In recent weeks a furore has erupted over the teaching of LGBT inclusion and acceptance in England’s schools. In one case, parents at Parkfield Community School in Birmingham have been staging weekly protests at the school’s gates to try and stop the school from teaching this to their children, and hundreds have now reportedly withdrawn them from the school as a result.
The school, which is attended mostly by pupils from Muslim families, has been teaching its ‘No Outsiders’ programme which teaches pupils that ‘families are different’ and that discriminating against another person on the basis of their sexuality is wrong.
The programme has been widely applauded by many who endorse the way that it sensitively handles the topic of same-sex relationships for children at primary school level. But the school is now facing growing pressure to drop the programme after it received a petition from 400 mostly Muslim parents who claim that the teaching of LGBT issues is against their religious beliefs. The assistant headteacher who created the programme has also received personal threats.
The intersection of religious freedom with education has long generated controversy but it shouldn’t be treated as such. Teaching children valuable lessons about equality and diversity is essential. LGBT people exist and belong to all religions – including Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. Denying children this information, and support if they one day personally need it, has hugely detrimental consequences for their wellbeing.
Harmful religious beliefs, which view being LGBT as something that is sinful or shameful have absolutely no place in any school curriculum. Allowing religious hardliners to influence this teaching has far-reaching consequences: it undermines the rights of children to receive a broad and accurate education; it gives blatant permission for some in the community to be homophobic; and it also sets society back in the goal of reaching equality for all.
While parents have a right to raise their children in the religion or belief of their choosing, children also have their own personal rights which are separate from their parents’. These are varied but in this context include the right to receive age-appropriate information through relationships and sex education that helps them to have healthy, happy, and safe relationships as they grow up.
The Muslim parents in Birmingham are not the only religious voices that are trying to imprint their narrow beliefs into schools. A member of the Charedi Jewish community has also threatened to sue the state if his children’s school has to teach in an LGBT-inclusive way.
To try and tackle the growing debate, Humanists UK worked with other educationalists and with religious leaders to organise a joint letter to the Department for Education warning the department not to back down on LGBT guidance in schools. We warned that any attempt to do so is likely to lead to increased bullying of LGBT students.
We also endorse the visionary work of Parkfield School. For the sake of equality and tolerance for all, let’s hope that the No Outsiders programme is continued and that the school gets the support it needs from the highest powers in government. As a community we must stand up for the virtues of tolerance, respect and kindness, and the government must stand firm and not allow irrational and harmful religious sensitivities to win in this battle.
Andrew Copson is chief executive of Humanists UK