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At Anderton Park Primary School in Birmingham, books like “And Tango Makes Three”, “My Princess Boy” and “We Are Family” are part of the curriculum that teaches students between the ages six and 11 about the human rights and characteristics legally protected from discrimination by the UK’s 2010 Equality Act.
These includes race, religion, gender reassignment and sexual orientation.
“And Tango Makes Three” is a true story about male penguins who adopt an egg and raise a chick together at New York’s Central Park Zoo.
The curriculum at Anderton Park and other schools in Birmingham caused a rift between teachers and mainly Muslim parents who believe that their kids should not be learning about LGBTQ rights or same-sex relationships.
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Hundreds of angry protesters gathered outside the school since March to protest.
The majority of the students are Muslims.
The case has escalated to the point that some students are pulled out of class for a day and teachers are harassed at the school gates and online.
Amir Ahmed is the leader of the protesters although he does not have a child attending Anderton Park.
He was concerned about what children in his community were being taught.
Sarah Hewitt-Clarkson, the school’s headteacher is defiant in the face of the protests.
“There are many things that can be the glue that holds the math and English and history and geography music lessons together — and in this school, it’s our ethos of equality,” she said of the importance of teaching about LGBTQ relationships.
Anderton Park’s “frequently asked questions” section on its website says,”We are not promoting being Christian, being black, being disabled or any other part of the Equality Act. We promote understanding about everyone. We are showing children that there are different kinds of people around us and we respect everyone, no matter what background you are from or they are from.”
The school had to close early for mid-term break in May due to the hostilities.
Last month, a judge said, “I find it likely the claimant (Birmingham City Council) will establish at trial some of the protesting has gone beyond lawful limits and strayed into harassing, alarming or distressing conduct, through its persistence, timing and context,” the Press Association reported.
The judge imposed a temporary exclusion zone around the school until a trial over whether the protests can be resumed outside the school takes place in July.
Shakeel Afsar’s nephew brought home a copy of “My Princess Boy” and that is when the protests at Anderton Park started.
“We don’t allow our children who are girls to believe they are boys, or boys to believe they are girls. We only believe in the two genders, which is male and female,” Afsar, 32, who is a property developer, said.
Amir decided to help Afsar and his sister Rosina after the success of demonstrations he led against a programme at another school became a success.
He denies being homophobic, saying that the lessons are forcing parents to have uncomfortable conversations with their children about issues that contradict their religion.
“Children should not be learning these things at such a young age,” said a mother of an Anderton Park student.
False information has become part of the protests with leaflets being passed out containing “sexually explicit material” that was falsely allege to have been taught at the school, said local gay rights activist Khakan Qureshi.
In a letter sent to parents in March Hewitt-Clarkson debunked the leaflet’s claims.
“The leaflet states ‘This programme promotes a whole-school gay ethos.’ NO. This is not true. We do not have a programme and we never have,” the letter said.
“The leaflet states ‘It teaches boys it is OK to marry your best friend ‘Abdul.” NO. This is not true. The leaflet states ‘It discriminates against beliefs of parents and children.’ NO. This is not true.”
An anonymous person has been sharing false information at one of the protests, said Amir Ahmed but denied supporting claims that Anderton Park was teaching the material outlined in the leaflet.
One of the protesters called Hewitt-Clarkson a pedophile while making a speech through a megaphone.
“Parents said to me, ‘there are crazy people out there and what is there to stop them from throwing a brick through a window?'” Hewitt-Clarkson said.
“How has this amount of hatred [come to] the pavements outside of my school [from] a few people seeking to drive wedges between the school, its parents and the community?”
Thankfully, she receives support from the public with well-wishers giving cards to her, thanking her for making a stand.
Only 0.5% of Anderton Park’s annual timetable is dedicated to teaching about equality, stressed Hewitt-Clarkson.
The curriculum is described as “breaking stereotypes” and ensuring “everyone is valued, feels safe, secure and happy.”
Hewitt-Clarkson said it is relayed through one lesson at the end of each term, with the books going beyond the traditional tales of “male heroes and female princesses.”
Classrooms are renamed after a diverse range of activists.
“There’s nothing new here. It is about weaving it into everything you say and do, and having said that, that means we don’t talk about it all the time, obviously — when we are dividing fractions, we don’t necessarily talk about males and females being equal,” she said with a laugh.
