NAVIGATING TUTUS AND TIARAS

This is anti-bullying week, with the media full of advice and heart-breaking narratives. There have been stories of courage, too, from bullied young people wanting to help fellow sufferers and to show how they have risen above the bullying – Macauely Elvin is just one example.

This week also saw the publication of the Church of England’s updated document Valuing all God’s Children, which was first issued in 2014. It was disappointing on at least two counts. Firstly, in a week when teens talked courageously about the many faces of bullying, the report only deals with HBT bullying, meekly submitting to an aggressive lobby which has hijacked the bullying debate – I wrote about the reality behind this rhetoric recently.

There is nothing about bullying due to race, disability, disadvantage, faith or appearance, all of which are far more common reasons for being bullied. Autistic children alone are five times more likely to be bullied than their peers –there is also growing evidence of schools encouraging parents of autistic children to remove them to home education in order not to slew the school’s league table positions – a subtle form of institutional bullying.

So if you’re bullied in a CofE school for any of these reasons, you matter much less – hardly at all, in fact. You merit just the few lines in the 52 page report which don’t actually explicitly reference HBT bullying. The report talks about each of us being loved equally as God’s children, although in the case of bullying, some are clearly loved more equally than others – in the eyes of the church, at least.

Secondly – and this is the nonsense which attracted the most media attention – the document advises that children should be allowed to experiment with ‘cloaks of identity’ in order to find themselves: it quotes the dressing up box as an example. Ask any Early Years teacher and they will assure you that dressing up is not about self-exploration of gender. It is about adopting roles and developing empathy. It leads on to drama activities such as hot seating and Mantle of the Expert, which similarly allow students to explore characters and to understand why people behave as they do. Promotion of gender ideology has become so warped that the LGBT lobby and the Church now even annexe the dressing up box to the cause.

It is also ridiculous to imply that cross-dressing should be used as a key opportunity to explore one’s gender. The travesti actors of Shakespearean theatre were not engaging in the process of gender definition: watch a production of Twelfth Night to appreciate the true comedic value of cross-dressing. Nor is the pantomime dame (that peculiarly British manifestation of travesti with its roots in Commedia del Arte) involved in gender exploration. Not everyone who dresses up is embarking on a search for an undiscovered identity. Take a look at The Tutu Project if you still have any lingering ideas about males who wear tutus being gender confused.

But the report did prompt an interesting question in my mind. How should Christian teachers navigate the ‘tutu and tiara’ zeitgeist? Genesis teaches, without compromise, that God created humans to be male and female and that we each carry the image of God. It therefore follows that we should be exultant as we enjoy the sex, personality and soul that God has given each of us. The science proves that we are genetically determined as male/female and that those chromosomal differences are necessary to perpetuate the human race. For the moment at least, the law also reinforces the fact that we are male or female. Sex is neither fluid nor negotiable. It is a case of what we are, not how we feel. That doesn’t, however, negate the fact that trans people feel inwardly different than their biological sex, and it is at that point that they are hurting. Contemporary culture reinforces that self-belief as being an immutable truth about gender fluidity. The problem lies with the culture, not the individual.

So how should Christians respond to transgender pupils? The answer, of course, is exactly how they should respond to each and every student – with an open heart that shows God’s unconditional love for them. They should respond by building compassionate relationships, relating to pupils where they are, not where you think they should be.

There are also some practical points to consider. If a parent asks for their child to be recognised as trans, then teachers have an obligation to respect that. It’s no good Christians protesting against a totalitarian state control which removes their parental rights in matters of morality, only to then lobby to remove that right from the parent of a trans child on the grounds of Christian belief.

Can Christian teachers ever view some pupils differently from others on the grounds of belief? No, because teachers, like everyone else, have responsibilities as well as rights. They have a professional responsibility to care for pupils equally regardless of race, religion, ability, social advantage or sex. They also, as Christians, have a responsibility to God, to show God’s love through care and compassion.

So, as the storm of the gender ideology debate rages on, continue to be as Christ to your pupils. Don’t expect them to conform to your beliefs about sexuality or gender. Be compassionate. Be kind. Be a role model. Listen to your pupil’s hurt. Share their joys. And above all, take into every situation Christ’s commandment to ‘Love one another as I have loved you’ (John 13:34) because that is how they will know that you are a disciple of Christ.

