JUST as the Church’s struggles over sexuality have moved through stalemate to unendurably boring, the wider world is beginning to take them up. There was one in particular rumbling on last week. In Birmingham, the protests of largely Muslim parents against teaching about LGBT relationships in primary schools continues.
The Observer had a long piece, which opened with the head of one of these schools in tears: “Police were called last Sunday after LGBT-inclusivity campaigners and their children were pelted with eggs for tying supportive messages and rainbow ribbons on to her school gates. The following day, [Sarah] Hewitt-Clarkson estimates, about half the children at the school were withdrawn from lessons by parents.
“She believes many were intimidated by protesters who stood guard on the roads that led to the school, and says they were telling parents: ‘If you take your kids to school today, you’re not a Muslim and you’ll burn in hell.’ On Friday, the school closed at noon so that the children would not have to put up with a highly publicised ‘national protest’ taking place outside their classrooms. ‘Our children, our choice’, a video shows around 200 protesters shouting. ‘Let kids be kids! Listen to parents!’. . .
“‘Do you know how hard it is to explain to a four-year-old why she doesn’t have two daddies?’ asks one [protester], Mrs Naeem, who declines to give her first name when she speaks to me outside the school on Thursday. Her daughter came home asking this question, she says. ‘She kept pushing it — “I want two daddies” — questioning me: “Why can’t I?” It was upsetting for me and my child’.”
This seems to me not much more difficult or irritating than many of the questions a four-year-old asks. As it happens, the only child I know who could be said to have two mothers was brought up by a couple of devout Roman Catholic sisters and is now working for the Conservative Party. But this flippancy is not available to the parents in this protest. They might not even be horrified to have their children grow up to work for The Daily Telegraph. Their children are being taught something that the adults — or some of them — find viscerally horrifying, and they are being taught in the least effective way, which is explicitly.
The other quote that I found revealing was from the head, Ms Hewitt-Clarkson: “As public-sector workers, teachers have a duty to eliminate discrimination, tackle prejudice, and foster good relations between people who have a protected characteristic and those who don’t. You don’t just sit back and wait until a racist or homophobic thing happens to deal with it — you go out of your way to promote good relationships.”
But, if religion is a protected characteristic, this teaching is actively fostering bad relations between those who have it and those who do not. Of course, it is in the interests of at least some of the Muslims on the other side to aggravate this dispute and turn it into a huge matter of principle. Once it becomes a point of principle, of course, the school cannot and should not back down. But the damage to community relations has been done, on both sides.
What made this piece, by Donna Ferguson, so valuable, was that she went beyond merely showing the feelings of the actors involved, valuable though that is. She also investigated the decisions that had put them there, and in particular the way in which central government had shifted the burden of choice on to the heads of individual schools. The academy system has succeeded in one of its main aims, which was to break local political control over the school system. The people who set it up — as Lord Adonis explained to me at the time — believed that local authorities had been captured by the teaching unions and were thus altogether too tolerant of mediocrity.
The drawback of this was that it removed all the institutional ways for local sentiment to influence the ways in which schools worked, leaving only the pressures of the market. I don’t suppose that, at the time, anyone in Whitehall worried much about religion, or thought sexual morality terribly contentious. In Birmingham, one reaction was the so-called “Trojan Horse” affair, in which some Muslim activists attempted to capture the board of governors of targeted schools (News, 16 May 2014). When that was beaten back, the only means of pressure left, as Ms Ferguson points out, is at the school gates — hence the crying children and the flying eggs.
WITH relief, I turned to the London Review of Books and a story from 800 years ago: a discussion of the life of medieval anchorites, drawn from the Ancrene Wisse. “Life as an anchoress began with a death. On entering their cell for the first time, the recludensus (novice recluse) would climb into a grave dug inside the cell . . . where she was sprinkled with earth — ashes to ashes, dust to dust — and the door of the cell was bolted.” This was both horrifying and thought-provoking, but I am a shallow person and remembered as well the medievalist who used to blog under the inspired pseudonym “Ancrene wiseass”.