WHEREAS AMERICA has culture wars between secular liberals and conservative Christians, cultural battles in Europe increasingly pit secular liberals against conservative Muslims. A noisy skirmish over sex education in a Muslim district of the English Midlands could be a sign of things to come.
Since early February parents have been demonstrating outside Parkfield Community School in Birmingham because their children, aged between four and 11, have been receiving lessons about same-sex relationships. The “No Outsiders” classes, pioneered by Parkfield’s assistant head, Andrew Moffatt, are offered for use in schools, libraries and parent-teacher groups across England, and cover topics grouped under buzzwords like equality and diversity.
Things came to a head on March 1st when hundreds of children were kept away from Parkfield in protest. Mr Moffatt, who has received a medal from the queen for his work, came in for a barrage of threatening messages, some implying that the teacher, who is gay, has been using pupils as guinea pigs in an unwanted social experiment.
Parkfield was backed by Ofsted, the schools inspectorate, whose boss said it was vital for children to be aware of “families that have two mummies or two daddies”. But on March 4th the school seemed to be backing down. Parents received a letter saying No Outsiders lessons would not be taught for the rest of the term, and promising consultations over future lessons. The school’s bosses maintained they had never intended to hold the controversial classes between now and the Easter holidays. The head of the trust which runs the school, Hazel Pulley, insisted that the lessons would resume in the summer term.
The row has split the Labour Party that dominates the city’s politics. Shabana Mahmood, the MP for Birmingham Ladywood, urged the authorities to understand the parents’ position. It was “all about the age-appropriateness of conversations with young children in the context of religious backgrounds”, she said. Fellow Labour activists denounced her defence of “bigotry”.
But Nick Gibb, the schools minister, seemed to hint that she had a point. He confirmed that schools must promote equality. But they “will be required to take the religious beliefs of their pupils into account when they decide to deliver certain content”, he added. That will be tricky in Birmingham, where more than a third of children are Muslim and conservative strands, like the Deobandis and Salafis, enjoy much influence.