England

LGBT teaching row: Government 'too slow' to tackle protests

Sara Khan
Image caption Head teachers should have had more support as demonstrations took place, Sara Khan said

The government was "too slow to respond" to "mob" protests over LGBT teaching outside Birmingham schools, according to the woman tasked with challenging extremism.

Sara Khan told the BBC's Panorama more support should have been given to head teachers dealing with demonstrations.

Ms Khan was appointed by the home secretary to lead the Commission for Countering Extremism.

She said the Department for Education "could have done so much more".

"I think they were too slow to respond," said Ms Khan.

"There's a lot of confusion about what's actually being taught and I think the DfE could have played a very important role in clarifying to parents this is what's actually being taught, not the misinformation that we're seeing out there."

Image caption Protesters descended on primary schools in Birmingham

Protests began at Parkfield Community School, where most pupils are Muslim, in February. Parents called for an end to the use of story books featuring same sex couples, as part of a programme teaching about equality.

Protesters chanted "Our children, our choice", arguing their religion did not accept homosexuality.

Weeks later, the school suspended its "No Outsiders" programme, to consult with parents.

Protests were also held at Anderton Park Primary School in Birmingham. Campaigners said homosexuality was morally wrong and it was inappropriate to teach young children about same-sex relationships.

The schools, however, said they were teaching children about diversity in society and all the groups covered by the Equality Act.

From September 2020, it will be compulsory to teach relationships education for primary-age pupils and relationships and sex education (RSE) for secondary-age pupils.

Image caption One of the books that forms part of the equality programme in some schools

The government says it wants primary schools to teach children about same sex relationships but, as with the rest of the curriculum, it would be up to them to decide when it was "age appropriate".

The guidance for schools also says teaching should be "with respect to the backgrounds and beliefs of pupils and parents".

The government has said parents should be consulted about what was taught, but they would not have a veto.

Education Secretary Damian Hinds told the BBC: "We want children to grow up understanding that some people are different, some relationships are different from what they may have experienced, but all are valuable.

"We trust individual schools, individual head teachers, to know their cohorts of children, and to determine how and when to address what can be obviously sensitive subjects."

Panorama has learned Parkfield Community School believed it was getting a very different message, and that it felt under pressure from the Department for Education to suspend its equality programme to get the school out of the news.

Image caption Damian Hinds says the government trusts schools how to approach LGBT issues

A letter seen by the programme from the school to a DfE official suggested: "The DfE would like us to stop our teaching of equality to make this issue disappear."

It also quoted a department official saying: "Our top priority is that Parkfield School is no longer on national news."

The DfE said it did not accept pressure was applied to stop teaching about equality at Parkfield. It said any suggestion the dispute should be kept out of the media was not intended to silence the school but to bring an end to the protests and encourage consultation.

The National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT) said the suspension of the programme made the situation worse.

"It gave an impression, it gave almost licence, to people in communities that actually if they turned up outside of a school with loud hailers and protest that other schools would back down too," said Rob Kelsall, national secretary of the NAHT.

"I think that was a fatal mistake."

'War on LGBT kids'

Other schools were also seeing a push back from parents and campaigners, he added.

"We're seeing cases being referred almost on a weekly basis now… over 70 schools where these issues have been raised directly.

"Letters being sent to school leaders asking the school to stop teaching relationship education, threats to withdraw their children, through to organised rallies and events."

Human rights and LGBT activist Peter Tatchell said he thought the protesters were "declaring war on LGBT kids".

"They're saying that these children should not get love and support and advice in their school," he said.

Image caption Pauline Gallagher hopes Catholic Family Voice can work with the Muslim protesters

Panorama has spoken to other religious groups around the country which said they had been energised by the protests in Birmingham and were looking to build campaigns of their own.

Pauline Gallagher lives just outside Glasgow and has set up a group called Catholic Family Voice.

She has been impressed by the protesters in Birmingham, and said she hoped to join forces with those involved.

"The Muslim community in Birmingham are total stars as far as we are concerned and they are trailblazers," she said. "We are encouraged by what we see. I would say we're excited."

'Aiming to disrupt'

Other groups have been taking their message directly to the school gates. Susan Mason has been actively leafleting schools.

"I'm aiming to disrupt essentially," she said. "I'm not wanting riots and protests outside schools, but either the parents need to be satisfied or the school will need to change what it's doing."

Judith Nemeth runs The Values Foundation, set up last year to promote the views of faith and traditional family values in education.

"There's no way that people of faith will teach it's OK to be gay," she said. "They won't because the bible tells us it isn't OK to be gay.

"But that doesn't mean that we are intolerant of people who do follow that lifestyle. Nobody's being judgemental here, nobody's being homophobic."

Sex Education: The LGBT Debate in Schools - Panorama, will be broadcast on BBC One on Monday 15 July at 20:30 BST

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