Mark Whitehead 13 June 2019

Birmingham LGBT dispute: A challenge for policymakers

Birmingham LGBT dispute: A challenge for policymakers image

Protests outside a Birmingham school over the teaching of sex education are the stuff of local politics.

But they raise some fundamental questions about what education is for – and who should be in charge of it. It means the relatively small demonstrations outside Anderton Park Primary School threaten to escalate into something much bigger.

Birmingham City Council, at the heart of the row, has an important role to play in attempting to resolve the crisis. But what role?

The parents believe the education going on inside the school undermines the way they wish to bring up their children.

In essence they believe in the family with a heterosexual couple at its head as the basis for a stable society. The parents claim they are not homophobic. Others disagree.

It presents a bewildering challenge for policymakers.

On the one hand the Government wants to promote an inclusive, tolerant attitude towards sexual orientation, relationships and non-traditional family structures. Few would disagree with that.

On the other hand the parents of this particular school and, one suspects, many others too, reject the approach being taken to the education of their children.

Part of the problem appears to be in the way that, as often happens, the ostensible reason for the dispute hides something much more deeply rooted.

It is reminiscent of a huge row some years ago that blew up in the national media when some parents in Dewsbury, West Yorkshire, kept their children away from the local comprehensive school claiming they wanted a "Christian' education for them. They objected to what they saw as the pervasive influence of Islam, including the celebration of Muslim festivals.

In reality, many said, the demands were a sugar-coated veneer hiding a racist attitude. They didn't want their white children going to a school where most of the pupils were of Asian origin.

In Birmingham today, a similar dilemma is apparent. The parents, it is claimed, are being whipped up by hot-headed activists co-opting the dispute to promote their own fundamentalist beliefs, totally at odds with the liberal views of the teachers and the educational establishment.

So far, the authorities appear to have taken a decisive approach, winning an injunction to prevent the protests taking place. Comments by the school's head teacher suggest she sees it as a battle in which her side is winning.

The danger is that a confrontational approach will merely inflame passions and the dispute will escalate.

What is needed is cool thinking and dialogue between all parties. There is a fundamental disagreement about what should be taught and what role the parents should have in deciding it.

Some would say the state must decide and there is no room for intolerance of alternative attitudes to sexuality. Others would give the parents a bigger say: they are responsible for their children's upbringing and they choose a traditional approach.

Somewhere in the middle there is a compromise to be found. The authorities clearly have no interest in the dispute escalating, and the parents are rational people who want the best for their children as they see it.

The city council has been to the school, held meetings and says it is doing everything it can to resolve the dispute.

Compromise and the calming of dangerous disagreements are tried and tested methods – the police handling of the recent Extinction Rebellion protests in London being a good example. With thousands of protestors blocking roads in the nation's capital it could have turned into a violent confrontation with cracked heads and bloody noses on both sides. But dialogue prevailed and before too long the protestors called off the action, understanding that they had made their point.

In Birmingham, supreme efforts by the city council and others must continue to get the parties together and talk constructively about how to resolve the dispute. Sooner or later it will be resolved, and the school, the parents and most importantly the children can get back to the serious business of education.

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