Section 28 of Margaret Thatcher’s Local Government Act in 1988 stated that a local authority “shall not intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality”. It forbid promoing “the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship”. The now-repealed act was passed over 30 years ago, and LGBTQ+ rights have advanced miles since then, but this year has raised questions of how much has really changed and whether Section 28’s legacy lives on.
At the beginning of this month, over 600 pupils of Parkfield Community School were withdrawn by parents to take part in strikes over the teaching of LGBTQ+ issues and relationships. This has led to the school’s diversity education programme, the “No Outsiders” programme, to be halted. Meanwhile, several other schools in Birmingham have followed suit by suspending the education of LGBTQ+ issues. These developments have sparked a national debate about LGBTQ+ education in schools or the lack thereof.
Parental complaints began on the basis that the teachings went against the principles of Islam, the school residing in a largely Muslim area. Nick Gibb, Minister for Schools, has said it is important for schools to take the religious beliefs of their pupils into account when they decide to deliver certain content. Undoubtedly, schools must be tolerant of all religious beliefs but what happens when these beliefs themselves are intolerant? The homophobia which has prompted these strikes may be rooted in religion but is still homophobia. In fact, this education is especially important for young LGBTQ+ people growing up in families and communities which do not deem them legitimate for how else would they be able to accept their sexuality or gender identity?
When it comes to religion there is often a fear of appearing illiberal or too nationalistic, which means people tiptoe around issues, waving the white flag of multiculturalism. But if creationist Christians began demanding that evolution was not taught in schools would we be listening? Of course parents should have a say in their children’s education, but there must be a distinction between religion and the national curriculum.
Another recurring theme in the protests is the idea that children are too young to be learning about relationships and rights. One mother said that they “need to be allowed to be children rather than having to constantly think about equalities and rights”. Regardless of whether this is parents’ true issue with the teaching, this is a fundamentally weak and individualistic argument. Those in the LGBTQ+ community are confronted by their rights, or lack of rights, on a daily basis. Simple lessons in childhood will reduce homophobia and lessen this burden considerably. This mindset, however, extends beyond the primarily religious community in Birmingham. Andrea Leadsom, MP and Leader of the House of Commons, said in an interview that she believes that parents should learn about LGBTQ+ relationships but “that it is right that parents should be able to choose the moment at which their children become exposed to that information.”
It is worth questioning why homosexual relationships are deemed to explicit for young children to learn about. It seems to tie into the cultural mindset that LGBTQ+ relationships are overtly sexual whereas hetrosexual relationships don’t have to carry those connotations. It is exactly for this reason that relationship education in early years is so crucial.