How to start a culture war


A few months ago, a Muslim mother I know asked if I would be withdrawing my child from the 'mandatory sex ed' that was coming in next year.  If you have a primary school-aged child, you've likely heard something about this. Perhaps you've gotten similar questions from other parents at your school, or perhaps you're the parent asking the questions.

I’ve spent a fair amount of time with the DfE‘s Relationships and Sex Education (‘RSE’) guidance, and it’s pretty uncontroversial in my view—basically, children are to be taught the importance of friendships, family, and other relationships to their own wellbeing. I told her there wasn't a bit of sex in it (in fact, the subject is simply called ‘Relationships and Health Education’ at primary), but she didn’t budge on wanting to withdraw her son.  

I didn’t get why she was so obstinate about it. Then, I saw the headlines about the Parkfield Community School protests in Birmingham, in which parents at a predominantly Muslim school protested the teaching of ‘No Outsiders’, a curriculum aiming to teach children to celebrate difference and diversity, including of sexual orientation.  Many have removed their children from the school, and the curriculum has been suspended.

Ah, so we are in a culture war. It all makes sense now.  

You can see the head-on collision in hindsight. Age-appropriate guidance on teaching healthy relationships at primary schools was initially lumped in with sex education by the DfE, which has been conflated with No Outsiders (one particular curriculum written by one particular Assistant Headteacher in Birmingham), which has been lazily shorthanded by many as a ‘LGBT curriculum’. The Relationships education that will become mandatory from next year is now, to many, a ‘pro-LGBTQ+ curriculum for five year olds’, and of course this is a hard sell to some religious communities.

The question chosen for debate on last week’s Question Time -- ‘Is it morally right that five-year-old children learn about LGBTQ+ issues in school?’ -- seemed designed to fan the fire. Let me be clear—I am in favour of teaching our kids as early as possible that diversity of sexuality is a welcome part of our society. But what does celebrating sexual diversity look like to a five-year-old? It’s knowing there are different types of families, and that all of these families can be loving and happy. You’d hardly get anyone to tune in for an argument over the morality of this. In fact, many schools already teach this explicitly, as schools currently have a duty to actively promote the British Values of tolerance and individual liberty.

However, the fury No Outsiders and the new RSE guidelines have provoked with some shows us just how polarising anything related to sex can be. Getting people to change their mind about sex is about the steepest climb you can take on, which is why it’s really unhelpful that those framing the debate sexed up this topic where they didn’t need to.

A petition to allow parents the right to opt their kids out of RSE received over 115,000 signatures, and the House of Commons debated the topic earlier this month, where there was frequent reference to ‘Muslim communities’ by MPs. Would the ‘Muslim community’ be so opposed to their children learning about healthy friendships, family relationships, and different kinds of families? I doubt it.

The education and public policy sectors are excited about sex education in early childhood, which has had a range of positive effects in the Netherlands. Experts have responded positively to the DfE’s proposals, which uses existing best practice as a foundation. I’m thrilled to see that the RSE guidelines have been passed, and that the guidance starts from year 1.  But next time, let’s remember that the average British parent isn’t a Dutch education policy expert and might not jump at the idea of age-appropriate ‘sex education’ in year 1.  

I have a request, and I know it’s easier said than done: let’s make sure our language actually describes the thing being discussed. In this case, that means talking about the specific guidance given to schools about teaching relationships.

Carelessness with language means that many teachers and head teachers across the country will have a harder time implementing the new RSE guidance amongst communities that are set to oppose it. Kids in those communities may not be learning about healthy relationships anywhere else, and might even be taken out of school over this issue. At its core, the new Relationships and Health guidance is about building confidence in all children, which must have buy in from home to have a real impact. Confidence and tolerance can't be the exclusive purview of progressive families who are already committed to celebrating our inclusive, pluralistic society. If we can't bring those most inclined to be skeptical along with us, then what's the point?

The language used by those setting the terms – the government, the media, and the education sector – matters. We need to be tackling a range of issues earlier in childhood, and we’re not going to get anywhere if we don’t start with our common ground. In the case of RSE, it’s that children should be kind to each other and respect each other’s backgrounds and preferences. I think almost all parents could have supported that starting point.

We’re trying to be mindful of these triggers at You Be You, and the issue of gender is certainly riddled with them. Do I want to see more stay at home dads in a generation? YES. Do we need to debate that when we talk to primary school kids? No, I don't think so -- because the point is that we want boys and girls to feel they can pursue whatever interests or talents they want. That might be caring, or it might be engineering or acting or gymnastics or politics or something that doesn't exist yet. We don't need everyone to agree to challenge gender stereotypes from a young age, but can't we get everyone to agree that children should be able to choose the path that's best for them? This means setting them up for jobs that match their interests, skills, and the market. What parent wouldn't want that?