Anderton Park Primary School in Birmingham, England is an outstanding place of education for children between the ages of five and eleven. For more than two months now, it has been at the centre of a standoff between modern Western values and the concerns of a large group of Muslim parents. Pictured: Anderton Park Primary School. (Image source: Oosoom/Wikimedia Commons)
What started as a small protest in the UK has taken on wider dimensions that are already spreading to other cities. For more than two months now, a primary school in Birmingham in the UK has been at the centre of a standoff between modern Western values and the concerns of a large group of Muslim parents. As early as April, reports said, leafleters were targeting schools in Birmingham, Manchester, Oldham, London, Blackburn and Bradford.
The almost daily protests outside the schools, although on a more muted scale, are the biggest since those against Salman Rushdie and his book, The Satanic Verses back in 1988 -- events that for some radicalized a generation. According to the author Kenan Malik, those early protests sowed the seeds of rifts that have since become wider. Some form of clash between these two sets of values is taking place again.
Anderton Park Primary School is an outstanding place of education for children between the ages of five and eleven. Most of the children are Muslims, but that does not restrict the efforts to introduce them to being fully educated citizens in the country where most were born.
According to the UK's 2011 Census, Muslims, numbering 234,014, make up 21.6% of Birmingham's population, well above the average for England and Wales as a whole (4.8%). Birmingham is the largest city by population after London. Its Muslim population is almost as large, and the city itself is even more ethnically diverse than the capital. Muslims have arrived from Africa, Asia (mainly Bangladesh and Pakistan), and parts of eastern Europe. "Islam is a growing social force in Britain's second city", according to The Economist, and its Central Mosque "has influence everywhere from the classroom to the bedroom".
Clearly, what is happening in Birmingham may have a disproportionate bearing on Muslims and others throughout the UK. The context within which social pressures are growing seems, first, that Muslims now make up one in every twenty people in the UK. Alongside that, there is the understanding, developed by Dame Louise Casey in her 2016 governmental review of opportunity and integration in the UK, that Muslim communities have been proving the hardest to assimilate within British society at large.
If some Muslims find it hard to integrate (whether of their own volition or because of lack of opportunity within the general public), they often run their own communities, and often seem to reject the opportunities Britain offers them. Many have also been given to what appears to some Britons as unneighbourly behaviour in a period when many in the UK have been striving to promote British values while enjoying and accommodating the diversity of its many new inhabitants. This is what Prime Minister Theresa May emphasized in her introduction to the government's 2018 Integrated Communities Strategy Green Paper, that while Britons are striving to promote British values, those increasingly appear not to be the values everyone here wants. She said:
Britain is one of the world's most successful multi-ethnic, multi-faith societies. We can rightly be proud of this diversity, which has contributed so much to our culture and our economy, and has made us the strong, vibrant nation we are today. But we cannot ignore the challenges we face. We still have a long way to go to tackle the inequalities and injustices that hold people back. It is not right that where you are born, who your parents are, or where you went to school should determine your outcomes in life. The government's ground breaking Race Disparity Audit of public services reinforces the importance of addressing the inequalities that can act as barriers to integration and opportunity, barriers which prevent us from building a Britain where everyone has the chance to succeed. We must also do more to confront the segregation that can divide communities. This undermines our unity as a nation and prevents those in isolated communities from playing a full part in society and benefiting from the opportunities that living in Britain brings.
Let us take this for a broad context in which to look at Anderton Park Primary, after which we can examine the protests being made against it.
Anderton Park Primary stands out as one of several British schools that put special emphasis on teaching children the ways in which they can grow up to fulfil those hopes of Mrs May and all those in and outside government who work to bring about what they consider a good society for all citizens. Here are, first, Anderton Park's Equality Charter, and then its love for British Values. It is worth reading in some detail:
Anderton Park Equality Charter
- In our school everyone is equal.
