Thursday, 22 August 2013

Institutionalising heterophobia?

A recent news story about school Sex and Relationships Education policies from the British Humanist Association, reported by the BBC News website under the headline Schools accused of anti-gay language in sex education, turns out to be pretty much a complete non-story. In many of the cases it would appear the schools involved have either not properly reviewed their policies over recent years, or, in doing so, have simply failed to remove now redundant wording. The BBC headline is somewhat misleading when compared to the BHA's own coverage: BHA identifies 45 schools that continue to have section 28-like policies and UK and Welsh Governments launch investigations into schools with section 28-style policies. The substance of the BHA research can be found in a spreadsheat that can be opened from the links at the bottom of both of the above webpages.

As I have already suggested, most of the cited examples look like nothing more than careless reviewing and/or poor drafting of policies. But a number of the examples of wording cited and criticised by the BHA contain an excruciating irony in the way in which they refer to Section 28. The assertion that "Section 28 does not apply to schools" and therefore "does not prevent the objective discussion of homosexuality in schools" appears several times (eg rows 22, 23 and 27 of the BHA spreadsheet). At the time of the parliamentary debates about the repeal of Section 28, I recall receiving responses to correspondence from my then MP which included briefing material worded in pretty much an identical manner (based, I think, on then current Department for Education guidance)... though, of course, it was still vital for the work of schools that Section 28 be repealed.... work out that contradiction if you can!

Whilst clearly any policy wording that refers to Section 28 and the situation that prevailed before its repeal is now redundant and needs to be removed, there does remain another question arising out of the indications that the relevant Government departments are going to investigate schools that have been highlighted as still having "Section 28 like" wording in their policies. How far will those schools come under pressure to include an explicitly pro-homosexual wording in their policies?

It seems to me that the policy provisions need to balance two distinct considerations.

The provisions of Article 16 of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights reads as follows:
(1) Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family. They are entitled to equal rights as to marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution.
(2) Marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses.
(3) The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State.
At the time of the promulgation of this declaration, the term "marriage" would have been understood in no other way than as a union of a man and woman and the term "family" would have been understood as referring in the first instance to the unit of husband, wife and children occurring within marriage (though making allowance for other circumstances such as child bearing outside of marriage or adoptive families).  It would be a quite dishonest interpretation of the UN Declaration to interpret it in any other way. So, if the obligation of states who have signed up to the UN Declaration under paragraph 3 of this article is to be fulfilled, a government intervention with regard to school SRE policies cannot overrule a policy which expresses an appropriate preference in favour of heterosexual marriage. [The provisions of Article 12 of the Council of Europe's Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms essentially expresses the right contained in paragraph 1 of Article 16 of the UN Declaration, qualifying it " according to the national laws governing the exercise of this right".]

The second consideration is that expressed in Article 2 of the UN Declaration with regard to the equality of treatment of all people regardless of "other status":
Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.
and also expressed in the "principle of non-discrimination" of Protocol 12 of the Council of Europe Convention:
1 The enjoyment of any right set forth by law shall be secured without discrimination on any ground such as sex, race, colour, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, association with a national minority, property, birth or other status.

2 No one shall be discriminated against by any public authority on any ground such as those mentioned in paragraph 1.
The formulation of these two considerations in terms of the UN Declaration and the Council of Europe Convention seems to me quite compatible with the provisions of the Equality Act - see for example the briefing material on that subject at the website of the Catholic Education Service.  It seems to me that:

It is quite possible for a Governing Body to formulate a Sex and Relationships Education policy that

1..... in its defining of curriculum content, gives an appropriate preference to heterosexual marriage - in its relationship to the bringing to life and caring for children, in its representing the proper intentionality of the male/female physical bodily complentarity, in recognition of the wording of the UN Declaration that "the family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society" and in recognition that it remains society's majority experience or reference

2 ..... at one and the same time includes a treatment of non-married family situations and same-sex partnerships in a manner that is accurate and just.

3. ..... in the light of points 1 and 2 contains an appropriate pluralism embracing different points of view, including that in favour of heterosexual marriage and that in favour of same-sex pertnerships, and not imposing a single pro-homosexual perspective

4. ..... that develops an attitude, both on the part of teachers and pupils, that, while not being indifferent to the question of moral right and wrong in this area, is nevertheless non-judgemental and welcoming to those of different life experiences.

[A school whose culture is one in which pupils readily push and shove each other about, in which pupils react in a verbally violent way to any slight, in which pupils regularly have their possessions interfered with by other pupils - that is, a school whose culture includes all the everyday features of bullying and harrassment - will have considerable difficulty in implementing such a policy.  This is not a question about one particular prompt towards bullying of others, but a question about the whole culture of a school environment. The inter-relation of the SRE policy with the work that a school does on bullying seems crucial to enabling different life experiences to be respected.]

If the investigations by Government officials were to challenge a Sex and Relationships Education policy formulated in the terms suggested at points 1-4 above, would it not represent an institutionalisation by the state of heterophobia, under the guise of opposing homophobia?

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