The culture war over ‘LGBT lessons’ is based on distortion. Here are the facts

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If you are the parent of a school-aged child, you’ve probably heard that “primary sex ed” will be mandatory from September. Even if you aren’t a parent, you’ve likely heard of No Outsiders, the “LGBT curriculum” that has sparked protests by a number of Muslim parents at Parkfield community school in Birmingham, resulting in hundreds of children being withdrawn.

No Outsiders has been suspended, but the protests have spread throughout Birmingham and to Manchester, with hundreds more parents threatening to withdraw their children from schools. Two weeks ago, BBC Question Time brought this conflict to the nation at large by asking: “Is it morally right that five-year-old children learn about LGBTQ+ issues in school?”

The discussion has turned into a full-on culture war, with religious communities pitted against education experts. But this didn’t need to happen.

As one of the founders of a charity combating gender stereotypes at primary school – and aiming for all faiths, races and backgrounds to be able to access our message – I have followed these stories closely. And I have winced as those framing the debate have muddled up and sensationalised the conversation to the point that no one could blame parents for feeling confused about what their children will be learning.

So, let’s take a step back and get clear on what we’re actually talking about. No Outsiders teaches primary school pupils to celebrate diversity – including of race, religion, and sexual orientation. In other words, it teaches children to respect differences protected by the Equality Act. It is not a “LGBT curriculum”. It also isn’t what is being mandated for primary schools – it is one programme created by one teacher in Birmingham, which has been voluntarily taught by some schools.

Next, there is no mandatory “primary sex ed”. Parliament voted to approve a new primary school subject called “relationships education”, and there isn’t a bit of sex in it. The key teachings are about the importance of friendships, family and other relationships, as well as how to stay safe. This could just have easily have been called “life skills”.

But it wasn’t. It was grouped in with relationships and sex education (RSE) for secondary school pupils, which meant people started referring to “primary sex ed”. It’s also been conflated with No Outsiders, which much of the media has shorthanded as ‘LGBT lessons’. What is coming next year is now, to many, “pro-LGBT sex education for five-year-olds”, and of course this is a hard sell to some religious communities. I know my progressive but devout Muslim father would be reluctant to get on board with that.

Let me be clear – I am in favour of teaching our kids that diversity of sexuality is an asset to our society. But to a five-year-old, that means knowing that different types of families exist, can be caring and deserve respect. This is all that’s required by the new guidance, and I don’t think you would have gotten a heated national debate over that line. In fact, many schools already teach this as part of their duty to promote the British values of tolerance and individual liberty.

However, the fury provoked by No Outsiders and RSE shows us just how polarising anything related to sex is, which is why it’s really unhelpful that this topic was sexed up unnecessarily.

Well-organised forces looking for a fight have bolstered the recent protests, and there was blatant homophobia on display that shouldn’t be indulged. However, it wasn’t inevitable that the agitators would get such traction. The language initially used by those setting the terms – the government, media and education sector – mattered. Now the genie is largely out of the bottle. Schools across the country will have a harder time implementing the new guidance among communities that are dead set against it, but perhaps stand to benefit from it most.

Let’s remember why this is important: children need to know how people should treat each other so they understand consent later in life. Children need the tools to develop stable emotional bonds they can lean on for support. Children need to respect different types of families so fewer kids get bullied.

Confidence and tolerance aren’t just for the progressive middle classes. Next time, let’s think more about how we frame the debate for those families inclined to be sceptical – and let’s not take the culture-war bait.

 Janeen Hayat is a teacher and co-founder of You Be You, a charity working to combat gender stereotypes in primary schools

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Janeen Hayat

Janeen Hayat

Teacher and co-founder of You Be You, a charity working to combat gender stereotypes

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