In 2019, a primary school in Birmingham, Parkfield Community School, has seen large and continuing protests by parent groups against a programme designed to enhance community cohesion by educating students about diversity. One aspect of the school’s ‘No Outsider’s’ programme, spearheaded by its Deputy Headteacher Andrew Moffat, has caused outrage among many of the school’s predominantly Muslim parents: the inclusion of LGBT people. According to various media sources around 600 students had been withdrawn from the school in protest. Amir Ahmed, who has led the movement against No Outsiders, told the BBC of his concern that children’s books which contained stories about same-sex parents were ‘planting a seed, an idea’ that ‘same-sex relationships are morally fine’.
The protests against the No Outsiders programme have drawn comparisons to Section 28 in the press and across social media. Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988 stipulated that:
A local authority shall not—
(a) intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality;
(b) promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship.
With such vague wording, no local authorities were ever prosecuted for contravening Section 28. But between 1988 and its repeal in 2003, many grants were refused to local lesbian and gay groups due to its passage and in many schools LGBTQ people were whitewashed from classroom discussions. Section 28 is often described as ‘notorious’ or ‘infamous’, ranking as one of the most controversial pieces of legislation passed under the Thatcher administration (behind the Poll Tax).
Section 28 was not the brainchild of Margaret Thatcher. It emerged in 1986 from an amendment tabled by two members of the House of Lords, Flora Fraser (the 21st Lady Saltoun) and Lord Campbell of Alloway. Its passage was ultimately spearheaded by the Earl of Halsbury. The 1987 General Election guillotined these attempts to ban the ‘promotion of homosexuality’, but the controversy extended into the election itself. Whilst homosexuality was not mentioned in the Conservative manifesto, that document did commit the party to ensure that ‘the family is strengthened’ in the face of ‘the abuses of left-wing Labour councils [which] have shocked the nation’.
These ‘abuses’ centred on many of the inclusivity and diversity policies pursued by Labour-run London borough councils and the Greater London Council, which had been headed by Ken Livingstone from 1981 until its abolition in 1986. Having won her third successive victory, Thatcher used her speech to the 1987 Conservative Party Conference to attack ‘Looney Left’ councils who were teaching children that they ‘have an inalienable right to be gay’. These words were written by her Minister, the right-wing Christian John Selwyn Gummer, and they prompted a backbench Tory, the newly elected MP David Wilshire to try once again to ban the ‘promotion of homosexuality’. With the aid of his fellow backbencher, Conservative MP for Birmingham Edgbaston Dame Jill Knight, Wilshire steered the relevant amendment through the Houses of Parliament. By mid-1988, local authorities were by law prohibited from ‘promoting homosexuality’, and from using taxpayers’ money to do so in schools.
In the run-up to Section-28’s passage, protests against LGBT-inclusive education were held across the country. The Haringey Parents’ Rights Group, for example, organised a burning of a Danish children’s book Jenny Lives with Eric and Martin, which told the story of Jenny, her father Eric and his partner Martin. The book was met with moral condemnation from the right-wing press and could well have been one of the ‘abuses of left-wing councils’ to which Thatcher had referred in her 1987 conference speech. The chief complaints of the book’s opponents were the perceived ‘promotion’ of homosexuality ‘before a captive and impressionable audience of children in schools’. They were also enraged by the idea that public money had been spent on such ‘propaganda’ for school libraries and resource centres, despite it never appearing on any school library shelves. In a nod to this historic ‘scandal’, many media outlets have highlighted the children’s books which the No Outsiders programme recommends as part of its lesson plans, such as one which tells the true story of two male penguins who raised a chick together in New York’s Central Park Zoo.
Section 28 was met by the largest LGBT protest movement Britain had ever seen. Thousands marched against its passage in London in January 1988, and around 20,000 demonstrated soon after in Manchester. The Organisation for Lesbian and Gay Action (OLGA) chartered not only busses but trains to ferry anti-Section 28 protesters between the two cities, ensuring huge turnouts on each occasion. Many UK cities such as Leeds and Cardiff held anti-Clause 28 protests which were the largest LGBTQ gatherings in their histories. International solidarity campaigns were established across Europe. Demonstrations took place in Amsterdam whilst marches and solidarity vigils were held from Milan to Stockholm, Paris to Berlin, as well as in Australia and the USA.
Speeches in support of Section 28’s passage often hinged on a rhetoric of ‘child protection’, the likes of which is echoed by some in the current debates over No Outsiders. The former Secretary of State for Scotland Lord Campbell of Croy was the last person to speak on the topic of Section 28 before it was passed into law. He argued that ‘young people at an impressionable age though basically heterosexual can be led into homosexuality even if it is for a temporary period. This can cause great confusion to them, upsetting their lives, their careers and their prospects of marriage’. The idea that British children needed protecting from ‘exposure’ to homosexuals was not new. In 1971, four years after male homosexuality was partially decriminalised in England and Wales, John Selwyn Gummer who at the time was the Conservative MP for Lewisham West wrote of homosexuality that ‘In education it is impossible for the State to be neutral and therefore it has to make a choice of the values which it wishes to place before its children’. The idea of choice, however, quickly came to be framed as the prerogative of parents rather than the state. Thatcher had declared herself in favour of parental choice in her speech to the 1973 Conservative Party Conference, when she was Secretary of State for Education: ‘Our aim is to increase parents' choice; our opponents' aim is to eliminate it.’ Her rhetoric and policies while Prime Minister continued to support the idea of the ‘restoration’ of parental authority.
