Past that sparked fevered reactions

1st March 1996 at 00:00
Mark Whitehead reports on the publication of a teachers' resource book on homosexuality. The clamour over teaching children about homosexuality has abated since the heady days of the 1980s.

It reached fever pitch in 1986 over a book in the Inner London Education Authority's central library, Jenny Lives with Eric and Martin, which told the story of a girl living with a gay male couple.

The then education secretary, Kenneth Baker, told the ILEA the book amounted to propaganda and was totally unsuitable for use in schools. It was banned from schools by ILEA after massive publicity.

In the same year Haringey Council hit the headlines when it forced through its policy of promoting homosexual rights in schools amid a hail of eggs and sugar lumps as supporters and opponents of the move battled it out in the council chamber.

Then BBC schools TV abandoned a two-part drama for teenagers, Mates, about homosexuality and bisexuality.

A spokesman said that because of the heated public debate over the topic, it would be difficult for teachers to use the programme in schools in the manner intended.

The continuing row ended when the Government stepped in to silence those who backed gay rights in schools.

Fears over the impending legislation prompted Bradford Council to move a teacher to another school after he discussed homosexuality with a group of fifth formers.

When it came, section 28 of the 1988 Local Government Act prohibited the promotion of homosexuality by local authorities. However, since sex education policies are decided by governing bodies, it is by no means clear that this affects schools. Section 28 is still in force but appears never to have been invoked.

Geof Ellingham of School's Out believes public opinion has moved on since then. "There's much more tolerance among parents towards lesbian and gay issues being raised in the classroom. Things are changing and those people who ran around screaming about perversion have had their day."

Changed attitudes since the 1980s could be seen last year when Hackney primary school headteacher Jane Brown was pilloried in the popular press over her decision not to take pupils to a ballet performance of Romeo and Juliet, allegedly because it was "entirely about heterosexual love."

Amid support from parents, she was cleared of any wrongdoing by the school's governors.

Discussing issues of sex and sexuality continue to attract controversy, however. Two years ago, the then Education Secretary John Patten criticised as "value free" lessons given by Susan Brady at a primary school in Leeds. Mrs Brady had answered pupils questions about oral sex An inquiry, chaired by the Leeds city council director of education concluded that Mrs Brady had handled the situation sensitively and responsibly.

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