Rapid Response: Religion, ‘British values’ and equalities teaching in the context of Prevent

Rapid Response: Religion, ‘British values’ and equalities teaching in the context of Prevent

John Holmwood

The Birmingham Trojan Horse affair – a supposed plot to Islamicise schools – which hit the headlines in March 2014 has been the main impetus for changes to the Government’s Prevent strategy. The affair was viewed as deriving from a failure of integration of some within Britain’s Muslim communities and their embrace of values inimical to democracy, the rule of law and tolerance toward other religions. New guidance on fundamental British values (democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and religious tolerance) was put forward to prepare pupils for life in modern Britain. Yet Ofsted reports prior to 2014 had found no evidence of anything untoward in the schools in question and had declared the pupils to be well-prepared.  Additionally, professional misconduct cases against teachers allegedly involved in the plot collapsed because of improprieties in the pursuit of the prosecution case. Yet the narrative of a threat to integration and a ‘cultural deficit’ on the part of British Muslims has proven hard to change.

The most recent ‘moral panic’ has involved aspects of a curriculum at Parkfield primary school in Birmingham. The school was not implicated in the Trojan Horse affair, but it is located in Saltley, one of the areas where some of the schools were based. The school had introduced a curriculum called ‘No Outsiders’, oriented to the Equality Act 2010. It uses lessons on gender identity and same-sex relationships to teach about diversity and difference more generally, including ethnic and religious difference.

Nearly all of Parkfield school’s pupils are of Muslim heritage and there have been major protests against this curriculum, including demonstrations outside the school by parents, with up to 600 pupils withdrawn from the school for a day in protest. Their concerns have been declared ‘bigoted’  and against British values. One conservative local councillor has called the protests a ‘hate crime’. The teacher who developed the curriculum, Andrew Moffatt, has been nominated for the Varkey Foundation Global Teacher Prize and has the support of Birmingham City Council (although the school in question is an academy and not under its jurisdiction) and of Ofsted. A spokesperson for Ofsted said that, “We support the right of school leaders to determine the curriculum as they see fit and in the interests of their pupils – free from hostile outside influence.” This was notwithstanding that existing Department for Education guidance to schools on relationships and sex education states that schools should ensure that it “meets the needs of pupils and parents and reflects the community they serve” (paragraph 13).

However, as the headteacher stated in a presentation posted on the Schools website (now taken down, but available here), the No Outsiders curriculum was part of the Prevent requirement to teach fundamental British values  where no such recommendation of cooperation with parents and community exists. The curriculum is currently suspended in the context of what has been described by David Jones in the Daily Mail as a ‘culture war’ between conservative parents and progressive educationalists, asking, “which side needs a lesson in tolerance in modern Britain?”

Is the case as straightforward as the weight of ‘liberal’ opinion would suggest? The curriculum itself derives from an ESRC-funded research project on approaches to ‘sexualities inequality’ in primary schools which ran across 16 primary schools in England between 2006-2008. Moffat was one of the researcher-practitioners involved. The project was strongly influenced by queer theory – as proposed by Lee Edelman and Judith Butler, in particular. In these terms, it aimed to ‘disrupt’ gender and sexual ‘binaries’ in the classroom and to destabilise heteronormative assumptions. The project was ambivalent about the liberal discourse of ‘rights’ believing it could reinforce existing norms, but advocating its ‘strategic’ use, on the grounds that spaces for a more radical ‘queering’ of the curriculum could be created. Elizabeth Atkinson (lead investigator on the project) and Moffat, for example, wrote about the way in which the use of liberal pluralist and essentialist discourses about different gender identities might, “shore up the norm through the acceptance of tolerance of the margins, and … prevent the exploration of other more radical starting points for queering the classroom” (2009: 97).

One of the project aims was to develop ‘effective means of challenging heteronormativity’. As the project report describes, it promoted, “classroom interventions stemming from an LGBT rights perspective with a clear social justice agenda”, but these were “complemented by less visible, unplanned moments informed by queer theory that offered the possibility of deeper processes of interruption/ disruption of the norm.” This challenged the “thinking of the teachers, pupils, parents and community members who interacted with them” (Project Report: 19).

The approach of the ‘No Outsiders’ curriculum has an academically respectable pedigree, but it is very far from the endorsement of liberal values that its supporters in Birmingham City Council, Ofsted and the media suppose. It explicitly seeks to challenge those values through a radical sexual politics. In this context, it is a little odd to see it being promoted as a model for understanding equalities in the sense intended by the guidance to promote fundamental British values. It is also hard to see how a curriculum constructed on the principles of disruption and deconstruction can be used to facilitate equalities more generally, including rights of religious expression.

Equally important, the theorists whose work was used in the project are emphatic about the dangers of using their work this way. Edelman, for example, criticises how the figure of the Child is used to enshrine a heteronormative construction of a politics of progress and the future. Judith Butler is equally critical of the way in which arguments from feminism and queer theory are used against different religious groups, especially Muslims. Indeed, she argues that there is at work a hegemonic conception of time which proposes a liberal and secular present as a model for the future, which is set against a ‘pre-modern temporality’ assigned to religious others, especially Muslims (Butler 2007). In this context, religious values are constructed as backward and the state takes on the authoritarian stance  of ‘safeguarding’ children from the religious values of their parents (as argued recently by Ofsted). In contrast, the ‘disruption’ of ‘heteronormativity’ for these theorists is directed against the ‘coercive’ potential of liberal rights to be applied against religious minorities; that is, their arguments are directed against the very use to which the ‘No Outsiders’ curriculum is being put. In this context, the curriculum is an example of what Jasbir K. Puar calls ‘homo-nationalism’.

Equally important, can Ofsted really believe that parents have no legitimate interest in how their children are being taught about sexuality and relationships simply because it is placed in the context of its Prevent counter-extremism strategy? Certainly, as I have suggested, the Department for Education’s guidance about implementing policies for sex and relationships education argues the contrary and emphasises the importance of involving parents and the wider community in its development.

The parents at Parkfield have declared their commitment to tolerance for same sex relationships and their understanding that this is enshrined in British law. It is right that children be taught to tolerate others who are different and that homophobic (and other) bullying be challenged in schools through education. But are parents with concerns about how that is to be done really to be treated as an ‘hostile outside influence’? Does the liberal state have a right to the explicit disruption of the parents’ (heteronormative) family values in the context of schooling primary-age children? Has Islamaphobia led the Government to forget that conservative values are also part of British life?

A conversation across difference might be understood as lying at the very heart of education as a process of learning. But that conversation would need to be based on mutual respect. The disrespect of Muslim parents in this case is palpable when their only entry into that conversation is through protest and the dismissal of their concerns as bigoted? Judith Butler can supply us with the last word about the conversation that is needed and its risks: “If freedom is one of the ideals we hope for, perhaps it will be important to start by remembering how easily freedom can become deployed in the name of a state self-legitimation whose coercive force gives the lie to its claim to safeguard humanity” (2007: 21). Butler would guide the conversation in the direction of humility and openness to the other and not a provocation of what they might hold dear.


John Holmwood is Professor of Sociology at the University of Nottingham and, together with Therese O’Toole, author of Countering Extremism in British Schools? The Truth about the Birmingham Trojan Horse Affair (Policy Press, 2017).