Imagine what a tumultuous few weeks it’s been for Andrew Moffat and his Birmingham school.
In under two weeks, the assistant headteacher has gone from being named by Hollywood star Hugh Jackman as a top 10 contender for the $1 million Global Teacher Prize to facing a large parent protest and the withdrawal of children from classes over his “No Outsiders” programme that teaches inclusivity and diversity.
The problem is sex, or, more specifically, sexuality. The programme is all about welcoming people of any race, colour or religion and those who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. It is the latter part of that inclusivity and diversity to which some people have objected.
They argue that such teaching is not age appropriate. It’s hard to understand how it can possibly be inappropriate to teach kindness and respect for others at any age.
There are, of course, children in our society who have two mummies or two daddies. It’s their life, their family and how on earth can anyone say it’s not appropriate to talk to them and others about their family units, whatever the age?
Recently, the government published its long-awaited guidance on compulsory health education, compulsory relationships education for primary-age pupils and relationships and sex education for secondary-age pupils.
Education secretary Damian Hinds said that although sex education was mandatory only at secondary level, it “must be grounded in a firm understanding and valuing of positive relationships, and respect for others, from primary age”.
The problem here is: how do you remove the sex from relationships education? Not from the minds of children, but from those of the parents? And if we’re talking positive relationships, a happy, loving homosexual relationship is as positive as a happy, loving heterosexual one.
Parents have always had the right to withdraw their children from sex education but Moffat’s programme is all about teaching about relationships, between people and with society. He is not teaching about sex.
However, that is at the heart of the protests. They object to talking about gay relationships. Where does that leave Moffat and the school, which is facing not only angry parents but also intimidation of teachers, as well as extremely unhelpful criticism from one local MP.
No school or teacher should be put in that position. But they may not be the only ones to go through this in future. From next year, the government will give headteachers the power to overrule parents who wish to remove their children from classes – but only in “exceptional circumstances”. Unhelpfully, there’s no clarity on what those circumstances might be.
This is a cop-out and a cowardly way to deal with the issue, to push it back on to heads. Schools serve their communities. The relationships with those communities are vital.
The Birmingham school has been using the “No Outsiders” programme for four years, introducing it only after going through the process of consulting with its governing body and the parents. Since then, it has held workshops for parents and invited them into the school to see the lessons.
It has done everything right. It has talked and explained and consulted. Yet it is now under pressure to back down in the name of “compromise”. No school should be forced to compromise with bigotry.
That the school finds itself under this pressure is entirely down to the feeling in some quarters that universal rights shouldn’t be extended to those of whom they disapprove. It is, they say, a matter for debate. But these basic human rights are not a matter for debate. Politicians have to be braver. They need to support schools in teaching those fundamental freedoms rather than be complicit in undermining them.