Dhaka, Bangladesh
Faith should be no barrier to schools teaching respect for LGBT rights

Faith should be no barrier to schools teaching respect for LGBT rights

By Masuma Rahim

Some parents may not be happy about it, but programmes like No Outsiders are important and should be expanded Recently we've seen several clashes between local communities and education leaders over the application of the Equality Act in Britain's schools. Shraga Stern, the Orthodox Jewish activist, warned earlier this year that Haredi Jews would "leave the UK" if faiths schools were forced to teach children about same-sex relationships and gender reassignment. And last month, the head-teacher of a school in Birmingham was petitioned by mainly Muslim parents to do away with a pilot programme called No Outsiders, which is centred around inclusion and diversity as part of sex and relationship education. Although the programme addresses issues as broad as gender, race, ageism, faith and disability, the spotlight has, inevitably, fallen on the teaching of LGBT identities. On one hand we have those who argue that schools have a duty to address issues related to difference, inclusion and social integration. On the other, there are those who are adamant that schools' only role is to teach children the core academic curriculum, and that it is absolutely not their responsibility to address the wider question of how you live in a pluralistic society. More often than not, it feels like a stalemate. Of course, one of the primary purposes of education is to give young people a solid grounding in academic subjects, but the reality is that most schools are multi-ethnic and multi-faith. Some pupils have disabilities. Some will identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or trans. Children will naturally have questions about these differences, but it is dangerous to assume that they will all be able to ask these questions of their parents, or that they will necessarily be able to have open, nuanced debates with them. Plenty of adults hold views that are disparaging; plenty of people are more than happy to discriminate against others based upon some aspect of their identity. Women, older people and those with disabilities are still more likely to face prejudice than their counterparts. How can you reliably assume that all parents will be able to have these conversations with their children in ways that foster openness and an appreciation of the benefits of diversity? And if they can't speak about these issues of difference in a respectful manner, surely it will be correspondingly harder to talk respectfully about LGBT people when we know that feelings - and religious teachings - have made the debate so polarised. The No Outsiders programme was designed to address these topics with a view to increasing understanding and inclusivity. It's a great shame that it has been attacked in this way. But there's a difference between teaching children how to think and teaching them what to think, and perhaps that's where the difficulty lies. It's not the role of schools to become mouthpieces for the government, because governments have agendas that are often questionable. I would not, for example, agree with the Prevent strategy being implemented in ways that actively encouraged the marginalisation of pupils with certain demographics. Nor would I wish schools to teach students that their views on race and immigration should be in line with current UK policy. Schools do, however, have a responsibility to teach children how to live in a society that is made up of people who will have some similarities to them, as well as those who will have differences. They need to foster in their students a willingness to live alongside their fellow citizens, but there needs to be a frank and pragmatic acknowledgement that some people will struggle to accept those who identify as LGBT - and not just for reasons of faith. You cannot expect all people to accept the full spectrum of gender and sexual diversity, because that isn't realistic. You can - and should - expect them to treat LGBT people, and disabled people and ethnic minorities as equal citizens; to protect their rights, and to actively fight discrimination against them. The No Outsiders programme seems designed to do just that. On the basis of that, if nothing else, its continuation - and expansion - would, surely, be a good outcome for everyone.

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