Rachel Wolf is a partner in Public First. She was an education and innovation adviser at Number 10 during David Cameron’s premiership, and was founding director of the New Schools Network.
A couple of weeks ago, I took part in an education ‘question time’ debate at the University of Buckingham. One of the exchanges – with three students on free speech – made clear how much attitudes have shifted in the last 15 years.
The students in question said that they, personally, were not offended by debates, but they knew people who were. One student said, in effect, ‘if for example, there was a poster advertising a debate that said my religion was wrong, I know there would be some people who would be upset by that and the university has a duty of care to those students’.
Trevor Phillips – one of the other panellists – asked him, directly, if he would take the poster advertising the debate down. He said yes.
This was clearly a shock.
The exchange was interesting for two reasons. First, it makes clear that some students do not think of themselves – at least not completely – as adults. They think that universities have a semi-parental responsibility.
Second, those students valued the upset feelings of individuals (which to be clear in this example would have been justified) over abstract ideas of debate and free speech. The older members of the audience felt the opposite. This is a gulf.
The instinctive position of those younger students (and many young voters) is, I think, facing an interesting test in Birmingham.
Readers may have noticed that there have been ongoing protests about the teaching of ‘equalities’ in a Birmingham primary school. There is now compulsory relationship education in primary school. In this case some parents and others in the Muslim community dislike the material that an assistant head of the school has been using – which includes stories of two male penguins bringing up a chick or a boy who likes to dress as a mermaid.
The purpose, fairly obviously, is to teach children that families come in different forms and that this is acceptable.
Amir Ahmed, who according to the BBC has been coordinating the protests, said “we are a traditional community – we have traditional family values and morally we do not accept homosexuality as a valid sexual relationship to have…we do not believe in homosexuality but that does not make us homophobic.” Another protestor, Mr Hussain, said “We have no issue if [the assistant head] wants to put on a dress, or dance around like a ballet dancer, or put on a skirt, we have no issue. We have an issue with teaching that nonsense to our kids.”
Why does this link to the students I mentioned?
Because all resolutions in Birmingham will trample on people’s identities and belief. Offence (and offence seems like too mild a word) is guaranteed. This is a fundamental clash between people who think it is vital that gay relationships be taught as a normal part of British life, and those who think doing so contravenes their religious beliefs.
The school in question is a state institution, and therefore the Government has to clearly back a horse – not only with language but action. If the material is used, it is supporting one group. If it isn’t, it is supporting another. At the moment, it has tried to obfuscate by dumping most of the decision and action on the school itself. This is unsustainable.
My own view is that the material is not only fine, it is a natural consequence of our decision to legalise gay marriage and allow children to be brought up by gay couples. Once you have made that decision (which I personally support, but that is beside the point), you must ensure that those children are in a safe and supportive environment in state institutions. It’s legitimate to expose them to alternate points of view – including that some religions don’t support gay marriage – but you can’t ignore the existence of couples and families that you’ve actively supported in legislation.
This will unquestionably have consequences. I think there is a real risk that more conservative religious people may opt out of the state system altogether and go to small private religious schools, some of which have worryingly poor standards and are subject to little scrutiny. But despite that risk, the policy I describe is still the right decision.
Whether you agree with me or not, you cannot adjudicate this situation on the basis of weighing individuals’ feelings of hurt or offence. That exists on both sides. You must make a judgement about who is right. And you must be willing to impose that judgement on people who disagree, and are desperately upset, by your decision.
I’m not sure we have done a great job preparing young people for that democratic reality. But we are increasingly going to encounter these tensions. We haven’t begun to figure out how to successfully integrate an increasingly diverse society. Birmingham is an early test of many.