In February the British government outlined new guidelines that will make relationship classes mandatory for state-funded primary schools (for children aged 5-11) in England, and sex and relationship classes compulsory at secondary level (ages 11-16) from September 2020.
“We want the subjects to put in place the key building blocks of healthy, respectful relationships, focusing on family and friendships, in all contexts, including online,” the government wrote in a set of draft guidelines.
At the primary level, the guidance states that students will be taught about all different types of families, including “single parent families, LGBT parents, families headed by grandparents” and adoptive parents.
While schools are “free to determine” what their new policy will look like, “students’ religious background” should be taken into account, and schools should decide when it would be age-appropriate to teach “their pupils about LGBT(Q).”
The government also added that there was no specific requirement to cover LGBTQ content at primary schools.
Teachers believe the act is ambiguous, leaving them with the responsibility of deciding whether the religious makeup of their students supersedes other protected characteristics of the Equality Act.
The issue has also saddled them with the responsibility of figuring out what is age-appropriate, Colin Diamond, professor of educational leadership at the University of Birmingham said.
“It’s a recipe for chaos, because the government has left loopholes in the regulations to allow children to be withdrawn in certain situations… they’re exposing all the headteachers, particularly in primary schools, in England, to potentially a lot of protests and a lot of
wasted time and energy,” he added.
The lack of clarity by the government created “a policy vacuum that will be exploited” by socially conservative groups, said Diamond.
“It is a great shame because the intention of the policy is good.”
Christian Concern, a conservative evangelical lobby group that’s been criticised for its anti-LGBTQ and anti-abortion agenda said it was “not directly involved in the Birmingham protests” but it considers the upcoming legislation “Orwellian.”
Roger Kiska, a worker of Christian Legal Centre which is linked to Christian Concern said he was looking “for any legal challenges, because we feel that the provisional opt-out for sex education is not in accordance with the government’s obligations under the Human Rights Act.”
“The only discrimination in the classroom at the moment is against parents of faith, who said that their children are being force-fed something contrary to their faith,” said Elaina Cohen, parliamentary adviser to Khalid Mahmood, the Member of Parliament for Birmingham Perry Barr.
She said that she would write to the education select committee, asking them to scrutinise how the policy will be rolled out and developed.
Education minister Nick Gibb said he would press ahead with the new statutory instrument. telling the Press Association that it was “unlikely that we will bring those extreme ends of the debate into that consensus.”
Boris Johnson, the frontrunner to become the next prime minister, told the Birmingham Mail
that he backed the Anderton Park teachers.
Jess Philips, another MP for Birmingham, confronted protesters outside the school in May.
In a heated exchange with Shakeel Afsar filmed by the BBC
, she told him that the demonstrations were “damaging the reputation of a peaceful and loving community that I have lived in my entire life.”
While the most recent temporary injunction against protests at Anderton Park has cut them down in size, Amir said he would fight for it to be lifted during a court hearing at the end of July.
Even if that fails, he said momentum to “fight for parents’ rights” has spread to other cities.
He says he has been in touch with Muslim parents in Manchester, Bradford, and London who are eager to challenge the new guidelines.
Hewitt-Clarkson believes more conversations will bridge the divide.
Through workshops and meetings, she says she has been working to defuse the concerns of some parents at her school.
When asked why she is refusing to back down, Hewitt-Clarkson pointed to a quote she has pasted on the wall of her poster-strewn office.
“Help your children become human. Your efforts must never produce learned monsters, skilled psychopaths or educated Eichmanns. Reading, writing, and arithmetic are important only if they serve to make our children more human,” the quote reads, which is an excerpt from a letter from a Nazi concentration camp survivor.
“It’s as lawful to be straight as it is to be gay. It’s as lawful to have a mommy and a daddy as it is to have a mommy and mommy,” Hewitt-Clarkson said. “Schools cannot be part of any implied or tacit discrimination.”
Closer to home in Singapore, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong takes the middle ground about LGBTQ.
“We are not like San Francisco, neither are we like certain countries in the Middle East. It’s something in between. It’s the way this society is.”
Prime Minister Lee said that despite Section 377A the law that criminalise sex between men is still in legislation, Singapore is open to the LGBTQ community.
“You know our rules in Singapore. Whatever your sexual orientation, you are welcome to come and work in Singapore.”
He added that LGBT people are living freely here with the annual Pink Dot gathering occurring over the years.
He also said: “But this has not inhibited people from living, and has not stopped Pink Dot from having a gathering every year.”
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