Gay education in primaries climbs back into the closet

17th October 2008 at 01:00
Threats muffle scheme that was promoting tolerance of homosexuality. Madeleine Brettingham reports

It was supposed to celebrate gay family life and allow children with two mummies or daddies a chance to talk about their world.

No Outsiders was an ambitious project trialled in 15 primaries, which aimed to promote tolerance and introduced children as young as five to the words gay and lesbian.

But it was forced to cancel its launch this month after tabloid claims that it was teaching "the pleasures of gay sex" to children.

The pulling of the project is a bitter twist, given that its aim had been to put gay lifestyles in the spotlight and tackle homophobia.

But were the organisers right to back off? And what does this say about the future for anti-gay bullying work in schools?

Earlier this year, before the furore, The TES was invited by No Outsiders to visit three of the schools involved in the project.

What I saw was an inspiring display of what can be achieved when teachers and researchers team up to tackle controversial subject matter.

Pupils from one north-eastern school gathered in a local fort to dramatise gay fairytale King and King, with two six-year-olds playing the leads. "I think it's great they're being taught that everyone is equal," one mother said.

In a London school, Year 6 children were composing an opera based on And Tango Makes Three, the story of two male penguins at New York zoo who adopt an egg. One child had written lyrics urging the audience to accept their relationship. "People can say it's wrong to be gay or lesbian, but it's what you feel," she told me earnestly.

Teachers agreed that the children were unfazed by the project. After all, they had grown up surrounded by openly gay actors and musicians, and some had parents and siblings in same-sex relationships.

"As a gay teacher, I had issues about reading Tango," admitted one London teacher. "How would I answer awkward questions? Could I mention the words gay and lesbian in class without the world exploding and hordes of angry parents? But actually their attitude was one of total acceptance."

Another primary head discussed his civil partnership in assembly, after which a pupil who had hurled homophobic abuse at him came up to him and gave him a card.

"I had a lot of cards and presents," he said. "And children made comments like, 'We've always respected you - why would we change now?'"

So what went wrong with No Outsiders? Why was The TES eventually begged to pull an article about a project whose only aim was to encourage children to be accepting about gay relationships?

It all started in September with a conference run by Exeter University, one of the organisers of the project along with Sunderland University and the Institute of Education in London. Exeter hosted an event titled "Queering Primary Education", which was not representative of the No Outsiders project, but featured people from the team.

The event was aimed at academics and designed to explore the limits around discussing homosexuality in primary schools. This involved debates on some deliberately provocative subjects, including whether it should be taboo to mention that sex is pleasurable.

Notes for the event mentioned the No Outsiders project, stating: "The danger of accusations of the corruption of innocent children, particularly in the context of the worldwide media attention the project has received, has led team members to make repeated claims that this project is not about sex or desire - and that it is therefore not about bodies.

"Yet, at a very significant level, that is exactly what it is about, and to deny this may have significant negative implications for children and young people."

There had been no mentions of sex in the project, let alone the pleasures of sex, and there was never any intention to add them. But those comments and others disturbed the Daily Mail, which ran a story about the event under the alarmist headline "Teach gay sex to under-11s, say researchers". One family values campaigner fumed that organisers were proposing to turn classrooms into "gay saunas".

The researchers panicked, and their nerves were not soothed by subsequent coverage in The Daily Telegraph and the Daily Star, by which time the line was that puppets, books and plays would be used to explain "the 'bodily' contact enjoyed by gays and lesbians".

It was nonsense of course, but by this time the horse had bolted.

Angry rants on the British National Party website condemned academics for promoting paedophilia, and one right-wing blogger called for the "execution of all paedo-intellectuals", listing the names and contact details of those involved.

In many ways, it was a re-run of the moral panic that preceded the passing of Section 28, the 1988 ban on the "promotion" of homosexuality, which achieved popularity off the back of fears that "loony" Labour councils were indoctrinating children with gay storybooks.

Similar concerns swirled around the publication of books like 1983's Jenny Lives with Eric and Martin. And words such as "promoting," "celebrating" and "indoctrinating" acquired a snide double meaning, as critics, reluctant to admit to homophobia, sought out reasons to justify their disgust.