- We treat everyone equally and fairly & challenge inequality & stereotypes
- We cannot sparkle if we are not equal
- We use positive, kind language to and about each other
- We do not use the language of hate
- We celebrate and protect differences
- We fully uphold and believe in the Equality Act 2010 and do not discriminate against anyone because of gender, race and nationality, age, disability, sexual orientation (and gender identity, LGBT+), pregnancy, religion or beliefs or marital status
- We actively promote equality and foster good relationships between people who share a characteristic and those who don't
- We always challenge views or comments that are unacceptable.
- Everyone is special. Everyone is welcome. Everyone is different.
We love Fundamental British values
By law this means we as staff, children, governors and families need to understand:
- the rule of law
- individual liberty
- Mutual respect for and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs and for those without faith.
- Our favourite law is the Equality Law 2010. We love it!
- Girls are equal to boys. Gay people are equal to straight people. Disabled people are equal to able bodied people. Jewish people are equal to Sikhs, Muslims, Christians and people with no religion. You get the idea. This is so important.
- We expect everyone to challenge any language or behaviour that is unequal.
- We do not allow 'like a girl' to be used as an insult, just as we would not allow 'gay' or 'black' to be used as an insult. Boys play with dolls, dress up, girls are builders, pink is not for girls. Thus, we help students develop their self-knowledge, self-esteem and self-confidence, to distinguish right from wrong and to respect the civil and criminal law of England.
- We encourage students to accept responsibility for their behaviour, show initiative, and to understand how they can contribute positively to the lives of those living and working in the locality of the school and to society more widely. We teach children they have choices. We reward what we value.
- We will promote harmony & understanding between those with different cultural traditions by enabling students to acquire an appreciation for and respect for their own and other cultures.
- Watch 'Like a Girl', 'Children See Children Do', 'Love has no labels' regularly to remember why this is important.
As a reflection of these values, Anderton Park is recognized by UNICEF as a Rights Respecting School, that is to say, a school that embeds the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child in their practice and ethos. There are now more than 5,000 rights respecting schools in the UK, and all compete for awards that recognize how far they have developed.
The protests against the school are being led by a young man named Shakeel Afsar, about whom little else is known other than that he has a niece and nephew at the school. "Anti-LGBT protests" have been focusing on the claim that Anderton Park is teaching young children about LGBT issues that are inappropriate on the grounds that Islam opposes and punishes homosexuals, often executing them. Parents were reportedly told, "If you take your kids to school today, you're not a Muslim and you'll burn in hell."
"LGBT issues" are, of course, a gross exaggeration of what the school actually teaches. Its head teacher, Sarah Hewitt-Clarkson, has made it clear that, among other things, Anderton Park does not even teach sex lessons:
The suggestion that Hewitt-Clarkson and her dedicated team are somehow "sexualising" pupils at the school is popular among the protest's leaders. But unlike many other primary schools, Anderton Park doesn't actually teach sex education.
"We have never taught sex here," Hewitt-Clarkson says. "Some primary schools do, but we don't, and we never will."
Anderton Park also does not deliver specific lessons on LGBT rights. Instead, the idea of families with "two mummies or two daddies" is normalised through the books that children read and the discussions they have with teachers.
"When you read all these news reports or listen to these protesters, you'd think we talk about being gay the whole time," Hewitt-Clarkson says. "It's probably 0.5 per cent of the time, but because it's here there and everywhere, it's just normal.
She goes on later, in Human Rights News and Views, to discuss the school's No Outsiders curriculum, which teaches acceptance of people different from oneself, which is what brings pupils into contact with mutual respect for Christians, Muslims and Jews, the disabled, gays and everyone who might be considered "other". "It should make absolutely clear that no group should be left out...."
These lessons are based on the No Outsiders lessons programme developed in Birmingham itself:
The No Outsiders programme was created in 2014 by Andrew Moffat, the assistant head teacher at Parkfield Community School in Birmingham.
The programme aims to teach children about the characteristics protected by the Equality Act -- such as sexual orientation and religion.
Books used in programme include stories about a dog that doesn't feel like it fits in, two male penguins that raise a chick together and a boy who likes to dress up like a mermaid.
