Anderton Park Primary School has found itself at the centre of what some would characterise as a dispute between two very different value systems. On one side you have the self-styled defenders of secular, socially progressive liberalism and with it, alternative lifestyles, whilst, on the other, you have conservative religious values or, more accurately in this case, conservative Muslim values.
For several weeks now, predominantly Muslim parents have been demonstrating against the school’s approach to promoting equality – an approach that exposes pupils to books featuring cross-dressing children and gay families. Shakeel Afsar, the self-appointed leader of the demonstrators and, interestingly, an individual without a child at the school, accuses the headteacher, Sarah Hewitt-Clarkson, of ‘social engineering’. Ms Clarkson has reportedly received threatening emails and phone calls and, last week, in a further escalation of the dispute, hundreds of pupils were kept off school by disgruntled parents.
But should we see this as another example of secular values conflicting with those held by some of our more conservative Islamic communities? A recent Newsnight report certainly thinks we should. Apart from a perfunctory nod to ‘some’ Christians sharing the reservations of ‘some’ Muslims, there was little exploration of wider societal concerns about the exposure of children to such material. Neither was there an adequate discussion of the benefits and disbenefits of the school’s methods which, by the way, are now replicated by similar programmes in hundreds of primary schools across the country.
This, in my view, is a mistake. First, of course we need to discuss and explore the possible implications and consequences of making pupils read books about cross-dressers, same-sex relationships and gay marriage. These are our children, after all. Secondly, we shouldn’t be dragged into viewing this dispute through the prism of progressive secularism versus reactionary religious conservatism. It is much more complicated than that. Many who consider themselves to be progressive secularists, for example, share the concerns of their more traditionally minded, religious friends and neighbours.
And what about me? I suppose I’m a partially progressive (I supported civil partnerships but opposed gay marriage; believe that a person should be, out of common courtesy, addressed by their preferred gender pronoun but, in reality, can’t really – actually - change gender), partially conservative, partially secularist (I converted to Catholicism to get my children into a good school, but, if I’m being honest, would probably describe myself as agnostic and detest fundamentalist creeds of all stripes) mishmash of confused, contradictory positions, as you’ve probably deduced.
The point is, like many progressive secularists and conservative Muslims, Christians and Jews, I’m deeply concerned about schools exposing children to books about same-sex relationships and transgender peers without, at the very least, shedding some light on the possible implications through a public debate.
Yes, some might argue that by openly challenging bigotry, encouraging tolerance and making LGBT pupils feel safe, respected and valued, such an approach has enormous benefits. But what if, instead of encouraging tolerance, highlighting alternative lifestyles does the opposite, especially if it conflicts with belief systems that are prominent in the pupils’ homes? Could emphasising difference draw unnecessary attention to LGBT pupils and, as a consequence, encourage rather than discourage vilification? Are these not questions worth asking, before we jump in, feet first, experimenting with the lives of our children?
Furthermore, teaching children from the age of four or five about alternative lifestyles may plausibly raise awareness of human sexuality, encouraging them to question and even experiment with their own sexuality. It may elicit unnecessary confusion, even distress, leading to hitherto unconsidered behaviours.
By far my biggest concern, however, is trusting a highly politicised, ideological profession to dispassionately promote tolerance rather than encourage, even glorify, alternative lifestyles. Children are extremely impressionable and, generally speaking, will do almost anything to please adults, especially those, like teachers, in positions of power and authority. What wouldn’t my kids do to impress their teachers? What if one of these teachers insidiously convinces my son that he is gay or transgender? It’s not beyond the realms of possibility. After all, three generations of educators have convinced our children of the evils of capitalism, the Tory Party and now, more recently, the abomination that is Brexit. Indeed, going one step further, what better way to attack petit bourgeois capitalism than launch an assault upon its bulwark, the traditional family? Such a fear is neither outlandish nor unfounded.
And before you accuse me of being a conspiracy theorist, consider the following: a teacher turned whistle-blower recently exposed his/her school for tricking vulnerable children into believing that they were the wrong sex. Indeed, according to the whistle-blower, most of the 17 pupils in the process of changing gender at the school were autistic. Dr Joanna Williams, a university lecturer and author of the book Women vs Feminism, believes that schools are ‘sowing confusion about gender identity’ by ‘encouraging even the youngest children to question whether they are really a boy or a girl.’ This is extremely worrying. If true - and, as a teacher of 15 years, I have no reason to doubt the veracity of such claims - some teachers are abusing their positions to further some kind of warped, misguided political agenda. Would you trust them to dispassionately teach your children about LGBT relationships? I certainly wouldn’t.
And herein lies the problem. Too many schools believe they’re in the business of indoctrinating and socially engineering our children. They’re not, or, at least, they shouldn’t be. Until this simple fact is widely accepted and rectified, I’d rather teachers didn’t involve themselves in issues as sensitive as marriage and relationships, especially when one considers the age of many of them. They are young, naïve, inexperienced and armed with youthful idealism and a terrifying, burning sense of the new, politically correct morality. They are Corbyn’s shock troops.
Dressing up the Anderton Park Primary School dispute as a conflict between progressive secularism and reactionary religious conservatism serves as a kind of displacement activity. By characterising the demonstrators as reactionaries and, by implication, extremists, the school - and its decision to promote equality through the introduction of books that feature same-sex couples and cross-dressing children -, being their antithesis, is naturally portrayed as moderate, reasonable and mainstream. Therefore, according to this narrative, there is nothing to discuss, apart from the intolerance of our more conservative religious communities. However, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Many people, including some that would consider themselves to be progressive and, dare I say it, even atheistic, are deeply troubled by the prospect of their children being exposed to such material. Indeed, the school’s position is neither moderate nor mainstream. It must be debated as a matter of urgency.