A BETTER WAY

Nobody can deny that sexual harassment and abuse have reached epidemic proportions. One serious case review after another into child sexual abuse demonstrates society’s guilt – the report from Somerset Safeguarding Children’s Board being just the most recent of many. The prevalence of harassment and abuse in schools has long been a subject of concern, while the media has lit up in the last week with reports of similar behaviour in Parliament.

Last week, the House of Commons held a debate on sexual abuse in schools – it has long been the driving force behind the Relationships and Sex Education reforms for which many (in particular women’s equality and rights groups) have been calling. The theory is that if the next generation are taught about respect, how to give consent and stay safe as they choose from the smorgasbord of delights on offer in modern Britain, predatory behaviour, abuse and violence will all become things of the past. It’s a view premised on the false notion that you can educate your way out of an epidemic.

During the course of the debate, Ann Milton, Minister for Women, said the following about life in modern Britain:

Young people have to make decisions on a far more complex set of choices than I ever had to make… it is about taking club drugs, being on the pill, using a condom to protect oneself from STIs, who to have sex with—and where and when—and the risks of going home with somebody.’

So that is the basis of proposals for SRE – a view that people are free to do anything they like as long as they are informed and nobody gets damaged. She does acknowledge that people get hurt:

If we overlay that with everything that is on social media, all the pornography that is freely available, all the coercive sexual behaviour … it is absolutely clear that we have much more to do to make young people more resilient and able to resist the challenges they face.’

but as if somehow pornography, sexual predation and violence are all amorphous aspects of modern Britain over which we have no control. They are not overlays. They are direct outcomes of a liberal, sexualised society which has abandoned any pretence of a personal moral code. Everybody seems to agree that it’s time for things to change, so here are a few suggestions about how to effect the long overdue change.

Actions have consequences. Any responsible government policy should include this information. It is what parents, carers and responsible adults should be telling young people:

  • Taking club drugs is a risk. The effects can leave you confused, disorientated or unconscious. Of course you have a right to live in any way you choose and not be taken advantage of when you’re vulnerable. But some people don’t care about your rights, they only care about what they want. No amount of education will change the behaviour of people who don’t care how much harm they do.
  • A condom doesn’t protect you from all STIs, of which there are currently about 29 diagnosable infections. Some can be contracted by skin-to-skin contact. The more partners you have, the greater the risk.
  • STIs are a major cause of infertility.
  • Going home with someone you don’t know – well, you know the risks. You were taught Stranger Danger as a child. The danger doesn’t change.
  • Pornography is fantasy, not reality. It is addictive and corrodes your ability to form lasting, loving relationships.

There’s a better way. During the debate, Maria Miller observed, ‘It is not that long ago that we thought smoking did not cause us harm, but now we know a lot better’. The same will one day be true of sexual freedom, so here, in contrast to Ann Milton’s view, is what Christian parents, youth workers and leaders teach the children and young people in their care:

  • Sex is a precious gift from God, intended to be shared only in the exclusive relationship of marriage. The apostle Paul urges us not to ‘conform to the patterns of the world’, (Romans 12:2) so don’t be coerced into casual sex and then there’s no need for the tea rule.
  • Many people are familiar with the concept of their body being a temple. They are careful what they eat and drink and they don’t abuse substances. Well, the apostle Paul got there long before contemporary society. He said that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, so it doesn’t belong to you (I Corinthians 6:19). Take care of your body.
  • Be careful of one another’s feelings. Dress modestly and don’t provoke one another. Respect yourself and exercise self-control, especially of your thoughts. They become words, which become actions and then habits.
  • The apostle Paul also wrote, ‘whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable … think about such things’ (Philippians 4:8).

That’s a pretty good guide for positive living in contemporary culture. It presents an alternative option for life in modern Britain, one where young people won’t need to be taught to navigate a minefield in the hope that they might somehow arrive in adult life unscathed.

SINGLE SEX AND SEGREGATION

Al Hijrah school began in Birmingham Central Mosque in 1988, becoming a voluntary aided school in 2001 with a Muslim religious designation. Pupils are fully segregated from Year 5 onwards and parents have always been happy with this. Everything seems to have gone well in the early years, but in 2009, overall effectiveness was judged to be inadequate due to limitations to the KS3 arts and technology provision.