Such rhetoric has resurfaced in the parents’ protests at Parkfield Community School. What is essentially opposition to LGBT-inclusive education is being couched in terms of ‘parental rights’, namely the parental right to decide whether or not children should be taught about the existence of LGBT people and the validity of their relationships. Amir Ahmed made this clear when he told the BBC that he and his colleagues did not consider same-sex relationships ‘morally valid’. The protesters call is for homosexuality not to be presented to students as an alternative family unit, much like the desire of Section-28’s architects.
Councillors in Birmingham were aware in 1988 that teaching LGBT-inclusive relationships had the potential to cause upset. The Labour Leader of Birmingham City Council, Dick Knowles, wrote to a group of anti-Section 28 activists in 1988 that ‘You will appreciate that with many of our schools almost wholly populated by members of the Islamic faith, it does produce some difficulties in teaching lesbianism or homosexuality in a positive way’. Of course, hostility to LGBT-inclusive lessons were (and are) not exclusively the preserve of British Muslims. The year before Knowles wrote his letter, hard-line evangelical Christians had attempted to remove openly gay priests from the Church of England. Tony Higton, an evangelical priest from Essex introduced a Private Member’s Bill to the November 1987 General Synod which argued that homosexuality was ‘sinful in all circumstances’. Despite his Bill being much diluted, it was eventually passed and had sparked a fierce debate about the place of homosexuality in the Church, with openly gay priests led by the Rev Malcolm Johnson arguing against Higton’s motion. Similarly, contemporary LGBTQ Muslim groups such as Imaam and Hidayah have been making the case for the visibility and inclusion of LGBTQ Muslims, long before the No Outsiders debate. Despite the existence of such groups, lesbian and gay British Muslims have testified to feeling ‘caught in the middle’ of the debates.
Shabana Mahmood, the Labour MP for Birmingham Ladywood, the constituency in which Parkfield Community School sits, recently received a backlash from LGBT activists for defending the rights of parents to withdraw their children from No Outsiders lessons in her contribution to an RSE (Relationships and Sex Education) debate. During her speech, though, Mahmood raised the central question of the issue:
What happens when religious background is taken into account in a primary school setting in Birmingham and there are two groups of Muslim parents with full religious conviction, one of which says, “Actually, we think this is unacceptable,” and the other says, “No, this is perfectly acceptable.”? Who is the arbitrator when their rights collide?
Divisive though her conclusions ultimately were, Mahmood rightly pointed out that there is no effective arbiter between the minorities protected under the Equality Act. Academy Schools, such as Parkfield, lie outside Local Authority control, leaving the first and only recourse for complaint as the Secretary of State for Education.
The apparent conflict between LGBTQ subject matter and religious freedom is complicated by the fact that both sexual orientation and religious diversity are protected under the Equality Act 2010. Yet this should also produce a short-term answer to the conflict. There is no hierarchy of protected characteristic under the Equality Act: religious freedom does not trump the rights of sexual orientation, and vice versa. The Act aimed to promote a pluralistic, multicultural society in which diverse communities could learn about each other, promoting peace and cohesion.
In the short term the answer seems clear: No Outsider lessons should be allowed to continue. The No Outsiders programme does not replace any teaching about Islam, nor any religious education. Rather, it seeks to encourage acknowledgment and acceptance of diverse religious faiths throughout its programme. Andrew Moffat’s resource book No Outsiders in our Schools clearly states that ‘not only are people of different sexual orientations welcome in our primary school, people of different ethnicities, genders, gender identities, religions, ages and abilities are also most welcome’. Despite the assertions of orthodox Muslims protesting outside schools, and those made more moderately in Parliament, lessons delivered as part of the No Outsiders programme do not replace or undermine religious education within the school. They have previously been taught alongside one another and, without a significant shift in administration or policy direction, that is how things ought to remain.
We may, however, be seeing the beginnings of a shift in policy. In February, the Department for Education published guidance on RSE which states that:
In teaching Relationships Education and RSE, schools should ensure that the needs of all pupils are appropriately met, and that all pupils understand the importance of equality and respect. Schools must ensure that they comply with the relevant provisions of the Equality Act 2010, under which sexual orientation and gender reassignment are amongst the protected characteristics.
This guidance was measured but significant: teaching must be age appropriate, but ‘at the point at which schools consider it appropriate to teach their pupils about LGBT, they should ensure that this content is fully integrated into their programmes of study for this area of the curriculum rather than delivered as a standalone unit or lesson’. Unfortunately, the longstanding lack of direction remained. ‘Schools’ the document stated, ‘are free to determine how they do this’.