In this sort of climate, authors, educationists and the opposition alike are left skirting the issue; the former trying to manage public perception and separate homosexuality from sex, and the latter trying to justify their anger and fear.

Disagreement is not necessarily a bad thing, of course. At the start of the project, Elizabeth Atkinson, director of No Outsiders, told The TES: "I see this (criticism) as a positive step, people coming together to have a debate that needs to be had. We can't address equality if we don't also deal with the fact that some people are uncomfortable with it."

This was the attitude the team took when two Bristol primaries were pressured to withdraw books from their shelves after a backlash from local parents earlier this year.

But when threats were made against the researchers on right-wing blogs, Sunderland University asked The TES to anonymise all schools and sources involved in the project to protect them from protests and a media furore.

"It's a shame. There's certainly a will from teachers and researchers to be open about this, but unfortunately we haven't been allowed to do that. Probably nothing will happen, but there's a risk," said a spokesman.

The university had grounds to be anxious about the project, so it killed off plans for this month's media launch, which was supposed to show how proud teachers and pupils were of the work they had been doing, and to spread good practice to other schools.

"It's a shame," said one teacher involved in the project. "But, at the same time, we've had press calls asking if any schools in the area are involved in the project, and I felt sick at the thought of what I could bring on the school.

"All this stuff about teaching gay sex, it's not true. But if parents read it they could feel very let down."

That, of course, is the difficulty with doing any work on gay relationships, especially at primary level. The subject matter is so open to misinterpretation that it is essential to have a strong media strategy in place from the start, and onlookers have suggested that this is where No Outsiders went wrong.

Ben Summerskill, chief executive of gay campaign group Stonewall, said: "I do think it's important that any work you do in sensitive areas, like our work with the army and navy, is done in a way that's mindful of what third parties might say. You can't wait until something's gone wrong to establish a media strategy; it's a core part."

Amid the uproar, though, it is important not to lose sight of the solid reasons for a project such as No Outsiders: nearly two-thirds of young gay teens have been physically or verbally abused because of their sexuality, and seven in 10 have never seen homosexuality addressed in lessons.

Teachers involved in the project came to The TES with stories of relatives who had been beaten or bullied because of their sexuality, and they vowed to press on with the work because they never want the same to happen to others.

A project such as this is sorely needed, and in a different climate, perhaps, could take place in the public eye, unhindered by controversy. But for the time being, sadly, No Outsiders remains in the closet.

About the project

No Outsiders works with schools to develop programmes of work about equality, including gay and lesbian relationships. Schools have also covered issues such as single parent families, adoption, race and gender, and are encouraged to adapt the scheme to their circumstances.

Pupils are supplied with project books such as And Tango Makes Three and King and King, and schools are put in contact with relevant speakers. Teachers have said it helps them meet the requirements of Every Child Matters and their duty to prevent homophobic bullying under the Education and Inspections Act 2006.

The Pounds 600,000 research project was launched in 2006 and works with 15 schools across England. It is run by Sunderland and Exeter universities and the Institute of Education in London, and funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, which receives most of its funding from the Government.


1974: Paul Patrick, one of Britain's first openly gay teachers, co-founds the London Gay Teachers Group

1981: The group becomes Schools Out, which campaigns nationally against homophobia and promotes equality for gay and lesbian teachers

1983: Jenny Lives with Eric and Martin, the first English language children's book to discuss homosexuality, is published in Britain

1986: The lesbian and gay unit of Haringey council in London writes to all the borough's headteachers urging them to promote positive images of homosexuality. The Department for Education then issues a circular stating: "There is no place in any school in any circumstances for teaching which advocates homosexual behaviour, which presents it as the 'norm', or which encourages homosexual experimentation by pupils."

1988: Section 28 of the Local Government Act comes into force prohibiting local authorities from "promoting" homosexuality or gay "pretended family relationships"

1989: Stonewall set up to oppose Section 28 and unequal treatment of lesbians and gay men

2003: Section 28 repealed

2005: Stonewall launches Education for All, a campaign to tackle homophobic bullying in schools. A children's book about two gay penguins, And Tango Makes Three, is published and provokes international controversy

2006: Poll suggests that two-thirds of gay pupils are bullied at school

2008: Daily Star reports that a Bristol primary school involved in the No Outsiders project has removed books about homosexuality "after complaints from Muslims".

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