The introduction of Relationships Education in primary schools and Relationships and Sex Education in secondary schools
from September 2010.
The media has given extensive coverage to the protests that some Muslim families have held outside primary schools in Birmingham. The protestors are complaining that the schools neither consulted them nor share with them detailed information about the teaching of RE. They have several concerns, which are shared by not only Muslims but also many others in this multicultural society. Some critical concerns are about the age-appropriateness and content of the curriculum and textbooks. The schools have invited them to discuss the matter in order to find a way forward and other efforts are ongoing at different levels.
Sadly the protests and lack of progress and willingness to find an agreeable way forward has led to growing hostility towards groups on all sides. It is therefore essential that the government, schools, families, religious and faith communities, and non-religious and non-faith communities reevaluate the whole situation; sit around a table, listen to each other’s concerns and needs; and work together for the greater and common good of this multicultural and diverse nation.
In particular, Muslim communities must turn to the Qur’an and Sunnah for guidance on how to engage in this difficult and sensitive matter, given the teachings of Islam on family structures, relationships and sexual morality and behaviour. The Prophetic example is not one of demonstrations and protests but rather of respectful dialogue with humbleness. It is a method of building alliances; it is strategic and with an eye on the bigger picture and a long-term vision.
The Qur’an calls on Muslims to: “Invite to the way of your Lord with wisdom, and beautiful preaching, and reason with people in the best and most gracious ways.” (16:125). Therefore Muslims must approach this matter strategically and in partnership and collaboration with all sections of society; with wisdom, kindness, courtesy, compassion and above all justice. They must not allow emotions and prejudices to veer them away from being just.
“Believers! Stand out firmly for Allah, as witnesses with justice. And let not the enmity and hatred of others make you avoid justice. Be just! That is nearer to piety, and fear Allah. Indeed Allah is well aware of what you do.” (Qur’an 5:8).
Many narratives are suggesting that the teaching of RE and RSE is an attack on religion, religious values, morality and the traditional family unit. In order to gain a more balanced and comprehensive understanding, the possible government moral intent of introducing these policies needs to be taken into account.
Most Muslims are unaware of a cross-governmental plan known as the ‘LGBT Action Plan’, which was written and passed in July 2018. According to policymakers, this was set out ‘to improve the lives of LGBT people’ based on the results of a national survey. It was the largest survey of its kind in which over 100,000 respondents shared their experiences of abuse, such as sexism and homophobia that they have faced in various aspects of social life, including schools, workplaces and in the public space.
The supposed intent of this plan is for everyone, regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity or gender characteristics, ‘to live safely and healthily, without any fear of discrimination.’ Ultimately, the underlying aim is to remove deeply rooted and institutionalised homophobic, transphobic and sexist notions. If this intent and these aims are considered, then communities may arrive at a conclusion that is very different to the current assessment that they have drawn up and become fixated upon. It will also enable everyone to form a more just assessment, and not one that simply conforms to preconceived notions and ideals.
This theme of inclusivity is nothing new, since the enforcement of the Equality Act 2010, the government has aimed to ‘protect individuals from unfair treatment’ and ‘promote a fair and more equal society.’ This legislation was a clear, single framework, which sought to consolidate over 116 prior Acts. It covers a wide range of areas, including education, employment and housing among others. It is important for Muslims and people of faith, to understand and acknowledge that the very laws that protect them and enable them to openly practise their faith are the same laws that also protect LGBTQ+ communities. Muslims would do well to acknowledge that they live in a pluralistic society, in which people are very diverse and different from each other. Muslims may disagree with how others live their lives because of religious and cultural beliefs but they have to accept that everyone together makes up this diverse society. Muslims should not and do not have to compromise, nor are they required to give up their beliefs and core values to live in an inclusive and pluralist society of equals. Religious freedom and rights are as much protected as human rights are – everyone is equal before the law.
If the teaching of RE helps children to know about different types of relationships, without the sexual nature of these relationships being taught, and through those lessons, they learn to be respectful of those whose family is different to their own, then that can only be a good thing. If the teaching is limited to teach children about different family structures and how these are organised in today’s society it can help reduce prejudice, discrimination and bullying. At home, parents can endorse their own kind of family structure explaining why it is so. God has given nobility and dignity to all the children of Adam (peace be upon him). Respect for human dignity is ultimately the essence of Islam.
The ‘No Outsiders’ programme was created in 2014 and was introduced in Parkfield Community School in Birmingham. Andrew Moffat, the creator of the project said, “No Outsiders allows us to raise awareness of these differences so that children are able to tolerate and accept differences in our society.”The programme aims to teach children about the characteristics protected by the Equality Act. One book included in the project And Tango Makes Three, is based on the true story of two male penguins who raised a penguin chick in New York Zoo. Families have expressed many concerns about this programme and the motives behind it. A critical and understandable concern of many parents and families in various communities is about the nature of the teaching materials that will be made accessible to the children. Many have not seen the materials but have based their judgement on content that has been circulating around social media. They are also worried that LGBTQ+ will be promoted and children may be vulnerable to indoctrination and confusion. Many families are under the impression that a lot of the teaching material will be of a sexual and inappropriate nature, and is not only not age-appropriate but also improper to be taught to children. It is reasonable to say that these concerns are a result of the vagueness and lack of clarity from the government and policy-makers regarding the policies themselves. For example, as it currently stands, the teaching material used is based on the discretion of what teachers would deem as appropriate and necessary based upon their pupils and classes. The right way is to engage and involve parents in deciding what is broadly acceptable and will fulfil the statutory requirements were required to teach. It should also be acknowledged that parents do not have accurate and precise knowledge of the materials as there has conflation between RE and RSE materials; and misinformation and misrepresentation, often deliberate, including exaggeration, to project the materials in a negative light.
Moving forward, a healthy and progressive solution to this is required by initiating a partnership of communities with members of the government and official policy-makers with the intent of seeking better clarity on the policies themselves and concerns pertaining to them. This partnership will require the government to recognise parental rights in the education of their children. They should be consulted and fully informed of all material that teachers are going to use in classrooms. It is important that open dialogue with the government is established. Muslim communities should not reject and oppose any narrative just because it appears or actually is different to their own but rather should engage in a way that will yield desired results to the satisfaction of families, schools and the government.