Regrettably, the protestors' emphasis on LGBT has forced schools emphasis on are forcing schools to cancel a wider programme, No Outsiders , which teaches diversity of all sorts. Next year the government might make lessons based on it compulsory.
Since the protests, several schools – Parkview Community School, and four primaries: Leigh Primary School, Alston Primary School, Marlborough Junior and Infants School and Wyndcliff Primary School – have stopped teaching "No Outsiders" altogether, even though lessons in diversity of all sorts do indeed provide the most important lesson for all children – a lesson that will be present, one hopes, throughout their lives.
What on earth, we may ask, can there be to prompt months of protest in which so many people have become incensed? In March, just before the Anderton Park School protests began, Afsar had led similar cries of outrage against another primary school not far away, Parkfield School. On that occasion, the school backed down and agreed to suspend all LGBT lessons until they came to an agreement with parents –- an agreement Afsar and others might again try to prevent.
There seems to be a broader agenda at work here: that is, to find ways in which to maintain British values when faced with people who in many instances seem to oppose them. One example might be a lesson summed up in the Anderton Park expressions about British values, which underpin so much of the school's ethos: "Jewish people are equal to Sikhs, Muslims, Christians and people with no religion."
Many might not agree to that sentiment, whether in primary or secondary education, and possibly many Muslim parents would wish their children not to be taught it as it contradicts one of the most fundamental doctrines of the Islamic faith: that in God's eyes Islam and Islam alone is the true religion. Unfortunately, however, that doctrine contravenes the law against religious discrimination under the 2010 Equality Act. Here again:
Anderton Park's approach to equalities education, which weaves teaching about equal rights and the challenging of stereotypes into the wider curriculum and has the 2010 Equality Act at its core, is nothing new. (Italics added).
Hewitt-Clarkson has for many years devoted 0.5% of her annual timetable to teaching the characteristics of the Equality Act, which underlies her school's Equality statement above. Half of the school's staff are themselves Muslim. But everyone is expected to be proactive against discrimination:
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.
The headmistress's concern to meet the requirements of the Equality Act is endorsed by Amanda Spielman, the Chief Inspector of Ofsted, the government's Office for Standards in Education, which monitors, evaluates and grades all schools in the country.
With direct reference to the crisis facing Anderton Park and remarks by MP Esther McVey that parents know best and should be able to withdraw their children from relationship education until they are as old as 16, Spielman rebutted the idea forcefully:
"To be clear, this is about the Equality Act, which says children must be taught respect for the protected characteristics and to the extent we have got a case where it says this isn't a pick and choose whichever one's parents feel like."
The Equality Act is aimed at protecting people from discrimination on grounds of religion or belief, sexual orientation and age.
Spielman said the new relationships education lessons were "age appropriate" and not to be confused with sex education, which is not mandatory until secondary school.
But she added that opt-outs would undermine the National Curriculum:
"The idea that, on the one hand, children need to be prepared for life in modern Britain and this is an obligation for all schools, yet at the same time parents can opt out completely ... well, what would you do if parents could opt out of biology, could opt out of geography, because they didn't want their children knowing about evolution or reproduction? Where would it end?
"At the point you start saying every parent can choose which topics, we have completely lost sight of a national curriculum, of a national education system that prepares all children in this country."
The matter will have to be concluded soon. In September 2020, RSE lessons will become statutory [relationships and sex education] for all state-funded schools. The RSE curriculum lasts to age 16 and teaches children necessary information about family and friend relationships, and in later stages about sexual matters. Many faith schools are included in the statutory requirements. To refuse to teach such classes will mean breaking the law, and parents who withdraw their children for reasons that contradict those legal requirements may well face charges of denying them an education.
The importance of teaching children about respect for other people, including people with different sexual orientations, cannot be exaggerated. In the light of this, can there be any question that the lessons at Anderton Park school are vital for the West?
Dr. Denis MacEoin has taught Persian, Arabic and Islamic studies in the UK and is currently a Distinguished Senior Fellow at Gatestone Institute.