Moreover, LGBTQ inclusion in education remained in potential conflict with matters of faith. The guidance states that ‘the religious background of all pupils must be taken into account’ when RSE lessons are planned to ensure that ‘the topics that are included in the core content in this guidance are appropriately handled. Schools must ensure they comply with the relevant provisions of the Equality Act 2010, under which religion or belief are amongst the protected characteristics.’ Not only does this guidance have the potential to be contradictory, therefore, it is also plagued by the same vague wording and lack of direction which, we might argue, led to the No Outsiders conflicts.
The Department for Education guidance further states that ‘teaching should reflect the law […] so that young people clearly understand what the law allows and does not allow’. This seems a big ask of primary school children when parents, teachers, headteachers, governors, legislators and academics cannot agree on ‘what the law allows’. Certainly the new guidance is welcome, but it falls short of breaking the logjam on issues of LGBTQ-inclusive lessons in primary schools.
Part of the problem is that so little has been written about the potential conflict between the protected characteristics of the Equality Act. Blackstone’s Guide to The Equality Act 2010 grants little attention to ‘sexual orientation’, and does not discuss it at all in relation to education. In part, this is due to the unprecedented way in which the Birmingham protests are testing the Act. Section 28 provoked similar confusion. Despite passing into and being repealed from law before the passage of the Equality Act, Section 28 saw no major test cases which might have informed legal thinking about the debates today. Whilst Section 28 heavily impacted the lives of LGBT people in Britain, it did not make a heavy impression on the legal profession’s institutional memory. The significance of that judicial absence is being felt in the context of the No Outsiders programme.
Section 28 was repealed in 2003 during Tony Blair’s second administration, as part of a piecemeal series of legal reforms granting LGBT people rights such as the right to serve openly in the military (1999-2000) and an equal age of consent (2001). Problematically, though, it was replaced with nothing. This vacuum in syllabus direction on RSE goes some way in explaining the rise in anti-LGBT education protestors over the past few months. With a rise in academy schools which lie outside the remit of local authorities, schools have enjoyed greater freedom to employ their own equality and diversity lessons. The data which Andrew Moffat displays on his blog is telling of his pedagogical motivation. Referencing No Outsiders training given to a primary school in Salford, we learn that ‘90% of respondents felt more confident talking about the Equality Act to children in school’ and ‘100% of respondents felt more confident talking about LGBT issues to children in school’.
This focus on confidence speaks to the lack of direction teachers have had from government on LGBT-inclusive RSE, a direct result of the vacuum left by the repeal of Section 28 in 2003. Yet this is set to change. In response to the Birmingham protests, MPs voted overwhelmingly on 27th March 2019 for LGBT-inclusive lessons to be taught in primary schools from September 2020. Whether this move goes anyway to stemming the wave of anti-LGBT school protests remains to be seen. What it does suggest, however, is that Parliament has recognised the need to fill the void left by Section 28, acknowledging the damage which whitewashing LGBT people out of the syllabus has the potential to cause. What should happen now is a serious and robust period of consultation to ensure that LGBT-inclusive RSE can be introduced with the consent of parents in all their diversity. In places such as Birmingham, LGBT Muslims and those of other faiths deserve a leading place in that conversation with the support of allies and pedagogical experts. The history of Section 28 should also inform these discussions. Policy makers and educators ought not to forget the damaging impact which removing discussions about LGBTQ people and issues from lessons in schools had. Not only did it often leave homophobia unchallenged, it left students without adequate knowledge of the world around them. This is precisely what No Outsiders seeks to remedy. Rather then stemming its efforts, it deserves considerable encouragement.
This episode should warn policymakers of several areas of fragility. It has exposed the potential conflicts among protected characteristics which the Equality Act is inadequately prepared for, especially in school settings. The protests against No Outsiders has also demonstrated that LGBT rights such as visibility and inclusion in schools should not be taken for granted. LGBT campaign groups such as Stonewall (which emerged in response to Section 28 in the late-1980s) have fought an active and ongoing campaign for such rights. In order to secure them, and the rights of all characteristics protected under the Equality Act, its provisions and implementation must be re-examined by policy makers and practical updated guidelines should follow.
Stephen Brooke, Sexual Politics: Sexuality, Family Planning, and the British Left from the 1880s to the Present Day (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), chapter 8.
Martin Durham, Sex and Politics: The Family and Morality in the Thatcher Years (Basingstoke: Macmillan Education, 1991).
Joe Moran, ‘’Childhood Sexuality and Education: The Case of Section 28’, Sexualities, Vol. 4, No. 1 (2001), pp. 73-89.
Lucy Robinson, Gay Men and the Left in post-war Britain (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2007), chapter 6.
Arabella Thorp and Gillian Allen, ‘The Local Government Bill [HL]: the ‘Section 28’ debate’, Research Paper 00/47 (London: House of Commons Library, April 2000).
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