It has been with some dismay that I have followed the news about protests over LGBT+ lessons at Parkfield school. Parkfield School, in the Alum Rock area of Birmingham, is a non-denominational primary academy with a predominantly Muslim intake. Parents withdrew around 600 pupils in protest at the teaching of ‘No Outsiders’ lessons, designed to inculcate respect and appreciation of people’s differences in the children. The parents objected to the presentation of LGBT+ relationships as normal and what they described as the ‘promotion’ of homosexual relationships.
This really should not be such a big debate. It is bitterly disappointing to see parents imposing a one-sided and rigid worldview on young children, rather than allowing them to appreciate diversity and difference. One mother said that primary school children were simply too young and ‘innocent’ to learn about LGBT+ relationships. But LGBT+ relationships are a normal and healthy part of a caring and understanding society. Increasing numbers of children now have two dads or two mums, and young children or teenagers beginning to understand their personal sexuality should never have to feel that the way they are is abnormal. Of course, people have the right to believe otherwise, but then they also have to accept that they might be reasonably labelled bigots.
This issue is undoubtedly complicated by the faith of the parents, and while this is often a sensitive subject to discuss, it is something that needs to be talked about. We know that many parents were aggrieved by the lessons’ suggestion that it is ‘ok to be gay and Muslim’, but there are so many people who are gay and Muslim who feel marginalised within their religious community. This is not the way it should be, and we should be raising our younger generations with at the very least a tolerance and respect for people of all sexual orientations.
This is certainly the message of the lessons, which sought to promote respect for all people, regardless of race, gender, faith, and sexual identity. It is a heartening and important message. I make my beliefs clear: regardless of faith, parents do not have the right to condition disapproval of homosexuality in their children. Some people may see it as extreme for me to think that parents should not always be able to control what their children learn, but there are many reasons I say this.
I was struck by the irony of a protesting parent’s placard, urging Parkfield School to participate in ‘Education, not Indoctrination’. After all, what is firmly impressing upon your child that you cannot be gay and a Muslim, if not indoctrination? But it did strike me, that to some extent, education always has an agenda behind it. Whether that be an agenda of convincing children that some ways of living are not morally acceptable, or of encouraging them to accept everyone for who they are. Both agendas have different outcomes, and most of us, I hope, would prefer to instil future generations with a belief in tolerance and respect. But there is no denying that with these lessons, the school is hoping to achieve a very specific outcome.
But that is fine, because there is no way to raise children without having an intention in mind. Just as these parents want to bring their children up to be intolerant, so any society that truly wants to promote tolerance should counter these behaviours. We have to accept that parents, while wanting the best for their children, do not necessarily know what is right for them. In an abstract and metaphysical sense, neither does the state, but I do believe that if we live in a society that wants to be inclusive and respectful (however imperfect that may be at this point in time), we have to instil those values in the next generation.
But now, the lessons have been cancelled, until such time as the school can come to a workable agreement with parents. It may be the case that bigotry has won, and Parkfield children will lose out on the chance to broaden their horizons beyond the limits imposed by their parents. This will be a loss for all society.
I began writing this article before the despicable terror attack on worshippers at a Mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand. It saddens me greatly to think that a community which experiences so much prejudice and hatred should rally around a viewpoint that is simply an alternative prejudice. No one should have to suffer persecution for who they are. And in a fair and caring society, it should be equally unacceptable to disrespect people on account of their identity. We have seen so frighteningly in New Zealand what are the fruits of bigotry and anger, and they are ugly and inhuman.
More than anything, what the ‘No Outsiders’ lessons teach is a message of love. Celebrating difference and loving others regardless of it. And celebrating love in the many forms it is found. The only way to deal with hatred is by love, and I feel that in the light of what has happened, that message is even more pertinent. Love, compassion, empathy and fellow-feeling - these are the only ways for an open and productive society to thrive. Until we understand this, we remain susceptible to a bigotry which is only self-destructive. And until we resolve to champion love above all, what will survive of us is only hate.