By 2010, after regular monitoring, the school was deemed to be developing effectively – benefitting from local authority support, with widening curriculum access and improved support for SEND students. In 2011, a subject inspection found science to be well led and effectively taught, although the report noted the need to improve boys’ achievement, particularly those of Pakistani ethnicity.

In March 2013, the school was judged to require improvement, based largely on the quality of teaching and learning. There were also issues with governance and finance – inspection revealed a £900,000 deficit. There was suggestion in the press that the money was diverted to build a sister school in Pakistan, although nothing has ever been proved. Since then, the school has been subject to 11 inspections.

In 2014, the governing body was replaced, not without opposition, by an interim executive board (IEB) appointed by Birmingham City Council. As far as the school managers and governors were concerned, they were doing OK. It was a school working hard to become effective, with the confidence of the majority of the parents in the community it served. In 2015, it came out of special measures.

That all changed quite suddenly in 2016, after a visit from Sir Michael Wilshaw who was in Birmingham to visit Trojan Horse schools, even though this particular school, as one with a religious designation, was not a Trojan Horse school. His prime concern appeared to be segregation, even though this had been part of the school’s structure in all previous inspections and had never been a cause for comment. Court papers show that the head and chair of the IEB found this meeting highly confrontational and staff felt they had been bullied. Just 8 days later, the school was subject to another inspection during which school leaders concluded that the agenda of the inspection team was ‘driven by a pre-determined conclusion’.

The school was deemed to be inadequate because the library contained books with ‘derogatory views about, and incited violence towards, women’ – because school leaders did not know that the books were there, the IEB was failing in its duty to protect students from extremist views. Inspectors also judged that segregation in a co-ed school was, of itself, discriminatory. When Ofsted refused to delay publication of the report pending discussion, the IEB secured a court order to prevent publication on the grounds that the findings were inconsistent with previous inspections and they were arrived at with no evidential basis. The High Court ruled that Ofsted had failed to evidence their claim and that segregation was not, of itself, discriminatory.

Ofsted appealed the ruling and, earlier this month, won its appeal. The Appeal Court judges decided 2:1 that segregation in a co-ed school contravenes the 2010 Equality Act, because boys and girls are disadvantaged equally by not being allowed to socialise. They acknowledged that neither group suffered discrimination in the quality of their education: their judgment related purely to the fact that segregation prevented students from being prepared for life in modern Britain. Only Lady Gloster dissented, saying that girls were unfairly disadvantaged, citing evidence such as the books in the library, excerpts of pupils’ written work and the fact that girls had to wait for their mid-morning snack until the boys had finished theirs. Ofsted, however, did not rely on any of this evidence, arguing instead that the disempowerment of women in wider society was reinforced by segregation in school.

The case throws up as many questions as it answers. Why, for example, did Ofsted suddenly decide to confront the issue of segregation in 2016? And why, despite protestations that this was not a religiously motivated matter, did Ofsted immediately signal its intention to move on Muslim, Jewish and Christian schools. What is that, if not religiously motivated?

Amanda Spielman almost immediately went on record to defend single sex education on the grounds that it prevents girls from self-selecting out of education. She said nothing about potential advantages to boys, as she should have done in the interest s of equality. Instead, Ofsted made Al Hijrah a matter of feminist ideology. The stark evidence was there in the form of literature that promoted violence against women. This alone should have been enough for Ofsted to act, but it was ignored in the clamour to promote women’s rights. Yet again, Ofsted appoints itself as Social Engineer in Chief, overlooking incitement to violence (which is evidenced) to promote a social agenda (which is not).

This is a form of feminism which arrogates to itself the right to claim equality and respect in every aspect of life – it plays to the current zeitgeist of individualism and in doing so creates a hierarchy of humanity. As so often, the Bible turns this on its head. It says that we are all bearers of God’s image, whether we are male or female. We are each equally loved and valued by God and so we should respect each other equally regardless of gender, not because of it.

It’s high time Ofsted stopped engineering society and used its time effectively to deal with evidenced issues such as incitement to violence (against any fellow human) and standards of teaching and learning. Schools should reflect society, not be used as catalysts to impose a singular ideological agenda upon it.