We saw two different worlds, or at least two different value systems, collide in the High Court in Birmingham this week. On one side there was Sarah Hewitt-Clarkson, the headmistress of Anderton Park, a little primary school in Sparkhill, a largely Pakistani bit of the city; on the other, two men who represent Muslim parents there. You may well have heard about the case. It has turned into one of those totemic issues: tolerant Britain vs backward religious people.
At issue is the question of whether and how children should be taught about gay relationships — and whether and how parents who don’t like it should be allowed to protest about it. Birmingham City Council wants to set up a permanent exclusion zone banning protests around the school; the High Court is hearing its case.
One of the mildly amusing moments on the first day was when counsel for the protesters brought up Roy and Silo, heroes of a little book called And Tango Makes Three, one of the books used in the school’s ‘Educate and Celebrate’ diversity programme. Roy and Silo, you see, are just like other penguin couples at the zoo: they bow to each other, walk together and swim together. But they are, ahem, boy penguins. So when the keeper finds them trying to hatch a stone, he realises it’s time to give them an actual egg — and bingo, Tango makes three. Mrs Hewitt-Clarkson was asked about this book in court: would it cause tension, given the religion of the pupils (mostly Muslim)? ‘There is a tension, of course, when some people believe homosexuality is sinful,’ she replied. ‘It is not sinful in British law.’
The protestors include Shakeel Afsar, who has a nephew at the school, and Amir Ahmed, a spokesman for the demonstrators. Neither are parents of pupils at Anderton, but Mr Ahmed says parents asked him to speak for them. The protests are sometimes joined by people unrelated to the city, let alone the school, which has led to a row about who actually represents the parents.
What do the parents think? I tried to ask some of the mothers at the court but I was waved away. ‘They don’t trust the media,’ said Sumayah, Amir’s daughter, from behind a face veil. (One of the things my day in Birmingham taught me was that a face veil is really annoying if you’re trying to have a conversation with the woman behind it — but that she may still be very feisty indeed.)
Given this choice in the diversity debate, it’s not an entire mystery why the reporting has tended to favour the articulate headmistress. I went to Anderton Park to talk to a few parents picking up their children: the fact that some paused to talk to a stranger in the rain is testimony to their niceness. It’s startling how many of the mothers can’t speak English. Many are veiled; a few wear the full face veil. When I asked one what she thought about her children being taught about gay relationships, she didn’t understand at first but her little cherub piped: ‘LGBT!’ The mother shrugged and said she was OK with these things being discussed.
On the basis of this small and wholly erratic sample, my impression was that parents’ opinions are mixed. One lady thought gay awareness was fine, because the children would encounter these things anyway. Others took a dim view. One mother shook her head: ‘Women and women, men and men… it’s not good,’ she said. A father said simply: ‘They’re too young.’ This has been one of the parents’ themes: it’s about age-appropriate education, not just the agenda itself.
At the nearby Hamza mosque there were leaflets telling the faithful: ‘Your City Council is attempting to Silence the Truth! Come and support the parents at Birmingham High Court.’ There are rumours about unsavoury extremists being involved with the protests and Muslim opinions about the LGBT awareness agenda are mixed: Paul Armstrong, the irenic head of the Association of British Muslims, has examined the books used in the No Outsiders programme in the city’s Parkfield School where the protests originally began and found them benign.
When I spoke to Amir Ahmed, I found the agenda pretty reasonable. The protesters want parents to be consulted about LGBT awareness programmes — not merely informed. They say they have no problem with homosexuality being mentioned and have no problems with gay individuals, but ‘we don’t want proselytising’. They worry that differing views of morality are not tolerated. As Sumayah Ahmed said: ‘We want our values, family values, to be respected.’ And those values include a rethinking of sex education to include the value of chastity.
We’re living through an era of rapid change. Until recently, the views of the protesters would have been what most Brits thought. Being a socially conservative Catholic, I found their concerns understandable. How do you define age-appropriate sex education? Who decides? Whose values matter? Should parents be consulted? All reasonable questions. But in Birmingham they’re being drowned out by loud voices on both sides.