Sima Kotecha

The Parkfield protests have exposed the divisions in UK society

The Parkfield protests have exposed the divisions in UK society
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Parkfield primary school is an unremarkable redbrick building in the socially deprived Alum Rock area of Birmingham. A decision by the school’s leadership to teach younger children about same-sex relationships has triggered a firestorm of anger. As a BBC correspondent covering the patch, it’s worth reflecting how it started, what happened and to what extent it exposes wider divisions in our society.

Two months ago, a pupil went home and told her mother that her teacher had said it was fine to be a lesbian. The family are Muslim and they believe that homosexuality is a sin. The mother was alarmed and shared her story with fellow parents who are overwhelmingly Muslim.

From this spark, the row over the school’s controversial 'No Outsiders' programme escalated. The aim is to teach pupils, some as young as 4, about same-sex couples, diversity, inclusion and other differences in society through a series of brightly coloured cartoon books. Three of the 30 or so books tell stories about same-sex relationships – but without any sexual detail.

The school’s website has a section entitled Promoting British Values – and the school's CEO, Hazel Pulley, and deputy head Andrew Moffat, who I’ve spoken to at length, see the programme as inclusive and not divisive.

But it certainly seems divisive to some of the parents at Parkfield. And the reaction both from them and from the LGBT community has been explosive.

At the heart of this dispute, which has now spread across England is anger, passion, and a deep-rooted desire from both sides to have their voices heard. Some from the Muslim, Christian, and Jewish community have vehemently argued that their religious beliefs must be taken into account, and say that young children shouldn’t be subjected to ideas that can influence or encourage their sexuality. But that’s provoked the rage of many who are LGBT, who demand that their sexuality is seen as equal to race and religion, and don't want an age limit on when it’s introduced in the classroom.

That means asking tough questions of the schools involved, those protesting against sex relationship education, and the LGBT community. Are you homophobic, are you Islamophobic, are you being fair, are you abiding by the law of the land? The thing is, religious freedom, in their eyes, equates to freedom around sexuality. Suggesting that homophobia forms part of this dispute has led to accusations of racism. On the other hand, asking a white, non-Muslim head-teacher whether she is Islamophobic has resulted in accusations of racism. Some in the gay community have felt aggrieved by both coverage and questioning.

Labour MP Lloyd Russell-Moyle’s view on the subject in Prime Minister’s Questions a couple of weeks ago is illustrative. He angrily attacked the ‘bigots that don’t want LGBT people to be heard in schools’. But for Labour, with an important Muslim vote to play for in elections, this is tricky territory. Meanwhile, government ministers have mostly stayed quiet about the subject, although a large majority of MPs (including cabinet members) did vote in favour of the government’s new LGBT-inclusive regulations for Relationships and Sex Education (RSE) in schools.

I was told by one of the campaigners for the parent protestors, Amir Ahmed, that homosexuality was morally wrong – a claim that drew hoards of criticism from viewers and readers, many demanding answers as to why we allowed him to have a platform to air his ‘homophobic’ views. I challenged Amir Ahmed to deny if he was homophobic: he replied that he wasn’t, but felt strongly that young children should not be taught about things that parents felt were age inappropriate.

Later in the same piece, a Muslim gay rights campaigner Khakan Qureshi, branded the protestors' views as homophobic, ‘no matter how you dress it up’. His opinion is that the views of religiously conservative Muslims should be challenged in a secular country with clear laws against minority discrimination. That then drew criticism from the protestors, with some saying that they are not homophobic, just entitled to have their own beliefs which might be at odds with British values.

The woman in charge of the school, Hazel Pulley spoke to me: she was clear that she was far from being Islamophobic – and was just trying to teach those values in an age appropriate way. Sex is not discussed in these classes and she feels 10 years of hard work at the school has 'gone in a second'. A boycott of the school, and angry protests on the streets outside prompted West Midlands Police to comment that they did not constitute a hate crime, despite coming 'very close to the line' against gay people.

Across the UK, LGBT groups have spoken out in defence of Pulley and the programme: Stonewall has said the outcome must include teaching about LGBT families in primary schools to tackle bullying and discrimination in society.

For now – peace has returned to Parkfield. The protest signs 'say no to undermining parental authority' have been put away as consultations take place between the school, parents, and the Department for Education. But the issue for society and government remains: how to tackle a subject that puts a secular liberal society in direct confrontation with others with conservative religious beliefs - with the headiest of ingredients at the centre of it: our children’s future.

Sima Kotecha, Midlands Correspondent, BBC News