at the books, and we’ve talked about it. They’re saying it’s really, really important. To go from that to suddenly huge demonstrations with parents saying they didn’t know about it was a shock.
Protesters have accused you of promoting “personal beliefs”. What would you say to that?
I’d say I’m not promoting anything. I’m teaching about equality. And what No Outsiders enables us to do is teach about equality and diversity within a framework. And the framework is that every child knows that they belong, and that’s the bottom line. You want every child to know that they belong in school.
I want children to be proud of who they are. And I think all parents want that for their children. It’s an anti-bullying resource. No parent wants their child to be bullied.
What was the worst moment for you?
Oh definitely hearing children and parents chanting “get Mr Moffat out” outside the school. That was horrific. I wouldn’t want any teacher to ever hear that.
How have you dealt with the attacks aimed at you?
The school has paid for a counsellor for me, which is fantastic. I see him once a week. He has been really, really good. And also the staff team are so solid in that school. Every week I’m at a different school around the UK doing an Outsiders day and schools are lapping it up because it works.
And yes, ok, at the moment we’re having challenges at my school, but that’s one school. But there are many hundreds of other schools who are not facing challenges, so we carry on. The kids love No Outsiders. Kids are very confident about what No Outsiders means.
Do you have any sympathy for the families who are against the program?
I wouldn’t use the word sympathy but I do understand where they are coming from. I did go to that school deliberately four years ago, thinking there might be challenges.
People use that as a criticism but I think that’s a good thing because I want to make a difference. So I went into this with my eyes open and I’m absolutely convinced that we can find a way forward together, no question. I’m not going anywhere.
Have you ever considered quitting?
Yeah, I’ve had my moments. I’ve definitely had wobbles. But I think it makes you realise why this work is so important. Change isn’t always easy and this is about how we can move society forward so that everyone is welcome and everyone has a contribution to make. So the protests only go to show why this work is so important in schools.
What has been the biggest lesson for you?
Not to rest on my laurels and to be alert because I didn’t see this coming. I wear a rainbow lanyard every day. Everyone knows that I’m gay so I thought there would be no problem at all. I thought everything would be fine and it very quickly turned. So it’s about being realistic and being alert.
What would you say to LGBTQ kids who have seen or read about these protests?
I’d say, ‘don’t be frightened.’ There is a small minority who don’t agree with us. But there are many, many more people who do. If only I could show them the thousands of messages I’ve had. My school has had about a hundred cards or letters from unknown people from across the world saying ‘you’re doing a great job, carry on.’
What was school like for you?
Very difficult. There were no role models. There were no LGBT people on the television just being gay and getting on with their lives. You’re searching as a young boy for who are you going to be, who can you relate to, and realising that you’re just not like the other boys. There was a real sense of being an outsider. Coming out at school was never on the cards for me, it just was not possible.
I knew I was different at six or seven because I wasn’t like the other boys and they very quickly isolated me. In terms of being gay, in secondary school. So by 1986 or 1987 I definitely knew. I was in no doubt in my mind at all. So I was searching for role models… looking for people who said they were gay.
Who were your role models when you were growing up?
I remember in 1984 when I was 12 and [pop band] Bronski Beat came out. I was obsessed with Smash Hits. I still have all the old issues in my loft! That was my bible basically. I used to read it from cover to cover. In 1984 Boy George wasn’t out. I loved him. I had his posters all over my wall but I didn’t think he was gay, he was interesting. But Frankie Goes To Hollywood talked about being gay in Smash Hits and Bronski Beat definitely did. Even Freddie Mercury, when I was at school everyone thought he was straight. I got beaten up by Queen fans because I was into Wham! (laughs).
What do you think school would have been like if you’d had something like No Outsiders?
Oh god, I wish! Even to just have a discussion that gay people exist. To know that there are people out there who have two daddies or two mummies. But also to know a gay teacher would have been amazing. I wasn’t out until I was 27 as I was too scared to come out. And you couldn’t talk about it because there was horrific bullying. I remember an English class when I was 16 and every week we had a half hour debate on something topical and when the Aids stuff came out and the topic was something about gay people. I remember a boy in that class saying “I think all gays should be put up against a wall and shot” and everyone cheered – and the teacher didn’t say anything. So to have a scheme like No Outsiders or a teacher who is out would have made a huge difference.
What are your hopes for the future?
It has been the most difficult two months of my career but at the same time, I’ve had some of the most life-affirming moments because I’ve had so much interest and support. So for the future, I’d love to see No Outsiders or something like it in primary and secondary schools, but primary schools are where it’s got to start. I thought the process would put people off but I’ve had a surge in requests for training and work, which is fantastic. People aren’t frightened. Not one school has canceled me. So there’s hope for the future. Really it’s about what I said before about growing up in the 1980s and feeling isolated. I don’t want any child to go through that. My hope for the future is that no LGBT child goes through what we went through in the 1980s. I want them to know that it’s alright and you’re going to be ok.
The interview with Moffat is part of HuffPost’s Proud Out Loud project, launched today, which profiles the next generation of LGBTQ change-makers from around the world to mark 50 years since the Stonewall Riots.