Protests over religion and sex education reforms spread as MPs back changes

MPs have backed changes to relationships and sex education, as protests from parents against teaching primary pupils about LGBT relationships spread.

The reforms backed by Parliament on Wednesday will mean that, from 2020, relationships and health education will be compulsory in all schools and sex education will be mandatory in all secondaries. The reforms still need approval from the House of Lords.

I’m not surprised my parents are worried and upset because of some of the things they’ve been told, which are completely untrue

But it comes as more schools face protests at their school gates. It follows Parkfield Community School, in Birmingham, suspending its “No Outsiders” programme, which teaches pupils about LGBT relationships and other issues, after protests by some parents.

Sam Offord, headteacher of Birchfields Primary School in Manchester, found protesting parents giving out letters at the school gates.

The letters, written in the first person and with a space for parents to fill in their details, raised concerns about the teaching of “same-sex relationships in the same manner as heterosexual relations i.e. on an equal footing” and of the parent’s children being “exposed to beliefs, values or teachings that contradict those of my religious beliefs”.

It said LGBT gender theory was “not based on conclusive scientific research” and that teaching that sexuality is fluid “will erode the normality of heterosexual relationships and is in contradiction to traditional religious values and principles”.

It also raised concerns about pupils being “sexualized” and the use of “explicit graphic material”, which it said will “affect their innocence and mental wellbeing”.

Offord said that her school only talks about sexuality in terms of families that can include two mums or two dads, and showing respect to people as part of British values. She said that school policy on the subject had been written “in tandem” with parents.

She told Schools Week: “We’ve not got anything to hide… I’m not surprised my parents are worried and upset because of some of the things they’ve been told, which are completely untrue. It’s complete misinformation they are getting.”

“It’s just a misuse of social media to whip up vulnerable people, which has damaged the trust that they’ve got in their schools. That can never be a good thing.”

In Manchester, around 250 parents have joined a Whatsapp group to voice their concerns about sex education. The Manchester Evening News reported that some of the messages are homophobic in nature, including discussing the sexuality of teachers.

The letter handed out at Birchfields, and at least six other schools in Manchester, can be downloaded from the website of a group called Islamic RSE.

A spokesperson for Islamic RSE said it had “no connections with any protests, nor do we have an official letter for parents”. The PDF of the letter has since been removed from their website, but it can still be downloaded as a Word document.

But Offord added: “We need a bit more support from the DfE, saying ‘we fully support schools that are teaching equality and respect’. It’s isolating for headteachers.”

Under the new guidance, headteachers will be allowed to refuse the requests of parents to withdraw their children from sex education lessons in “exceptional circumstances”, but the DfE has said it will not define exactly what this covers.

However, schools minister Nick Gibb told MPs last week that exceptional circumstances could include “if a child has experienced a sexual incident, perhaps with another child, or inappropriate touching”.

“The key point is, however, that it will be the circumstance of the child and not the views of the headteacher that will lead to that decision,” he said.

Despite backing from Ofsted and the education secretary Damian Hinds, Parkfield Community School suspended teaching “No Outsiders” until a resolution can be reached with parents.

Liam Byrne, Parkfield’s local MP, told a debate in Parliament last week that the government was “much too slow to get a grip” on the situation.

“That delay allowed those with intolerant and extreme views to hijack what was a group of parents simply wanting their voice to be heard and their role to be respected,” he said.

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, added that school leaders “shouldn’t have to be brave to deliver these subjects in their schools, or have to put their personal safety and wellbeing at risk”.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, added: “Our advice to any school which faces this sort of situation is to positively engage with concerned parents.”

A spokesperson for the DfE said it was working to solve Parkfield dispute. “We trust head teachers to make the decision as to what is and is not appropriate for their pupils to learn. We think it’s right that schools consult parents and take their views into account when making these decisions.”